Donald Munro

With ‘Frida Kahlo,’ a notable face launches good times at museum

Artist or saint?

I can’t think of many personalities compelling enough to make me want to go to a museum exhibition and look at 50 or so different photographs of them. Could any face be that fascinating?

For many people in the greater Fresno area, the answer is yes.

“Frida Kahlo: Through the Lens of Nickolas Muray” has been drawing large and enthusiastic crowds to the Fresno Art Museum since it opened in January. Thousands of people have poured into the exhibition, many of them museum first-timers, some not aware until now that Fresno even had an art museum. The response to the show has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Michele Ellis Pracy, the museum’s executive director. “Frida Family Day” at the museum drew more than 1,200 people. A babe in arms adorned with flowers on her head bigger than she was took home the “cutest” prize in the Frida lookalike contest.

Why all the hoopla?

To begin to answer that question, understand that Frida Kahlo long ago made the transition from notable Mexican artist (best known as the wife of famed muralist Diego Rivera) to an art icon, and from there to a pop-culture juggernaut.

Her art was known and appreciated during her lifetime, but after she died in 1954, she began the slide to semi-obscurity. In the 1960s, Carolina A. Miranda writes in an insightful 2014 ARTnews essay, Kahlo “had been relegated to the status of art-historical footnote.”

But beginning in the 1970s, the Frida stars began to align. By the mid-1980s those stars began to super-nova.

Rise of an icon

There were a number of factors in the rise of both the popularity of her art and her own personal fame, Miranda writes. Feminist scholars started bringing more attention to women artists. Hayden Herrera’s 1983 book “Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo” introduced the artist’s tumultuous personal life – which included affairs with men and women, a rocky and charged relationship with Rivera, a litany of physical woes resulting from polio as a child and a terrible streetcar accident in her late teens – to a public that seemed to identify and empathize with such suffering.

Consider, too, the aesthetics of Kahlo’s life and art. Her wardrobe, inspired by indigenous Mexican culture, was colorful and expressive. Her paintings, skirting close to the surreal but never really part of a dream world, are vibrant and thick with emotion. Her personal appearance – thick and unplucked eyebrows, a faint mustache – remains instantly recognizable to this day, a testament to a personal beauty that didn’t need smoothing over according to Western conventions.

Ellis Pracy says that museum visitors seem most intrigued by Kahlo’s determination in the face of adversity, to push her mangled body to do things most people in her condition wouldn’t have the energy to try.

“She didn’t pity herself,” she says.

And as for her bisexual identity and tumultuous love life: That doesn’t hurt, either, Ellis Pracy notes. She led an exciting and passionate life.

Photographs, not paintings

I walk through the exhibition for a third time since its January opening. To be blunt: I was surprised at the intense interest this show generated even before it opened. I thought at the time: It isn’t even a show of Kahlo’s art, but simply a collection of photographs of her, along with some quite juicy love letters. This is no blockbuster show. Won’t people be disappointed?

In the art world, there has been an intense backlash against what some call the cult of personality that has emerged around Kahlo – the commercialization, the intense pop-culture spotlight – and this show could be seen as yet one more opportunity to capitalize on that.

Yet despite those gnawing intellectual doubts, as I walk through I find myself drawn to various aspects of the show. The biggest is the intimacy of the photographs. Nickolas Muray was just one of many lovers in Kahlo’s life, but his skill and fame as a photographer put him in an unparalleled position to capture Kahlo in unguarded moments.

His famed portraits are memorable, including the exquisite “Frida with Magenta Rebozo,” which could easily be mistaken for a painting. His “Frida on White Bench” likewise seems intimate yet formal, capturing a sense of the formidable outward composure showed the world.

Yet I find myself most drawn to some of the more off-the-cuff photographs, the kind that show Muray’s access to the private Kahlo. My favorite: “Frida with her Pet Eagle.” Kahlo, with pink flowers in her hair and wearing a flowing dress in various shades of magenta, red and yellow, stands against a vivid blue wall. It could be the set-up for yet another of Muray’s gorgeous formal color portraits.

Yet we see the “backstage” Kahlo. She is relaxed, elbow resting next to the bird, a cigarette clutched in one hand, her mouth slightly open, as if caught mid-sentence. This isn’t about glamor, color or effect. We’re seeing a side of Kahlo that doesn’t fit into the sainthood motif.

A face above

Everything goes in a cycle, it seems. First Kahlo was “discovered” when she was alive, then “lost” when she died. Then she was “found” again, and as interest in her art increased, her personal story started to overwhelm the works themselves. She became too popular for some in the art world, it seems, too recognized. Too common.

When Miranda was researching her ARTnews article, she writes, she told a fellow art writer that she was working on a story about Kahlo. The writer replied: “You know, I kind of cringe when I hear the name.”

Now it’s time for Kahlo’s art to be “rehabilitated,” to be saved from her own celebrity.

Such is the eternal tussle between high and popular culture, between those who are “in the know” and those who have no interest in the close confines of the intellectual art world. But something strikes me as I’m talking with the Ellis Pracy about the response to the Kahlo exhibition.

Think of all the people who have gone to the museum for the first time to view this show. That’s a very good thing. To me, yes, the show seems a little overblown and repetitive. But if it opens new eyes to how museums can be part of our lives, who can argue with that?

“This is a wonderful introduction to Frida as an artist and human being,” Ellis Pracy says.

I agree.

Helen of Troy, of Trojan War fame, is known as the “face that launched a thousand ships.” Frida Kahlo is the face that built a bridge between the Fresno Art Museum and new patrons.

Frida Kahlo: Through the Lens of Nickolas Muray