DETROIT — When Frida Kahlo came to the United States in 1931, she found the entire country “ugly and stupid,” and longed to return home to Mexico.
Her husband Diego Rivera, on the other hand, was mightily stimulated. The charismatic, cow-eyed, fat-belted muralist was already an international art star, and he arrived in Detroit in 1932 ready to execute what he thought of as his life’s masterpiece, the Detroit Industry murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Kahlo was barely an artist at this point. She had talent, she had dabbled, but her efforts had been sporadic. She and Rivera, both avowed communists, had met when she was an art student. By the time they came to America, he was not long returned from a nine-month stint in Soviet Russia, and their marriage was less than two years old. She was very much in his shadow.
Detroit changed everything for Kahlo — and, more obliquely, for Rivera, too. It was in that city — convulsed at the time by massive labor protests, murderous police responses, and a Depression deepening in severity by the month — that Kahlo’s art began to wriggle to life.
“Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit,” a new exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts, focuses on the year this illustrious Mexican double act spent in the city. Organized by Mark Rosenthal, it’s not the first exhibition on Kahlo and Rivera in recent times; two years ago, three North American museums collaborated on “Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting.” Yet given their fame, it’s surprising how few exhibitions have addressed these astonishing artists together.
The DIA show has a tight, scene-setting prologue and a more lavish epilogue that conveys some of the harrowing brilliance of Kahlo’s post-Detroit career. The highlight is a wall of Kahlo’s self-portraits, which includes the celebrated “Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair” (1940) from the Museum of Modern Art, and “Double-Portrait of Diego and I” (1944) – a tiny image showing the right half of Rivera’s head conjoined with the left half of Rivera’s, both textured like braille, the remarkable image obsessively framed in shells.
But at the show’s heart — since they are at the physical heart of the museum itself — are Rivera’s permanently installed murals, along with the enormous cartoons he made for them. They fairly thump with historical interest. Sussurations of sly intent leak out from the edges of every panel.
Do they speak to you and me? I don’t know. Ask the girlfriend of my wife’s friend, who has a section of Rivera’s Detroit murals tattooed on her body.
They may be big, public statements, larded with art historical allusions and outdated political rhetoric, but they’re also fantastically susceptible to being recouped for private purposes.
That is to say, they’re charismatic — and who doesn’t want to be on intimate terms with charisma? Kahlo did. And the results, to understate the matter, were volatile.
The show’s first major work is the marriage portrait Kahlo painted in San Francisco in 1931, just before arriving in Detroit. Rivera, huge, holds a painter’s palette — he is the big cheese in his big, cloggy shoes — while Frida in her dark green dress and blood-red Mexican shawl coyly tilts her head and holds his hand. Her green shoes, adorned with red polka dots, are impossibly tiny.
If the painting fails to hint at the hair-raising works for which she would later become famous — images of suicide, murder, melodrama, and almost unbelievable self-possession — the painting (those shoes in particular) does announce the big/small dynamic that motored their creative lives, together and separately.
Rivera, obviously, was huge in every way. He both conceived his works and painted them on a tremendous scale, as the Detroit Industry murals amply demonstrate. Between 1923 and 1929 he had completed more than 200 big fresco panels for two government organizations in Mexico. And in 1931 he was feted in New York at the newly established Museum of Modern Art, where he was only the second artist to be given a solo exhibition (the first was Henri Matisse).
Kahlo, by contrast, was small. She painted small, too: She has a miniature self-portrait on masonite here that measures one-and-9/16 by one-and-3/16 inches. The moderately sized 1931 marriage portrait is otherwise the biggest painting by her in the show.
“Miniature,” wrote Gaston Bachelard, “is one of the refuges of greatness.” Kahlo’s art rarely feels “miniature.” But its “smallness,” its concentrated potency, provides a fascinating counterpoint to Rivera’s largeness — his big politics, his big-heartedness, and his great-man bloatedness, all of which can make his art today seem sadly diluted.
Kahlo had suffered devastating injuries, including to her reproductive organs, in a 1925 bus accident. Ravaged by illness and trauma, she became pregnant by Rivera during her stay in Detroit.
Up until that point she had painted almost nothing in that city. She was unsettled, unhappy, skittish, and no doubt terrified. In May, she took a dose of quinine and castor oil to induce an abortion, and on July 4 — Independence Day in the host country — she lost the baby in the Henry Ford Hospital, of all places.
On the reliable evidence of a drawing and painting she made in the aftermath, the circumstances were bloody and traumatic. The ensuing period saw her take up her art, primarily self-portraiture, with great gusto, brazen honesty, and a kind of hermetically sealed sense of conviction.
Not that she wasn’t susceptible to outside voices. She was encouraged to paint not only by Rivera, but by a friend, Helen Vinton, who wrote to commiserate about the loss of the baby, adding, “I very much hope that you’ll stop being so modest, and begin painting again. You have great things in you, if only you’ll believe it as strongly as the rest of us do.”
Rivera, too, was affected by the loss of the child. He changed his designs for the Detroit Industry murals to incorporate a huge fetus in a terrestrial womb.
Despite her diminutiveness, there’s almost nothing about Kahlo or her work that is less than too much. And it’s not just her extraordinary life, normal emotional responses to which range from shock and dismay to armpits-on-fire stupefaction. (Imagine what it was like actually living it.) It’s very much her work.
In its revelatory intensity, Kahlo’s painting — and this is so, so rare in art — continually bursts through the melodrama of her life and through all the insulating layers of the Kahlo bio-myth. It is electrifying, bejeweled, bloody, and raw. Her self-portraits do not read as “cries for help,” that hackneyed phrase. They’re silent monologues.
Do we still even need Rivera in the picture?
The message of this show might be: Try taking him out of it.
If so much about this Mexican Communist, Trotskyite, and trickster, who worked for revolutionaries and Rockefellers, who mastered modern art but championed the heritage of Mexico, seems embarrassingly dated today, it may be because we lack historical imagination.
We may lack, too, Kahlo’s touching openness to his volcanic charisma, which — though it is sometimes buried beneath the platitudinous forms of his public art — is there nonetheless, and makes itself felt most in studies, sketches, self-portraits, and sundry imaginings. See, for instance, his haunting 1926 “Female Nude with Long Hair” (a sketch for a larger work, “Subterranean Forces”); his profile portrait of William R. Valentiner, the director of the Detroit museum; or his much later “Self-Portrait — The Ravages of Time” (which could as easily have been called “Self-Portrait as a Self-Satisfied Basset Hound”).
The truth is, Rivera was a marvelously gifted artist. Kahlo knew it. She just happened to be firstname.lastname@example.org.