The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) exhibit Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit offers a nuanced narrative of these great artists pairing them as individuals linked in opposition. The DIA’s intro to the show presents the artists in contrast
“He carried a pistol, she carried a flask. He romanticized Detroit. She rejected it.”
But, we are reminded, there were commonalities too: communism, tequila, each other – and art. Above all, the art.
Ok. The DIA is selling it. And yes, it’s over the top.
Director Graham Beal, fashioning a “people’s museum” of the DIA, became known for ad campaigns that reinvigorated the Institute and got people in the door. A little hyperbole can be forgiven, considering the DIA’s brush with a kiss of death during Detroit’s bankruptcy crisis, when creditors saw the Museum’s collection as assets that could be liquidated to help settle the City’s debt. The DIA dodged that kiss with a ‘Grand Bargain’, and offered a cautionary tale to other government-owned museums around the country.
Even so, this show doesn’t need a titillating sell, because it’s stellar. It’s a brilliant idea to pair these two artists. The works made by this passionate husband and wife pair could not be more distinct. His bold populist drawings the size of the wall, her glowing, intricate miniatures baring her soul.
And the installation does an excellent job of carrying you through the oppositions and the connections, providing opportunities to make your own discoveries, while steadily drawing you along. The show is accompanied by a self-guided audio tour that offers a diversity of voices and perspectives.
Personally, I wasn’t prepared. I’ve done a fair amount of research on this period in Mexican art. Spent days perusing Rivera’s murals in Mexico City, studied and wrote about another great artist of the period, Rivera and Kahlo’s friend, photographer Tina Modotti. But I’d never experienced Kahlo’s work directly, and it was a big surprise. The delicacy of her line; the intense detail and focus; the virtuosity. My, but that woman could paint. Exquisitely. And to experience these works cheek by jowl with Diego’s grand gestures highlighted both.
These artists were grounded in Mexico’s indigenous culture. Their works entwined in the traditions of their land, connected to the earth itself. Still, Diego’s giant baby in a seed bud was a fresh revelation – especially seen in the context of Frida’s diminutive “Henry Ford Hospital” across the room. This painting depicts herself bedridden, naked and alone in a desolate landscape, relics of a recent miscarriage hover around her. And to learn that Rivera threw off a scene of farming and agriculture to place the seed bud front and center. These facts are moving, and the design of the exhibit presents them like a carefully crafted film.
Opposites attract: The intro wall is covered ceiling to floor with huge photographs. Diego on the left, Frida on the right. The artists on Diego’s scaffold. He in his overalls, she wearing her trademark indigenous dress:
“She walks toward him. They kiss”.
Pass this, and you enter a dual narrative that introduces the artists individually and as a pair, then leads through the genesis of the murals, sketches by Frida from ‘exquisite corpse’ games, her first Detroit painting, a small still life of a Fourth of July store window display and on through the production of their works, including careful readings of Rivera’s gigantic drawings (transform Rivera’s drawings into fresco and back again here) his research, cultural concerns, labor history. And Frida finding her voice as a painter. Her feminism, her detailed sketches and glittering canvases.
The narrative’s driving theme is another contrast; Detroit was a pivot point for these artists; it was Frida’s artistic birth and the start of Diego’s denouement.
After Detroit, Rivera famously painted murals in NYC for the Rockefellers that would be destroyed over political differences, perhaps stimulated in part by criticism of Rivera’s acceptance of capitalist patronage. Twenty years younger, Kahlo went to paint some of her most iconic works.
Meanwhile, the narrative continues. Rivera’s murals were declared a National Historic Landmark in 2014. And, endorsing Frida’s claim that she was a bigger artist, are these opportunities: “Mirror Mirror” at Throckmorton Gallery, including photographs from a new book Frida Kahlo: The Gisele Fruend Photographs, and this summer’s New York’s Botanical Garden blockbuster celebrating the garden at Frida’s Casa Azul home.
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