Frida Kahlo spun her own life into a myth. She was so good at it that her art almost got lost along the way. Her persona, fashioned over almost three decades of self-portraits, fused physical suffering and emotional isolation. Her frank depiction of a woman’s psychic pain made her a feminist icon. She became a Chicana heroine and an unintended purveyor of Mexican kitsch. She is an emblem of confessional painting at a time when nothing is intimate anymore.
But this year, as Mexico celebrates the centenary of her birth, the largest retrospective ever of her work attempts to look beyond what Mexicans call Fridamania. The result is a rich view of her art and her life, one that broadens the perspective on her career beyond the narrow, cultish view that has at times threatened to obscure her work. For the majority who know Kahlo’s painting only from the movie version of her life or the unmistakable power of her face on a T-shirt, the exhibition that opened here last month at the Palacio de Bellas Artes may come as a surprise.
“She was completely instinctual,” said Salomon Grimberg, one of the show’s five curators. “She put into art things nobody had dared to put into art before. She was able to access her internal reality and shape it in such a way that it grabs the viewer.”
“Her work is so flashy and so immediate that most people don’t stop to look at her work as a painter,” he added. “They just get caught up in the image. Finally, after 30 years, the work is being reappraised.”
Among the 354 pieces on display are some of Kahlo’s most famous self-portraits, but through lesser-known self-portraits, still lifes, portraits, drawings and watercolors, she emerges as an artist who gathered multiple influences into her own language.
Her first self-portrait, in a velvet dress, was painted at 19 for a faithless boyfriend and already shows the unflinching gaze that marked the later paintings. But here she is graceful, almost ethereal, quite different from the confrontational presence she was to become.
A tender portrait of her husband, the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, reveals an unexpected naturalism. Portraits of children show Kahlo working in different styles: a detailed painterliness with her baby niece, splashes of color for what appears to be a servant girl.
There is great humor in a frankly sexual still life entitled “The Bride Who Is Frightened to See Life Open” for which Kahlo posed a doll in a white dress at the edge of a table of fruit, the papaya and watermelon sliced open.
Among the least-known works are her drawings and watercolors. A delicate 1930 drawing of a young woman, Ady Weber, shows a draftsmanship that few have attributed to Kahlo. There is a watercolor of Central Park and later fantastic drawings from the 1940s.
The show, which runs through Aug. 19, also includes many photographic portraits of Kahlo, along with photos of her family and the Mexico City neighborhood of Coyoacán, where she was born and died, and where her home, the Casa Azul, now houses the Museo Frida Kahlo. Some of her letters are on display, and so too is memorabilia recalling the Mexican Revolution of her childhood and the communism she embraced as an adult. The whole gives a juxtaposition of her intensely domestic existence — a house full of plants, pets, famous writers and painters — and the peculiarly violent history of her times.
“We wanted to present an integral Frida through all her mediums of expression,” said Roxana Velásquez Martínez del Campo, the director of the Bellas Artes museum and another of the show’s curators. “Frida is a woman in constant expression.”
But the drama of her tumultuous emotional life and her physical pain made her work uneven, Ms. Velásquez said: “On occasion she is a great painter.”
During her lifetime, Kahlo won only limited acclaim, dwarfed by Rivera’s heroic reputation. She exhibited in New York and Paris, but the only solo show of her work in Mexico took place in 1953, a year before she died. Her reputation here too has grown, tinged with pride at the attention she has brought to Mexico.
In addition to the show at Bellas Artes, an exhibition of newly cataloged drawings, photographs, letters, pre-Hispanic codices and her famous Mexican dresses is on display at the museum in Coyoacán. They are some of the 22,000 items that were tucked away in trunks, wardrobes and bathrooms in the house and sealed until after the death of a Rivera patron.
Kahlo was born on July 6, 1907, to a Mexican mother and a German immigrant father who was a well-known architectural and portrait photographer.
She contracted polio as a child, which left her with a withered leg. At 18, a tram accident injured her spine and pelvis and confined her to a plaster cast for months, then convalescence for three years. One of the surprises discovered in the trunks at her house is a photograph of a model of the accident, using a crude doll and a toy bus on a straw mat.
The rest of her life was marked by enormous physical pain and repeated operations. She married Rivera in 1929 and the pair left for the United States the following year, where he had commissions to paint murals in San Francisco, Detroit and New York. In America, Kahlo found early collectors, including the actor Edward G. Robinson. Rivera encouraged and shaped his wife’s painting. He was also constantly unfaithful, having affairs with, among others, Kahlo’s sister. Kahlo responded by having affairs with both women and men, including Leon Trotsky. She would say that she had suffered two accidents, the tram and Diego — and that he was the worse.
“She created a body of work which is imbued with a sense of abandonment,” said Mr. Grimberg, who compiled the catalogue raisonné of her work. “She shaped and reshaped her life over and over again so she would not be abandoned, she would not be rejected.”
Her painting repeatedly refers to the pain of her attachment to Rivera. Among the most famous of those exhibited here is “The Two Fridas,” from 1939, about the time the couple briefly divorced. On the left, Frida is dressed as a bride, her heart open and a cut artery dripping blood onto the dress. On the right, the everyday Frida is strong, her heart is healthy and she holds a cameo of Rivera as a child, a symbol that her union with him is far deeper than that of a marriage.
As Kahlo grew older, her health deteriorated rapidly and she became increasingly addicted to painkillers. The photographs of her in her final years reveal her utter exhaustion. But even then, she was clearly intensely aware of her image. “The collection of photos that were taken of her is another of her masterpieces,” said Pablo Ortiz Monasterio, a photography specialist who has cataloged the photos found at her house.
Kahlo died at 47 after her leg was amputated below the knee. Tucked away in the retrospective is an anonymous newspaper photograph of her state funeral. Rivera is there, his sadness evident. The funeral took place in Bellas Artes — the same place the crowds are trooping through to revisit her work now.