They were known as the elephant and the dove. Diego Rivera was larger than life, expansive, a fervent nationalist, communist and revolutionary, and a painter of giant frescoes on grandiose themes like the birth of Mexico and national identity. Frida Kahlo was physically fragile, a victim of polio as a child and a near-fatal bus accident when she was just 18 that left her body broken. In her later years, she wore a rigid corset to stand and walk, and was often confined by illness to the house where she was born, lived and died, but she was mentally steeled, a revolutionary and feminist before feminism was fashionable and an unflinching painter of inner suffering.
The couple was at the center of Mexico’s intellectual and cultural elite through the middle decades of the 20th century. They married, divorced and remarried in a whorl of turbulent passions – he was a womanizer, she bisexual – that mirrored the conflicts of the times. She once remarked that she’d suffered two disastrous accidents in her life – Rivera being the second. And through it all, they painted.
A long-awaited exhibition of their work, “Frida Kahlo/Diego Rivera: L’Art en Fusion,” at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris shows how much they had in common: political engagement, commitment to their art, and love of Mexico and its culture and people. It shows, too, how far apart they were. He was classically trained, and his work was often monumental and political, but it was insider art – brilliant but derivative, deeply painterly, part of the corpus of European modernism. Hers – often consisting of small, iconic, tortured self-portraits of impenetrable solitude – was autobiographical, stylistically apart, voluntarily naïf.
The exhibition brings their voices together in a two-part contrapuntal fugue with, as an overture, a selection of Rivera’s paintings from his early years in Europe, before he met Kahlo. Influenced by Cezanne and Picasso, his landscapes and Cubist paintings are richly colored and textured, bursting with vibrant personality.
In the space at the entrance dedicated to archival material – photographs, a video and drawings – a small oil painting by Kahlo, “My Grandparents, My Parents and Me,” catches the eye. It’s a pictorial family tree; her mother, Matilde Calderón y González, in her wedding dress with her arm around her husband, looks directly out of the picture, while her father, Guillermo Wilhem Kahlo, looks aside. In front of her father, a young, naked Frida stands in the courtyard of the Blue House, her beloved home. She holds a red ribbon, attached to her maternal and paternal grandparents at the top of the painting.
Kahlo represents herself both as the naked girl and as a fetus in her mother’s womb. On the left of the painting is a Mexican desert landscape with cactuses and prickly pears; on the right, the ocean, leading to Europe. It is a portrait of a life as the heir and prisoner of two worlds.
The outer walls of the central space alternate full-scale reproductions of monumental frescoes by Rivera with his easel-sized paintings, many from the museum collection of his friend and wealthy patron Dolores Olmedo Patiño. There are also some remarkable still lifes by Kahlo that show how Rivera influenced her work over time.
The heart of the show is a blue-colored enclosed central area containing Kahlo’s most iconic works, including perhaps the most famous and disquieting, “La Colonne Brisé,” painted in 1944 during one of her many hospitalizations. The artist depicts herself in the steel corset that she then wore, pierced with nails like the martyred Saint Sebastian. In the background, an earthquake-devastated landscape symbolizes her physical and spiritual pain. She had had three miscarriages, a result of her accident, and painted them in bloody detail.
Yet, for all the anguish, she remained indomitable. Even when bedridden or in a wheelchair, she painted, and photos from that time always show her adorned with her signature headdress, multiple rings and varnished nails. Her zest for life remained intact. Her last painting, “Viva la Vida” (1954), took its name from the inscription she wrote on it. She died soon after, at the age of 47, at home in the Blue House.
During their lifetimes, Rivera was internationally famous, while Kahlo was something of a cult secret outside of Mexico, where many revered her. But in the last 30 years, Kahlo has emerged from the shadows and is now broadly recognized as both a symbol of feminist courage and a genuinely original talent.
Initially scheduled to be shown in 2011 as part of a year of Franco-Mexican cultural exchanges, the exhibition was one of many to be postponed as a result of an ill-tempered and ill-timed diplomatic tiff between the two countries. So, it’s been a long time coming – and if you mean to see it, you may have another wait. The entry lines are long. To catch this show, be prepared to start early and perhaps suffer a little.Favorite