Frida Y Diego: The Elephant and the Dove
Oglethorpe exhibition examines the mysterious art power couple
By Felicia Feaster
Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo were the art power couple of the 20th century.
Groovy socialists and vanguard artists, Kahlo and Rivera ran with a hip, international crowd of intellectuals, revolutionaries and artists such as French surrealist André Breton, photographers Edward Weston and Tina Modotti, and Communist Leon Trotsky.
Even their look was supercool: Rivera sporting working-class overalls and Kahlo in flamboyant peasant attire. They dug the past like Brooklyn hipsters in trucker hats and vintage dresses but without the smear of irony.
Individually, muralist Rivera and symbolist Kahlo were hot stuff. But together they proved one of the most tempestuous and fascinating art couples of any time. More passionate than Cicciolina and Jeff Koons, cooler than John Currin and Rachel Feinstein, earthier than Bogart and Bacall, over the course of their almost 25-year-long relationship, they set the standard for creative coupledom.
Frida y Diego: Photographs of Their Life Together at the Oglethorpe University Museum of Art is presented on the centennial of Kahlo's birth, the 50th anniversary of Rivera's death and commemorates this most iconoclastic of art couples.
With the current political climate of immigration mud-throwing, this is a welcome dose of Hispan-chic in a show that otherwise tends to soft-pedal the couple's personal demons, philandering, sexual experimentation, miscarriages and depression – the complex portrait of marriage that writers and filmmakers have often dwelled upon. Frida y Diego instead captures the alluring, superficial mystique of a couple that Kahlo's disapproving father called the union "of an elephant and a dove." The 96 digital prints on loan from the Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo in Mexico City come with that museum's often clunky and flowery text intact.
As if trying to subconsciously dramatize the couple's turbulent relationship in a way the romanticized wall text avoids, museum director Lloyd Nick has hung the photographs in an undulating pattern like a perpetually agitated EKG. Part of the show's appeal is surely the provocative evidence that photographs give to unspoken truths. Like the body of an artist's work, photographs are another means of reading and understanding their subjects.
Even without extended discussion of their very different artistic styles in the exhibition, Kahlo and Rivera are photographically revealing subjects. Their very physical presence gives some sense of the artwork they created. It would be easy for even a novice to glean the very different perspectives of this couple based on that elephant/dove dichotomy displayed in the photographs.
Kahlo's small-scale self-portraits dealt with topics from miscarriage to heartbreak in haunting exorcisms of her rich inner life. By contrast, Rivera's commanding girth and height telegraphed his artistic métier of bold, uncompromising, large-scale public mural projects centered on the worldly concerns of social justice.
What these photographs show, beginning with the wedding portraits of Kahlo's and Rivera's parents and ending with Rivera's death in 1957, is awkwardness mellowing into intimacy and a couple who revealed bits and pieces of their lives in these photographs.
Early images of the couple closely resemble an 1884 photo of Rivera's parents' posing for a traditional, emotionally restrained wedding-day portrait. That wedding portrait is in stark contrast to the one of Kahlo's parents, who in a surprisingly modern, sexy, 1898 wedding photograph embrace in a far more loving, expressive way. It would take decades for Rivera and Kahlo to grow into anything close to that expressive warmth.
Defying the stereotype of women as vain exhibitionists, many of these early images drawn from the late 1920s and early '30s show a fawnlike Kahlo looking anxious to escape the camera's prying eye. Rivera, however, grins and asserts his physicality like a preening male peacock, thrusting his impressive girth forward, his face animated by a cat-eating-the-canary smirk. Kahlo looks like a crumb, dwarfed at his feast.
But over time, as the conventions of photographic portraiture relax – becoming less indebted to the formal conventions of painting – so do Kahlo and Rivera. It is no small part of the growing intimacy and warmth that passes between the couple that photographers and friends such as Modotti, Weston and Ansel Adams were now documenting this power couple.
The couple softens and wilts in a more relaxed style toward each other, kissing and holding each other for the camera. In lieu of the children she couldn't bear – because of a devastating bus accident when she was a teenager – there are the compensatory animals such as hairless dogs and pet monkeys. In images of Rivera leaning over Kahlo in a hospital bed or of Kahlo wrapping her arms around her husband's neck, there is the sense that perhaps the couple became a world unto themselves as life's disappointments mounted.
Though some surely will find this exhibit that emphasizes a nationally treasured married couple in the manner of historical museums lacking in depth, there are smaller pleasures to be gleaned. Perhaps more than anything, the images illuminate one of the greatest of mysteries seen in many long-married couples. Over time, two very different people created a world of their own that no amount of pain or heartbreak would topple, and no surplus of visual information will ever explain. Marriage, more than artistic creation, may be the greatest mystery of all.
It is at the Ogelthorp University Museum through August 28th. Friends of mine who've already gone told me that it was a great exhibit.