Is there another artist on earth with the name-brand recognition of Frida Kahlo? You might say Vincent Van Gogh, or Pablo Picasso, or maybe Andy Warhol, whose platinum mop is the only rival to Kahlo’s unibrow-and-mustache ensemble as an artistic trademark of personal grooming. But even he would be hard-pressed to match the dozens of socks, yoga pants, shower curtains, or handbags festooned with Kahlo’s image churned up by an offhand Googling. A Picasso Barbie doll? Not likely.
Kahlo can sometimes feel less like an artist than a store-bought product. Her enduring, lifelong pain — from childhood polio, from a horrific bus accident when she was 18, from the perpetual philandering of her husband, Diego Rivera — only adds to the mystique, a template of artistic suffering. We can all own a piece of her, in the most superficial of ways. Such is the price of immortality, inflated by fame.
Kahlo surely sought both, and her perch above Rivera as Mexico’s best-known artist might feel like justice served. Hers was a career of stage-managed photo-ops, of building her myth alongside her work. Even so, could she ever have imagined this? In Boston and Brooklyn, N.Y., two exhibitions of Kahlo now run parallel: The Brooklyn Museum’s “Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving,” a show of 350 objects, hundreds of them photos, almost all of them of the artist herself; and “Frida Kahlo and Arte Popular,” the Museum of Fine Arts’ tightly-focused look at Kahlo’s artistic influences. It’s a coincidental overlap, though it hardly dents either: By now, museums — even two at the same time — can’t hope to contain her or the throngs she attracts.
Getting up close to “Diego On My Mind (Self Portrait as Tehuana),” one of just 11 paintings at the Brooklyn show, meant jostling with the crowds — even with timed entry on a chilly Monday afternoon. The piece pins you, transfixed, as her work so often does: Kahlo’s penetrating gaze framed, as ever, by the thin wisp of her mustache below, with Rivera perched in the sharp crook of her unibrow above. All around, slim tendrils radiate from a wreath of white lace that frames her face. It holds you fast, but a contemplative experience the show is not: Back pressure from the advancing horde meant move or be moved.
This, by now, is no surprise. Kahlo’s renown has been rising for decades, and with no apparent ceiling. Her 1983 biography by Heyden Herrera ignited the rediscovery of her work in the United States, where she was embraced by feminist critics (and collected by Madonna). Salma Hayek’s 2002 biopic, based on the book, made her fame star-powered, and the Internet has made it forever: The Instagram hashtag #fridakahlo counts 2.7 million posts. At the museum’s restaurant, a rotating cast of celebrity chefs are producing Kahlo-inspired dishes. Imagine Mark Rothko inspiring that.
For a museum trafficking in Kahlo-mania, her fame presents both a gift and a dilemma. Few artists are so reliable, and so durable, with ticket sales assured. But what can a museum add to such outsize presence?
Here the two shows diverge. Where the MFA stands back with a thoughtful look at the evolution of Kahlo’s painting practice, “Appearances Can Be Deceiving” takes the plunge, luxuriating in the thick, soupy drama of Kahlo’s life. You may try to extract a painting show from it, but it’s a long swim between islands. Photograph after photograph maps out her life with exhaustive detail: from her childhood (father Guillermo was a photographer) to her political awakening as a student, after the Mexican revolution, to her first encounters with Rivera and the life of tortured passion they shared. In 2004, a sealed room at Casa Azul, the couple’s Mexico City home, was cracked open to reveal a fresh trove of personal effects — clothes, makeup, an ashtray, those body casts — and yet another chapter was added to the story.
Broken into sections, her paintings appear in each almost as destinations — the product of the biographic buildup that leads to them. One, the absurdly famous “Self-Portrait With Monkeys,” is the centerpiece of a section on Casa Azul. It commands its own wall, but still feels crowded by everything here. How many people see that Kahlo has aged herself, her eyes sunken in shadow, the lines of her neck carved more deeply? The show, with its buffet of distractions — a floor-to-ceiling video here, a wall of pottery there — seems to invite you not to look.
An entire gallery, one of five, is devoted to the medical apparatuses Kahlo wore: back braces, body casts. Her prosthetic leg, tucked in a tight glass case, is fitted with a dragon-embroidered boot and tied with red ribbon (Kahlo’s leg was amputated in 1953, a year before she died). The entire show feels raw, voyeuristic, and intimate, but here especially — a near-reliquary for a doomed saint, a shrine to her enduring pain. This may be an art exhibition, but it feels more like a public dissection.
What did Kahlo do to deserve this — so much ballast dragging at her life’s real pursuit, the making of her work? Well, plenty — she courted public attention by every means, posing for famous photographers like Edward Weston, Carl Van Vechten, Tina Modotti and Nickolas Muray, with whom she would have a lengthy affair.
The show seems to argue that Kahlo’s persona — deeply crafted, filled with intent — was inseparable from her art. But isn’t there something minimizing to the artist when her art is folded in with her courting of fame?
One way or the other, all the relentless biographizing has left a gap. When I spoke with Layla Bermeo, who curated “Frida Kahlo and Arte Popular” at the MFA, she said something so obvious as to be jarring.
“For all of her visibility in popular culture, I think many of us would struggle to name actual paintings by her, or be able to place her in larger narratives in art history, or to give specific interpretations that are not simply illustrations of events in her life,” she said. “So for someone who is so enshrouded in myth, it became almost radical to ask basic questions: What were her inspirations? What was she looking at when she made those paintings?”
At the MFA, Kahlo is observed from a respectful remove, knitting her abiding love for Mexican indigenous culture with a surging international Modernist style (her father was German, while her mother was of mixed Spanish and indigenous background). There is no Kahlo in “Frida Kahlo and Arte Popular” until deep into its first gallery, where a pair of paintings are buffered by a display of traditional craft. To get to them, you’ll pass a pair of extraordinary ceramic pieces, both of them alive with vibrant floral motifs. This isn’t coincident: Both paintings are portraits — her fantastic, blazingly visceral “Self-Portrait With Hummingbird and Thorn Necklace,” from 1940, and the subdued “Dos Mujeres,” from 1928 — that embed their subjects in a thick grove of foliage echoing the works nearby.
It’s odd, for an artist whose life has been so picked over, to think this might be the one stone left largely unturned. “Dos Mujeres,” a painting of two indigenous women made in 1928, belongs to the MFA, a key piece that propels the show forward. We imagine Kahlo as emerging fully-formed — that trademark glower, ever was, ever will be. The MFA instead sites her in an arc. “Her painting improved over time,” Bermeo says, “which sounds like a dumb thing to say, but it is exactly the kind of observation that’s missing from a lot of the conversations around her.”
With it, the MFA takes an honest stab at enlightenment, and achieves something new: A Kahlo show that feels unfamiliar, even strange, if not always compelling. Three of Kahlo’s still-lifes mean to illustrate her interest in a folk art convention of anthropomorphism, but they’re weak, made late in life as her health deteriorated, and are the least interesting things here. But a small group of anonymous retablos — scenes of ex voto, saintly miracles, painted on tin — are arresting and vivid, and make way for wonder.
One of the most powerful works here — surprise! — isn’t a self-portrait, but a tiny work Kahlo painted on tin herself, of a child in a death’s head mask. It delivers big ideas in a small, tightly-bundled package: Inspired by the retablo painters — of which she and Rivera had hundreds, hanging in their Casa Azul — Kahlo painted the small work as a partial homage to her anonymous forbears: The eyes of a carved jaguar head are tiny, unpainted discs, with the metal beneath shining through. It’s the kind of sharp detail — of a painter, painting — that Kahlo shows always seem to lack.
From Brooklyn to Boston, there is inevitable overlap. Both shows include the artist’s love of tchotchkes found in Mexico’s many craft markets, and both display retablos — though in Brooklyn in exhaustive number.
What the MFA elides is the drama, or at least much of it. It liberates Kahlo from the cult of personality she built for herself. This will surely feel like a letdown to some. But it also asks an important question: Does Kahlo’s work — her prickly, defiant, enrapturing self-portraiture, whether surrounded by monkeys or hummingbirds or a halo of lace — draw us to her story, or does her story draw us to her work? Is it even possible to separate the two?
Kahlo had to find her own way out of the looming shadow of Rivera — the second artist ever to receive a solo retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, after Henri Matisse. She was strategic, using predictably feminine elements, like fashion, to pull the spotlight toward her. She shared this with her contemporary, Georgia O’Keeffe, and for both the end results are mixed. You won’t find a show about Rivera’s style of dress, nor Alfred Stieglitz’s décor sense (another recent show at the Brooklyn Museum displayed O’Keeffe’s home interiors). Both now tower over the men in their lives, but for what?
For Kahlo, there was another card to play. She endured one surgery after another to repair her damaged spine, convalescing in body casts that she painted with urgent attention as she lay prone in bed. It was a declaration: She refused to be defeated. She painted a hammer and sickle, a nod to her communist allegiances, on one. On another, she painted the shattered column that had become a symbol in her work of her damaged spine.
With it, she captured her constant, enduring pain. She also made a spectacle of it, merging it with her art. Yes, Kahlo wanted us to look — she was a canny performer, knowing the extraordinary details of her personal life would help fast-track her fame. But I can’t help but think it’s become too comfortable to observe her pain. Did she want us to see her suffering, or her work? That’s a question only she could answer. But to offer a guess, I can’t believe she intended her paintings to serve as illustrations for the sensational narrative of her life.
In the final room in Brooklyn are mannequin after mannequin sporting Kahlo’s deliberate fashion choices, mixing traditional Mexican dress with contemporary styles. After the visceral drama of the prior room, Kahlo’s spine held in by so much leather and wire, it feels anticlimactic, a whimper of a denouement.
In Boston, just three outfits hang in a dark gallery, each of them spotlit, each of them with specific purpose: a rebozo (shawl), a traditional huipil (blouse), and a tehuana dress. Kahlo wore each as tribute to her indigenous heritage, and as a symbol of a “new” Mexico, post-revolution, that would merge colonial and indigenous culture as one. (She also wore them knowingly as magnets for attention: “[S]he causes much excitement in the streets of San Francisco. People stop in their tracks to look and wonder,” wrote the photographer Edward Weston of her “native dress,” which she wore with intent while living in the United States in the ’30s.)
On the walls are just a few photographs, and one by Van Vechten that stops you flat: Kahlo in half-profile, emerging from shadow, caught in the moment just before contentment tumbles into a smile. Rivera sits in the background, slightly blurred. It’s mysterious, captivating, full of wonder. In the well-worn tale of Kahlo’s extraordinary life, it does the most remarkable thing: It leaves room to wonder, in the avalanche of Kahlo-mania, what else might be buried for us to discover.
FRIDA KAHLO: APPEARANCES CAN BE DECEIVING
At the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, N.Y., through May 12. 718-638-5000, www.brooklynmuseum.org
FRIDA KAHLO AND ARTE POPULAR
At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through June 16. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org
Murray Whyte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte