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Frida's Garden, Frida's Closet: The Artist and Her Personal Artifacts

06/03/2015 07:10 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2016


Ishiuchi Miyako, Frida by Ishiuchi #34, 2012-2015. © Ishiuchi Miyako. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery.

Of all the important artists of the modern era, Frida Kahlo's work is perhaps the most inseparable from her biography and her unique physical appearance. Her life and art are presently interpreted in three exhibitions--in New York, London, and Mexico City--through the objects she surrounded herself with or used to adorn her body. By studying Kahlo's personal effects and the environment she immersed herself in, can we learn anything new about the artist we know so well? Do these objects reveal something about her daily reality that her stoic visage belies? Followers of the Kahlo-cult won't be disappointed with these three exhibitions of her artifacts, which aim to deepen our understanding of her relationship to life and death, pain and beauty, and her enduring love of Mexico.

A reimagined version of Kahlo's garden at the Casa Azul (Blue House), "FRIDA KAHLO: Art, Garden, Life," installation view, 2015. Courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden. Photo: Ivo M. Vermeulen.

"Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life," curated by art historian Adriana Zavala at the New York Botanical Garden, celebrates Kahlo's love of nature in this summer blockbuster exhibition. Walls painted an intense azure blue complemented with accents of terra cotta evoke Kahlo's lifelong home, known as the Casa Azul, in the Coyoacán suburb of Mexico City. In the Garden's conservatory, cacti, succulents, and colorful marigolds take center stage on a brightly painted pyramid, a scale model of the one at Casa Azul that Diego Rivera used to display his collection of pre-Columbian sculpture. Calla lilies, sunflowers, ivy, palms, and other types of flowers and plants that Kahlo painted, and pinned in her plaited hair, appear in abundance. In a small gallery in the library of the Botanical Garden, fourteen of Kahlo's paintings and works on paper are also on display, focusing in particular on her still life paintings, which abound with melons, citrus, cactus fruits, and sometimes birds or other animals.

"FRIDA KAHLO: Art, Garden, Life," installation view, 2015. Courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden. Photo: Robert Benson.

"Art, Garden, Life" is verdant and succulent, an unabashed celebration of Kahlo's iconic art and likeness, and of Mexican culture in general. "Frida al Fresco" evenings bring live music, cocktails, and Mexican dining to the Botanical Garden; "Frida's Flora and Fauna" leads children and families on a scavenger hunt for botanical specimens; and "Cooking with Frida" demonstrations teach visitors how to prepare Mexican cuisine. Kahlo felt an intense connection to Mexico--in the years she spent abroad in the United States and France, she complained bitterly of homesickness--and particularly to the Casa Azul, whose surroundings and lush plant life loom in the background of many of her paintings.

An evocation of Frida Kahlo's studio overlooking her garden, "FRIDA KAHLO: Art, Garden, Life," installation view, 2015. Courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden. Photo: Ivo M. Vermeulen.

Frida Kahlo began and ended her life within the confines of the Casa Azul. It was at Casa Azul--as Kahlo lay convalescing from the traumatic trolley accident she endured at the age of 18 that would haunt her for the rest of her life--where she first began to paint. It was at Casa Azul where she and Rivera entertained countless Mexican and international artists, poets, and intellectuals. And it was at Casa Azul where Kahlo died, in 1954, at the age of 47. Her ashes rest in an urn in one of the rooms on the upper floor. After Kahlo's death, Rivera placed her personal belongings--her clothes, jewelry, medical supplies, and other items--out of view, in a bathroom of the Casa Azul, which was to stay sealed until 15 years after his death. Rivera died in 1957. The room, however, remained shut until 2004.

Ishiuchi Miyako, Frida by Ishiuchi #2, 2012-2015. © Ishiuchi Miyako. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery.

At Casa Azul, now the Frida Kahlo Museum, the items that were locked away for so many years are now on display in a long-term exhibition entitled "Appearances Can Be Deceiving: Frida Kahlo's Wardrobe." Her many Tehuana dresses bear witness to her fierce sense of Mexicanidad, while invoking, as curator Circe Henestrosa argues, the image of the powerful women of the matriarchal Tehuantepec region. The long skirts also benefitted Kahlo in that they disguised her infirmities: her withered right leg, the result of a bout of polio she contracted at the age of six; and the effects of that devastating traffic accident, wherein her spine was broken in three places, her uterus pierced through, and her foot crushed. The lasting trauma from the accident would prevent Kahlo from ever bearing children, and forced her to wear orthopedic braces and corsets to support her spine, particularly later in life as she became increasingly weak. These corsets and prosthetics, along with her dresses, costumes, jewelry, and other items displayed throughout five rooms of the museum, demonstrate how Kahlo went about constructing her identity. The exhibition's title originates from a drawing by Kahlo showing her frail, buttressed body, disguised by the voluminous folds of her skirts and shawls.

Ishiuchi Miyako, Frida by Ishiuchi #36, 2012-2015. © Ishiuchi Miyako. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery.

The objects, prosthetics, and adornments through which Kahlo transformed herself hold a striking power. Japanese artist Ishiuchi Miyako, invited by Henestrosa to document Kahlo's secret wardrobe when it was opened at last, captured these objects in an extraordinary series of photographs, on view now at Michael Hoppen Gallery in London. Ishiuchi's photographs have garnered an immense response from a worldwide audience. These photographs, simply styled and elegant, seem to translate so effectively the character of Frida Kahlo--her shimmering vitality, her independence, her coquettish style, and her resilience in the face of pain and trauma. The prosthetic leg she had fashioned, after her right leg was amputated near the end of her life, reveals a defiant pair of jingle bells. A wretched old cast she wore over her torso, embellished with circular mirrors, illustrations, and a prominent hammer and sickle symbol, demonstrates her allegiance to Communism as well as a healthy dose of surrealism.

Ishiuchi Miyako, Frida by Ishiuchi #100, 2012-2015. © Ishiuchi Miyako. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery.

Ishiuchi Miyako is adept at conveying through photography the inherent memory of objects. In previous projects, Mother's (2000-2005) and Hiroshima (2007-ongoing), Ishiuchi takes as her subject worn garments evoking absent bodies, some of them victims of the horrific nuclear attacks of World War II. While Ishiuchi knew very little about Frida Kahlo before documenting her wardrobe, she came to be acquainted with the artist through the traces left behind on her personal belongings. The remarkable, magnetic energy of these items is vibrantly clear in her photographs, from the abundant, heavy folds of Kahlo's Tehuana skirts, to the delicate, moth-eaten fabric of a swimming costume. In one photograph, a pair of long black gloves stretches slender fingers outwards, grasping and ghostly.

Ishiuchi Miyako, Frida by Ishiuchi #86, 2012-2015. © Ishiuchi Miyako. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery.

Although interpreting an artist's work through her life and personal items gives us an incomplete view--appearances can be deceiving--these displays of Kahlo's relics and passions reveal facets of her constructed identity, and show that her love of life, nature, and Mexico, and her battle with disability, death, and trauma, were intrinsically and vitally connected.

"FRIDA KAHLO: Art, Garden, Life," installation view, 2015. Courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden. Photo: Robert Benson.

 "FRIDA KAHLO: Art, Garden, Life" at the New York Botanical Garden is accompanied by an extensive catalogue, special programming events, and special artist projects. It is on view through November 1, 2015.

Ishiuchi Miyako, "Frida," runs from May 13 to July 12 at Michael Hoppen Gallery in London.

"Appearances Can Be Deceiving" at the Frida Kahlo Museum remains on view at the museum until 2018.

--Natalie Hegert