Milano gallery shows revealing, romantic Frida Kahlo exhibit
As the fashion capital and financial hub of Italy, Milan is a city that's naturally booming with art, entertainment and culture centers. Tourists typically book tickets months in advance to witness da Vinci’s "The Last Supper" and form lines down the block to enter the masterpiece that is il Duomo di Milano, but upon arriving in Milan, I craved a more non-traditional cultural experience. Luckily, on my last day in the city, I stumbled upon the Museo delle Culture (MUDEC), an exhibition space that was conveniently showing some of the most famous works of one of my favorite artists, Frida Kahlo.
Whoever has taken an art history class or seen the biopic starring Salma Hayek may know Kahlo as a depressed, disabled painter who was hopelessly in love with revolutionary muralist Diego Rivera, but this exhibition aimed to portray her multidimensionally. And her artwork wasn’t the only thing that spoke for itself, as the exhibition featured an extensive — almost overwhelming — collection of personal photographs, letters and diary entries that were found in La Casa Azul, the home she shared with Rivera, that have only been accessible to the public until very recently.
As intimate as these artifacts were, it was the canvases portraying Kahlo herself that were the most chilling to see in the flesh. Every self portrait Kahlo painted act as chapters to her autobiography. Extremely personal and political, many of Kahlo’s works focus on the situations she faced as a woman, and she shamelessly tackled themes relating to the myths of pre-Hispanic tradition, gender identity and femininity that was so often overlooked in a male-dominated, misogynistic society. As she used her body as a manifesto to exhibit her own femininity and explore the complexity and fragility of human beings, Kahlo revolutionized women’s role in the art world.
As Kahlo endured chronic pain for most of her life, physical suffering and bodily mutilation were frequent themes in her work. She was a sickly child, and her pain became permanent in her adult life when she was on a bus that collided with a tram, forcing her to wear a prosthetic leg and corset to support her spine for the rest of her life.
In “The Broken Column,” a self-portrait widely believed to be one of the most symbolic portraits she ever completed, Kahlo depicts herself in a steel corset that holds her broken body together — in real life her spine was injured, but in the painting, her body is literally split in two. Milk white tears stream down her passive face and nails are piercing her skin all throughout her body, the largest one hitting her right in the heart, symbolizing the emotional pain her on-and-off husband, Rivera, was causing her.
Because of her conditions Kahlo also suffered several miscarriages, misfortunes that Kahlo also violently portrayed in her art. Through all of this agony, Kahlo’s face is still emotionless as it is in all of her self-portraits, a technique which has led many to believe that the faces she shows in her paintings are only masks that hide her true feelings.
Kahlo’s obsessive love for Rivera is also a reoccurring theme in her art, so much so that the museum dedicated an entire section of the exhibit to her artwork inspired by Rivera as well as photographs of the couple left behind in La Casa Azul. Rivera, 20 years her senior, was a notorious womanizer, and the status of their passionate yet volatile relationship was often reflected in her self-portraits.
In “Diego on my mind,” Kahlo depicts herself in a Tehuana, the traditional Mexican dress that Diego loved. In the center of her forehead she painted Rivera, putting a literal meaning on the painting’s title. Whether she loved him or hated him, Rivera had a prolific influence on Kahlo’s mind, body and soul — so much that her doctor prescribed them to remarry after deciding their separation was putting a strain on her health. Among the array of wedding portraits and photographs of the two kissing in a warm embrace scattered around the exhibit, a particularly eerie photo was one that captured Rivera standing over Kahlo as she painted “Diego on my mind,” which illustrated the complexity and possible abusiveness of their relationship.
Dedicated to the Mexican Revolution and her Latin and indigenous roots, Kahlo’s art also relied heavily on themes of politics and nature. The decline of her mental and physical health was most evident in her later works — mostly still lifes of fruit that lacked her signature meticulous detail due to the weakening of her body along with her tendency to mix pain medication with alcohol.
Albeit depressing at times, the colorful, passionate and unapologetic life’s work of Kahlo was inspiring and touching to see in person. I never thought Milan would be the place I’d come to appreciate a Mexican artist’s work, but it was evident that Frida is a cultural icon no matter where you are in the world.