Monday, October 22, 2012

Review of Frida & Diego at the AGO in Saturday's Star

The Art Gallery of Ontario launched a joint show of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera on Saturday. On the same day, my review of the show was published in the Toronto Star. An excerpt:

Touting churro-spiced lattes in its espresso bar and an expanded Frank Restaurant margarita menu, the Art Gallery of Ontario launches the exhibition “Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics & Painting” with great tie-in fanfare today.

Featuring more than 80 works by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and more than 60 photographs of them by other artists, the exhibition’s stated aim is to show how their paintings reflect the dramatic story of their lives together and their artistic commitment to the politics of 1930s, 1940s and 1950s Mexico. 

Frida & Diego contains several not-to-be-missed masterpieces (see sidebar for a few). But I wasn’t convinced that the show succeeds in providing an accurate sense of Frida and Diego’s lives together — or of their politics, either. 

The exhibition opens with a large photograph of the couple embracing in San Francisco in 1931, as well as some small portraits and self-portraits.

Next comes Rivera’s early European works — including some Cubist paintings in the style of his Paris-days friend Picasso. Then, there’s a display about the overtly politicized murals and paintings Rivera’s best known for, including one where Kahlo hands out arms to the Mexican people.
From there, Kahlo’s early years and some of her paintings — such as 1932’s A Few Small Nips, her fingerprints visible on the frame — are shown before viewers enter a room where works by both artists hang together.

In many ways, this room’s a must-see, as it’s rare to see Riveras and Kahlos displayed side by side.
However, it’s hard to know what conclusions to draw from this display, as some earlier, less skilled Kahlos are paired with more mature, assured Riveras. Perhaps this is meant to balance the fact that a smaller proportion of Rivera’s career is represented in the show — or the fact that Kahlo’s work tends to surpass Rivera’s in integrating ambiguity and darkness, offering a haunting complexity that’s made her beloved of so many more contemporary viewers. (When they were alive, he was the star, not her.)

For the full review, read on at the Star.

One thing I wish I had underlined in the review in retrospect was the way that the show's dependence on photographs of the artists—which is enriching in many ways—is also part of the difficulty I had with it.

In the end, I felt that the exhibition glossed over the complexity that must have been a huge part of Frida & Diego's relationship. While that complexity is well reflected in Frida's paintings, it is difficult to surmise from photographs of the artists—because betrayal, pain and separation in somebody else's relationship is a near-impossible thing to portray in photographs, unless you happen to be doing it embedded-photojournalism style. And even if you are embedded, say, how do you picture long periods of separation or strife between couples? It's much easier to capture at least a surface level of togetherness in straight photography; much more difficult to capture apartness.

In any case, many interesting works in this show... just wish the storytelling had aimed for more completeness or complexity—not that I think anyone's full sense of relationship or politics can be captured by an outsider decades later, but it would have been nice to aim higher.

(Image: A man takes a photo of a large portrait of 20th century Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera at the AGO, via the Toronto Star.)

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