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We know Frida Kahlo ... or do we? A new exhibition helps to paint a more complete picture of her legendary life

Stroke of genius

Inside Frida Kahlo’s garden: A deeper look at the iconic artist

By Katie Booth on May 18, 2015

We recognize Frida Kahlo’s vibrant dress, her signature eyebrows, and her powerful paintings depicting her miscarriage and tumultuous relationship with painter Diego Rivera. We know she was a radical, and a devoted nationalist. Since her death in 1954, Kahlo has achieved cult status, her likeness printed on refrigerator magnets, and splashed across social media. She was brought to life on the big screen by Salma Hayek, and her biography continues to be written, and rewritten. But amid Kahlo’s rapid rise, have we missed anything? If we look past Kahlo’s celebrity, we can begin to see a woman whose genius extended far beyond her canvases, and who not only created art, but lived it. A new exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden, “Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life” reimagines Kahlo’s garden and studio, and showcases often overlooked paintings. Women in the World spoke with guest curator Adriana Zavala, Ph.D., whose background as a feminist art historian informed her work on the exhibition.

Women in the World: What do you find most fascinating about Frida Kahlo? 
Adriana Zavala: Her work is often quite confrontational. There are works like Henry Ford Hospital, depicting the aftermath of her miscarriage, or My Birth, where she’s clearly emerging from her mother’s vagina. That kind of work was unprecedented. Especially in Mexico where, despite the revolution, very few artists were doing that kind of radical visual confrontation. And Kahlo makes it more radical by visiting these things on her own body. Yet, she’s a diminutive woman at 5’1″, 95 pounds, dressed in this beautiful clothing. And I always want my students to understand that not everyone dressed that way. Kahlo was not an indigenous woman. She was appropriating the costume of disenfranchised indigenous people. It’s a constant visual reminder that she’s a nationalist, that she is prioritizing the culture of native people. That’s a form of challenge. I’m not sure whether Kahlo would identify as a feminist, but she was definitely enacting a challenge to patriarchy. But of course the contradiction there is she’s married to one of the great patriarchs of the 20th century, Diego Rivera. So she’s a very complex figure. And that’s what I find interesting.

WITW: What do you think is the most interesting thing about Frida Kahlo’s life as an artist? 
AZ: For me the big takeaway is that she not only expressed concepts in her paintings, but she also expressed them in the way that she redesigned her house and her garden. She introduced a lot more native Mexican plants, and she and Rivera were very invested in exploring Mezoamerican cosmology. I’ve learned to really appreciate Kahlo’s deep intellect, and her cultural sophistication. She was a cosmopolitan, in dialogue with world events, and with contemporary art of her time. She read widely and she was multilingual. In her library, there were books about medicine, botany, European philosophy. She had a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass into which she put little cut flowers. Whether she wanted children or not, frankly, that’s not that interesting to me. What’s more interesting were her conflicting ideas about motherhood.  She writes to her doctor that she feels conflicted about the way it’s going to circumscribe her freedom, and her ability to travel.

WITW: Tell us about the exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden. 
AZ: When the Botanic Garden approached me initially two years ago, I was wary at first, because I felt that there was, frankly, an overabundance of monographic projects on Frida Kahlo, but what won me over was they’re not a conventional museum, and they had such an original idea to do a project on Frida Kahlo and focus only on her relationship with the natural world and her plant imagery. The focus is on her use of plant life to engage with thematic and conceptual concerns. Among them, hybridity, dualism and interdependence, the notion of humor, and the interrelationship of the human realm and the natural world. There are works from 1928 to her death in 1954, hung thematically. We don’t disregard her biography, but that’s not our focus.

WITW: How does this exhibition explore her life in new ways?
AZ: I want people to try to push past the popular celebrity of Frida Kahlo. My commitment has been to do a deeply contextual type of art history. Artists are artists. They’re creating, they’re inventing, they’re imagining, they’re expressing ideas that may have nothing to do with the specific events of their life. And I think that’s the key to Frida Kahlo, too. She did thematize many of the things that happened in her life, but I believe that whenever she does that, there’s always something else at work. What we’re trying to underscore is how the natural world was a vehicle for her to express ideas, and how her garden was an expression of her creativity. That it was unusual for someone to redecorate a house to the extent that she and Rivera did it. That constant repetition of her biography, how much more can we learn about that? We know the details of her life to a degree that exceeds what we know about so many other artists, but how much more can that tell us? Instead, what can particular bodies of work tell us about her intellect? She had an extraordinary education, as one of 35 female students at the National Preparatory School in a student body of 2,000. That in itself is a testament to her guts.

Frida Kahlo, Portrait of Luther Burbank, 1931. Museo Dolores Olmedo, Xochimilco, Mexico © 2015 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

WITW: What did you learn about Kahlo as you curated this exhibition?
AZ: What I learned is to understand much more deeply the conceptual basis of her work and the sources of her creativity. Kahlo was interested in expressing that hybridity was a positive thing, and that it strengthens people and it strengthens the world. One of the first paintings where Kahlo thematizes hybridity is a portrait of Luther Burbank (above). He was a U.S. horticulturist known for working with hybrids. She’d never met him, but she thematizes hybridity at a time when the Nazi party is on the rise, and socialist discourse says the intermixing of races is degenerative. Kahlo would have experienced that very intensely as a Mexican woman. Through this project I’ve been able to learn things about Frida Kahlo’s paintings that I would never had known if a plant specialist hadn’t pointed them out.

WITW: Frida Kahlo is “having a moment” right now. Why do you think we’re still so fascinated by her?
AZ: I think people are drawn to her because she lived a sensational life at a moment in the early 20th century that many people feel a connection to, and a disconnection from.  And I think people are drawn to her for very personal reasons, for her challenge of patriarchy, her physical exoticism, her disability, her gender bending. What attracts people to Kahlo is these very contemporary issues that are still relevant, and her work is complicated and interested. But, I hope they’ll realize there’s more to understand about Mexico in Kahlo’s work.

WITW: Tell us a bit about your background studying women, gender, and art in Mexico.
AZ: I identify as a feminist art historian. At the time I was in school, I was really struck by the fact that images of women are everywhere, particularly in post-revolutionary Mexican art, but no art historians were interested in doing a feminist critique of Mexican visual art and visual culture. That’s really been my career commitment, to bring a feminist lens to Mexican art and visual culture, and to both celebrate women who are making contributions, and also do a critical analysis of the objectification of women, as symbols of all that is indigenous, in ways that are very essentialized.

WITW: As we’ve gotten to know and recognize Frida Kahlo more, what do you think her legacy has become?
AZ: I’m glad people love Frida Kahlo, because she provides an entry point into Mexican culture. Frida Kahlo loved Mexico, and Mexican culture. And I believe her legacy, if I could identify what her legacy would be, is she made Mexican culture interesting. And she draws people in. I would like people to be drawn in by whatever draws them in. Her eyebrows, her hair, her autonomy, but I would like them to say, “what else do I need to know about Kahlo’s context, so I can understand that this painting isn’t just about a relationship or a love affair?” That’s my hope. I think she would be satisfied with that. My goal in doing this project is to draw people in, and then introduce them to something more complex.

Adriana Zavala, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of modern and contemporary Latin American art history and Director of Latino Studies at Tufts University. Zavala has curated several exhibitions and published widely on Mexican art. Her book Becoming Modern, Becoming Tradition: Women, Gender, and Representation in Mexican Art (Penn State University Press, 2010) was awarded the Arvey Prize by the Association for Latin American Art in 2011.

Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden Life will be on view at the New York Botanical Garden through November 1, 2015.