Frida and Diego Come Together at the Art Gallery of South Australia

Works by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera appear side-by-side in a new exhibition exploring the pair’s many shared passions, from love to social revolution.

The loud cobalt color of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s famous home, “The Blue House,” belies the true tenor of the legendary marriage under its roof.

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Installation view: Frida & Diego: Love & Revolution, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. Saul Steed

Known as “La Casa Azul,” the garish home in Mexico City was the creative couple’s private sanctuary before it became a public attraction. For Kahlo, it was her birthplace, private art studio and “intimate universe;” for her husband Rivera, it was a hive for political discourse (Leon Trotsky stayed there in 1937), his personal museum of Mexican folk art and finally, the place he asked Kahlo’s artistic memory live on.

While the home’s striking blue may be more pensive than passionate, it serves as the backdrop to a new Australian exhibition that celebrates the unique and magnetic fervor shared between the pair—for art, Mexico and each other.

Frida & Diego: Love & Revolution, which opened last month, probes the artistic, emotional, and political terrain of this tumultuous relationship, using both the color palette and scenography of the famed home to transport viewers into the pair’s most intimate space.

Thematically, the show interlaces the personal with the political, examining Kahlo and Rivera’s connection to Mexico and the Mexican Modernist art movement. It features more than 150 works by the two, including paintings, period clothing and photographs. There’s also artwork featured by other Modernist contemporaries including Álvarez Bravo, María Izquierdo and Miguel Covarrubias.

Rivera’s ‘Sunflowers’, 1943, Mexico City, oil on canvas, 90 x 130 cm. The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and the Vergel Foundation

Australia rarely gets to showcase the works of such cult-like artists—let alone a pairing of both—so Adelaide’s Art Gallery of South Australia scored a coup in securing this show for down under. The gallery’s director, Rhana Devenport, bills it an exhibition that “speaks to the influence and ingenuity of art practice in Mexico and aims to recontextualize the enduring allure of Kahlo within today’s society.” Much of the art is sourced from the famous Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection.

With brightly colored spaces, rich indigenous folk art and lush floral adornments, Frida & Diego emulates the real experience of what the Blue House afforded—a refuge and atelier—to Kahlo and Rivera, across the many decades they spent (on and off) there.

But before the Blue House became a home, Kahlo and Rivera were two very different and tempestuous artists who thrived under a truly unconventional union. The couple had a twenty-year age gap, were married twice (divorced once), shared extra-marital affairs and it might be said their love language was painted portraits. Which isn’t to say their work overlapped. The art each produced reflected back post-revolution Mexico yet couldn’t have been more different.

Unknown Artist, Frida and Diego remarry, San Francisco, 1940, San Francisco, California, United States of America, gelatin- silver photograph, 23.5 x 18.4 cm. Throckmorton Fine Art, New York

Kahlo’s gazing self-portraits, probing a fraught emotional life while flashing ebullient Mexican cultural markers, stand as quiet feminist statements on womanhood and indigenous identity. Sixty-five of the 150 works she ultimately rendered were of herself. Her artworks often suggest a private unreachable contemplation, with daring stares captivating the viewer. This, coupled with the knowledge of how she was physically impaired after a tragic accident at eighteen, makes her work all the more compelling to view, especially the way her portraits can disarmingly command our attention.

Kahlo’s ‘Self-portrait with necklace’, 1933, Coyoacan, Mexico, oil on metal, 35.0 x 29.0 cm. The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and the Vergel Foundation

If Kahlo’s adolescent accident meant she had to retreat from the world, Rivera remained a giant against it—and his artwork shows it. At six feet tall and almost 300 pounds, Rivera radiated vitality. His early life was marked by impassioned engagement with revolutionary Mexican politics and then artistic European sojourns, before he began a career painting mammoth fresco pieces that sought to capture social life on a vast scale, of workers working in harmony against technological advancement or authoritarian rule. These works later appeared on public buildings across Mexico and the United States, including Rockefeller Center.

Somewhat naturally, there is a tension between the opposing visions of these two artists—unavoidable when mining the textures of their unbridled relationship—but Frida & Diego mostly strikes the right balance. In some ways, taking the Blue House as its muse and backdrop means viewers can treat this exhibition with a feeling of intimate revelation and private viewing, much as if they were guests in the home.

Most effective is the eponymous lurid color used in Kahlo’s Self-portrait with monkeys (1943). The painting shows Kahlo passive and in contemplation while four monkeys cavort mindlessly around her. The cheeky energy of the monkeys is naturally at odds with her otherwise still and unimpassioned look, resisting suggestions about whether they are figurative or literal monkeys—or indeed both.

Frida Kahlo’s ‘Self-portrait with monkeys’. Saul Steed

Critics have said the monkeys are stand-ins for the children Kahlo herself was never able to carry because of her accident, given the animal’s cultural association with fertility. The natural mischievousness on display, pulling at her breast and touching her heart, adds a bittersweet reminder when imbued with that meaning, while its placement against the blue wall invites us to also ponder the sadness Kahlo may have felt about her infertility.

Elsewhere, garish color is abandoned in favor of the clever cues that white space can give. Paintings of the two, Portrait of Diego Rivera (1937) and Self-portrait with necklace (1938) by Kahlo, are set against a lone wall under a curved shape, recalling a wedding arch. They are set in quiet unison, allowing viewers to feel the simple fallibility and ordinariness—one a shadow, the other a giant—of these artistically forceful figures grappling with life in a chaotic post-revolution Mexico. The only detraction with this display is perhaps that both are portraits by Kahlo, so viewers can’t enjoy the experience of how Rivera distinctly rendered Kahlo in his art.

The public square is how Rivera’s politicized work was to be enjoyed, so the show sets space for us to play public viewer to his mammoth frescos reckoning with Mexico’s social image. Rivera’s art often glorifies the success of proletariat societies and criticizes the likes of capitalism, the elite and the Catholic church. Stylistically, Rivera usually rendered flat and simplified figures in crowded and shallow spaces, utilizing bold colors to enliven and animate his pieces.

Diego Rivera’s mural comes to life. Saul Steed

For one such mural, a series of mannequins—adorned in traditional Tehuana dresses Kahlo would have worn—stand in front as if public spectators or patrons. There’s a quiet sense of solidarity for viewers enjoying Rivera’s work amongst these fake Kahlo doubles, much of which reminds us of how Kahlo was as much a lover as an art admirer of Rivera, too.

The literal and figurative anchor of Frida & Diego is an enormous floral bouquet that descends from the ceiling. A regal Kahlo self-portrait is placed opposite in a pink effervescent nook that catches the eye. The soft pinks of the flowers, set against the bold blue and yellow of the exhibition space, come to deify Kahlo—all for a portrait appropriately about her husband, Rivera: Diego on my mind (Self-portrait as Tehuana) (1943). In the work, Diego is set in the center of her forehead, emblematic of a literal preoccupation she had as Rivera as her guiding gravitational force within the world. Against the soft pink and creams of a traditional Mexican costume Kahlo (one Rivera would have favored on Kahlo), flowers sprout from her head with unwieldy roots, seemingly indicative of Rivera’s life-bearing power over Kahlo.

As for the pair, their artistic legacies supersede the incidental details of their lives—particularly the life they shared. Kahlo alone is treated today like a feminist prophet, with our current zeitgeist indeed besotted by “Fridamania.” There’s a valuable corrective in Freda & Diego, which re-centers popular narratives around the passion and politics found inside the Blue House these two shared for decades.

Viewers are asked to recognize the efforts both made at reclaiming their personal and political identity through their art. While each was a visionary artist with markedly different ideas and visions about Mexico, they shared a passion for celebrating their own indigenous cultures and sometimes stifled identities—all while they faced battles of the body and the wider world. Frida & Diego, in highlighting the many complex tensions and parallels between this famed creative couple, rightly reminds us of the incredible power of the ties that bind.

Frida & Diego: Love & Revolution is on view at the Art Gallery of South Australia through September 17.

Color is a defining feature of ‘Frida & Diego: Love & Revolution’. Saul Steed

Frida and Diego Come Together at the Art Gallery of South Australia