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Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera: Fiesta Mexicana in Paris

(Paris.) Orangerie Museum honors art's second most famous moustache and her Dieguito with a small but nice show - Frida Kahlo / Diego Rivera: L’art en fusion (Art in Fusion).

In a short prelude, visitors are taught about Diego Rivera’s Parisian years from 1907 onwards. Starting realist, soon turning cubist, he broke with the movement in 1917, and finally returned to his native Mexico in 1920. Closely associated with Cubism’s spearheads Picasso, Braque, Metzinger, Gris, etc., Diego Rivera's paintings from this epoch are basically the same thing, though a tad more colorful.

Diego Rivera and the twenty years younger Frida Kahlo first met in 1927, shortly after her suffering a bus accident in the wake of which she turned to art. At this point of the story, the Orangerie surprises with a great idea: Instead of the habitual Wall of Facts, as found in your average art exhibition, they split up Frida and Diego’s common biography over a whole room. The dry data is loosened up with small format paintings, reproductions and photographs. Visitors follow the couple’s life turning in a circle.

Only notorious naggers will feel obliged to notice: “Yes, but don’t they do this only to hide the lack of artworks in this exhibition, for which probably exist more posters and magazine ads than there are paintings to see? Isn’t it nearly impossible to read the texts, as there are always masses of other visitors crowding in front of you? And are these cactuses on shelves not a bit too Disneyland?”

All of this is true, and still the idea is great.

The couple itself was bound in a solid love-hate relationship including numerous affairs, two marriages and a divorce. Diego Rivera (1886-1957) survived Frida (1907-1954) by three years, dying with the wish of their ashes to be merged, a wish never to be fulfilled. Only the early birth spared them – and us – their being dubbed as FriGo by the media. We should be as thankful for this as we are for their art.

The biggest issue with a museum show of Diego Rivera is how the artist earned most of his fame with huge Zapatist murals that can hardly be flown around the world (at least today the cost-benefit analysis is dissuasive). The Orangerie shows an est. 3x5 m reproduction poster of a detail from one of these masterpieces: The Arsenal, Frida Kahlo Distributes Arms (1928). In all its revolutionary might it might make you wonder, whether it would not have been a better idea to save the ticket here, and start making economies for a journey to Mexico City. This is impressive political art from a couple that shared their house (and in Frida’s case the bed, too) with Leon Trotsky for some months in 1937. With some Magic added, Socialist Realism can be fun. A convinced communist, Frida Kahlo frequently lied about her year of birth to match it to the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Her self-identification with the country further shows in works like My Nurse and I (1937).

Comparing works from different stages of his career, it becomes obvious how Diego Rivera adapted his style to the favoured culture. His portraits of South Americans are colorful, and even the bodies much different with melodically round limbs (Huichol Indian, 1950) than his European characters in European tones of grey (hard to use a compound with “grey” today) were: Portrait of Father Lalane, 1936. Frida Kahlo for her part was even more radical in accentuating her origins (well, her father was a German immigrant, but her mother mixed Spanish/Indian) and the visual heritage of Latin American Indians. Where Diego Rivera who had enjoyed Paris in his youth, and on a later visit to the US was fascinated by the technical avant-garde, Frida stayed skeptical of everything non-Latin throughout her life.

Leaving the question of how and turning to what is painted, her topics are much self-centered, which is quite understandable given her biography of sorrow. The aforementioned bus crash left Frida Kahlo with severe injuries; the shattered spinal column perpetually forced her to spend months in a wheelchair during her later life. Her three miscarriages are also supposed to be the accident’s aftermaths. She summed up the assumed martyrdom in Shattered Column (1944), which also is a good example for a fusion of Mexican tradition with Dali-an surrealism. A Few Small Nips is a projection of Frida Kahlo’s own suffering onto the scene of a play. Blood stains leave the canvas and continue on the frame; finally here is an artist who wants to be identified with her characters, who does not eschew the identification with her work.

Furthermore, Frida Kahlo’s auto portraits are a metaphor for modern art and the emancipation of ugliness. Not in the sense of “beauty lies in the eye of the beholder” gibberish. No: by affirming a proper value to deviation. Frida Kahlo’s proud mustache is the celebration of ugliness in its own right, not its misidentification with beauty. Still – or even more so - today, it seems scandalous to say: “Yes, she was f--- ugly, but what a great artist”! (Maybe it lay in the air of the time, when Bette Davis played a comparable role for acting.)

Another genre she excelled in are biomorphic still lifes, the same as in the East (= Europe) but different, for the plants and animals it shows are (stereo)typical Latin.

The last painting in the show is the least political correct.

The Tailor Henri de Chatîllon (1944) was successful in 1950’s Mexico with a style much different from Latin/Indian folklore. He dressed the Mexican upper class equal to their peers In New York or Paris, and thereby promoted a style (and cultural values) quite opposed to Frida and Diego’s ideals. Diego Rivera punished him with a portrait "en maricon". With a pink hat and that nasal lisp in his body language. Today, gay box champion Orlando Cruz would probably want to have a word with the painter, but those were other times then.

The exhibition is over far too soon. But once in here, visitors may have a look at the rest of the museum. Most of the permanent collection is currently closed for renovation (of the rooms not the paintings). The rest consists mainly of Andre Derain and a corridor of Renoirs. Auguste Renoir got a bit out of fashion today, but he is certainly worth a revival; his bubblegum impressionism always looked like Rubens on LSD. And of course, there is the Orangerie’s main attraction. The museum is most famous for hosting Claude Monet’s Sea Lilies in two large meditation rooms. A must.

Frida Kahlo/Diego Rivera: L’art en fusion, Orangerie Paris, 09 October 2013-13 January 2014



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