Sunday, December 14, 2008

Adventures at the Wichita Art Museum #5: Photographs of Frida Kahlo

Nickolas Muray, Frida painting The Two Fridas, Coyoacán (1939). Photograph. Click to enlarge. Image found here.

It is most appropriate that a print of this photograph is part of the exhibit of photos of Kahlo currently mounted at the WAM: Current visitors will be treated to a diversity of exhibits that, given the museum's fairly small space, feels almost schizophrenic. Soon to end (but this was my first time to see it) is a collection of images in various media chosen to accompany selected passages from Willa Cather's My Ántonia, Wichita's "Big Read" selection for this year. There's what amounts to a retrospective exhibit of works in various media by Wichita artist Nicholas Trabue, though the exhibit's chief focus is on works in the style you can see here: a "juxtaposition of . . . organic nudes with sacred geometry [that] alludes to an evocative relationship between the two." And there are two exhibits that were my reason for going yesterday: a large collection of contemporary, hand-woven textiles that show off a dazzling range of traditional designs and palettes, collected in southern Mexico and Guatemala by Jerry Martin, director of the museum of anthropology at Wichita State; and the portraits of Frida Kahlo (both alone and, on occasion, with other people) taken by Nickolas Muray (the accompanying text (not exactly a catalogue) is I Will Never Forget You: Frida Kahlo and Nickolas Muray).

It is a strange experience, seeing these photographs. As anyone who has spent any time looking at Kahlo's work knows, she herself was the subject (or, as The Two Fridas makes clear, subjects) of most of her paintings, and these portraits by Muray, a well-respected photographer in his own right (here is the (brief) Wikipedia article), make no effort to break the frame, as it were, of the symbiotic relationship between Kahlo's paintings and the woman who painted them. There are no pictures here of, say, Kahlo scrubbing floors or going shopping; one does show her wearing pants, though. It was Muray's goal to make photographs of Kahlo that in their own way evoked the paintings and, in my untrained opinion, he succeeded. In fact, one could effectively retitle the picture above as The Three Fridas--and for more reasons than the immediately obvious.

As it turns out, Muray, who is responsible for this, the most-reproduced photograph of Kahlo (this image and the one below found here), was also one of Kahlo's lovers. Their affair began about the time that she and Diego Rivera divorced and lasted for ten more years, when it became painfully clear to Muray that, though Kahlo loved him she would not marry him and, moreover, was indeed serious about reconciling with Rivera. Once the viewer of Frida painting The Two Fridas knows this and also knows that Kahlo made the painting as a way of expressing her emotions after divorcing Rivera, this photograph becomes exceedingly complex: Frida, at once maker and model, lover and beloved, becomes the subject in/of two media, her attention turned toward Muray in his dual roles as both photographer and lover and, at the same time, toward the making of the painting and the invisible subject that prompted its making. It is a little like Velásquez's Las Meninas turned inside-out.

This may be an overreading of these pictures, but it does seem at times as though Muray (seen here with Kahlo in this 1939 picture) wanted to make pictures that didn't just serve as evocations of the paintings but as extensions of them--that, moreover, included him (or, more precisely, their love for each other) as their implicit subject. What it must have cost Muray, then, to take that picture (which I can't seem to find online) of Kahlo genuinely, warmly embracing and kissing Rivera. [Aside: I don't know enough about Kahlo to know whether Muray was ever the subject of her work, but she did send him a print (included in the exhibit) of her painting What the Water Gave Me as, according to the accompanying card, a warning to him of the complex of experiences and emotions she contained within herself.]

It is neither disrespect nor disappointment to say of this exhibit that I learned more about Muray than I did about Kahlo. Indeed, this was my introduction to Muray (fun fact: he was one of the first prominent American photographers to begin working seriously with color photography in the late '30s; not quite half the pictures in the exhibit are in color). I wasn't sure what to expect; I had assumed there would be some pictures that were less portrait-like, and I sure hadn't expected to learn that Muray and Kahlo were lovers and the dimension that fact adds to the experience of looking at these pictures. One could say by way of response, Well, Kahlo made her life the subject of her paintings--just look at them. True. But that, too, was a choice. She looked into a mirror when she painted her self-portraits; but even if she could not control what the mirror gave back to her, she still had complete control over what she said she saw--and, thus, what appeared on the canvas. It was that woman, the woman behind the projected persona, I thought I might see a glimpse or two of. I guess for that, the next time I go to Mexico City I will have to go here.

I am sorry to say that I can find no decent pictures of the exhibited textiles online; and in any case, these pieces are better seen in person: their textures add immensely to the experience of seeing them, as does the bewildering variety of patterns produced by these diverse indigenous populations living within a relatively small geographic space. Go and see.

The Kahlo exhibit lasts through February 1 (for the curious, here is its tour schedule); the textiles will be on display until March 1.


Pam said...

During one of my coral sampling trips to Puerto Rico - I had a rare free day, and drove to Ponce and saw an exhibit of Kahlo's paintings at the Ponce Museum of Art. They surprised me in so many ways - they were smaller in size than I had imagined - and the pallet, while vibrant, was quite limited. And because the images were all so personal, as you state - rather, each a snapshot of her life - it was like you were oddly invading her world, getting close to her, it was if she was unclothed even when clothed. I hadn't heard of Muray before - so found this post very interesting and yes, it does seem like his images of her are much akin to her images of herself. Like a series of mirrors perhaps. I'd love to see the photographs 'in person'.

John B. said...

Thanks for commenting. It so happens that this same exhibition was in Savannah earlier this year, and I found myself wondering if you had heard about it or maybe even had gone to see it.

In person, I was struck by how "flat" many of the pictures were: in them, Muray posed Kahlo with her back against a wall and then photographed her fairly close up, so these shots had little sense of depth to them. That flatness, too, evoked many of Kahlo's paintings for me.

The photo of Kahlo wearing pants (it's a full-length shot, somewhere out in the country) is quite shocking because it reveals her legs--I know that's a strange thing to say, but she wore dresses to hide the fact that one leg was considerably smaller in diameter than the other. Anyway, the effect that picture had on me was as though I'd seen her nude.