MSU Broad exhibit shows a different side of Frida Kahlo

Signs of life — and art

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Light boxes glow like rows of votive candles in a far corner of a first-floor gallery at MSU’s Broad Art Museum. On each screen, trembling lines track the heart rhythm, body warmth and breath of one the 20th century’s most recognizable figures, Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

Kahlo’s grandniece, artist and photographer Cristina Kahlo, remembers how it felt to view these clinical records, buried in microfilm cabinets in a Mexico City hospital for decades. Etched in light on the walls of the Broad, they blur the line between art and life, just as Frida Kahlo did.

“I wanted viewers to have the same sensation I had, like a darkroom, looking at these old documents,” Cristina Kahlo said.

“Kahlo Without Borders” is not an art show, although it includes five original drawings, one of them a 1932 self-portrait drawn at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit after the artist suffered a miscarriage.

Most of the exhibit consists of clinical records, letters and photographs documenting Kahlo’s 32 surgeries and numerous hospital stays. The clinical records have not been seen publicly until now. The exhibit was co-curated by Broad Museum director Monica Ramirez-Montagut, Cristina Kahlo and Javier Roque Vázquez Juarez, a guest curator.

This is not the Frida Kahlo you see on pillows, mugs and handbags, framed by flowers, lace and pithy life lessons.

“We’ve latched onto the images of Frida at her absolute best,” Ramirez-Montagut said. “I think it’s time to balance that narrative, because we are all human and we all have our ups and downs.”

If that sounds like a depressing afternoon at the museum, you are underestimating Frida Kahlo’s indomitable life force. In or out of the hospital, Frida is always Frida. In the photographs and letters on display at the Broad exhibit, we see her blowing kisses to her doctors, turning her hospital room into a studio, smoking with nurses, painting in bed on a special easel, strategizing the fight against fascism in Spain, rocking that famous red lipstick and hair ribbon, and generally Frida-fying the horrible medical hand life dealt her.

“Frida has become a kind of Hollywood icon, an image for products,” Ramirez-Montagut said. “The idea of this exhibit was to look at her more as a human, and to see why her work still speaks to us so deeply.”

One of the most arresting images in the exhibit is a photograph by Cristina Kahlo of the prosthesis Frida Kahlo wore when her right leg was amputated in 1953. Fitted with a wedge-heeled, kick-ass crimson boot laced up to the knee, the stylish prosthesis makes your heart sink and rally at the same time.

“The control she had, and how she presented herself, resonates with a lot of us,” Ramirez-Montagut said. “She was unapologetically who she was. She really wanted to milk life for all it was worth while she had the chance.”

Skeleton key

Why enshrine medical records in an art museum? If there ever was an artist whose medical history provides a skeleton key to her art, it’s Frida Kahlo.

When Cristina Kahlo was a young girl, her father showed her a book of paintings by her great aunt.

“I was scared of them,” Cristina Kahlo recalled. “It was a shock for me. They were strong images, and I didn’t like them.”

Shock and trauma are at the very root of Kahlo’s art. In “The Accident,” a 1926 sketch on view at the Broad, an 18-year-old Frida is flat on her back, covered in bandages. A collision between a tram and a bus in 1925 left her severely injured. In the drawing, the careening vehicles and mangled bodies hover over her prone figure like a persistent nightmare.

Before the accident, Kahlo had only taken a few drawing lessons. She started painting in earnest during her convalescence at Red Cross Hospital.

For the rest of her life, she offered up her pain and suffering on canvas, in part realistic, part symbolic language peculiar to herself.

The more Cristina Kahlo learned about her great aunt’s life, the more she learned about how to decipher the “scary” images that once shocked her.

“You can’t separate her art and her life,” Kahlo said. “They go together.”

In Kahlo’s famous 1944 painting “The Broken Column,” the artist’s exposed spine is depicted as a cracking architectural column. You can see right through her torso, which is barely held together by metal stays. A photograph by Cristina Kahlo at the Broad shows one of the painful corsets Kahlo had to wear between surgeries.

“She has done something I cannot find in any other artist, both as a person as an artist,” Kahlo said. “She was a pioneer in the use of personal image, of her body, in her art.”

In the 1932 painting “Henry Ford Hospital,” also known as “The Flying Bed,” the artist lies naked on a bloodstained hospital bed after suffering a miscarriage. The bed hovers in front of an industrial Detroit skyline. Six symbolic objects, including a fetus and a snail, are tethered to her navel.

“Henry Ford Hospital” is one of 25 Kahlo works housed in Mexico City’s Dolores Olmedo Museum, where Monica Ramirez-Montagut first encountered Frida Kahlo’s art as young girl. Growing up in Mexico City, Ramirez-Montagut spent many long days soaking up the city’s ancient and modern wonders.

“That’s what we did on weekends all the time — we went to museums,” she said. “That’s why I work in museums now.”

At the Olmedo Museum, Ramirez-Montagut absorbed Kahlo’s boldly direct yet mysterious visual language. The museum is also home to over 140 works by Kahlo’s famous husband, muralist Diego Rivera.

“I saw these beautiful self-portraits by Frida,” Ramirez-Montagut recalled. “I remember one in particular, of Frida, thinking about Diego, with Diego painted on her forehead. I remember having a moment with that painting. You can see that she’s looking inward, and I was fascinated at how you can show that with a painting.”

National treasures

The seeds for the Broad exhibit were sown a few years ago, in Mexico City, when Cristina Kahlo chanced to meet Mary Carmen Amigo, a doctor at the Centro Médico ABC, where Frida Kahlo stayed many times.

To Kahlo’s surprise, Dr. Amigo told her Frida’s clinical files were still at the hospital, in storage. They set a date for Kahlo to visit the hospital and photograph the files.

“It was an amazing day,” Kahlo said. “The people who worked there were really touched. They wanted to see what they had kept for so many years. They hugged me, and a woman was crying because she was such a Frida fan.”

She came back a few days later, with a professional camera and a tripod, to capture the images seen at the Broad exhibit.

“It was really emotional for me to see these records, because they made her life so real, with the writing of the doctors and nurses,” she said.

Some months later, Kahlo told Ramirez-Montagut she was looking for a way to present the files to the public.

Ramirez-Montagut’s early encounters with Kahlo’s art were never far from her mind as she went on to become an architect, curator and museum director.

“It’s always been my dream to do an exhibition on Frida Kahlo,” she said.

But that’s a tall order, even for the MSU Broad Museum’s third director in its 10-year history. Frida Kahlo’s works are considered national treasures in Mexico. They are in continuous demand from museums around the world and command loan fees that make them prohibitive to all but the biggest institutions.

“The level of security measures we had to comply with to bring five original works was considerable,” Ramirez-Montagut said. A courier had to accompany the drawings at all times, and the gallery’s temperature and humidity are kept under strict control. The Broad even had to obtain the Mexican government’s approval for City Pulse to reproduce Kahlo’s Henry Ford Hospital self-portrait on these pages.

It so happens that the owner of the drawings in the Broad exhibit is Juan Coronel Rivera, grandson of Diego Rivera — and a friend of Cristina Kahlo since they were in middle school. The two even ran a gallery together.

“That’s funny, because at some point, Frida’s family and Diego’s family did not get along, but Cristina and Juan are tight friends,” Ramirez-Montagut said.

It was a coup for the Broad to borrow the drawings, but they are not showstoppers. They are there to serve a specific purpose.

“While a survey of Frida’s work would be impossible for us to pull off, at least for now, we can certainly go in depth into one aspect and further the scholarship on Frida,” Ramirez-Montagut said.

The exhibit stretches beyond dry clinical records to connect the dots between Frida Kahlo’s life and art in surprising ways. A series of photographs by Cristina Kahlo of Frida Kahlo’s hospital gowns, daubed with paint, double as historical documents and works of art in themselves.

“You can match the photographs with her paintings and the gowns with the colors,” Cristina Kahlo said.

Kahlo’s doctors and nurses are a strong presence throughout the exhibit.

“You can read about the doctors in Frida Kahlo’s life, but you see very few images of them,” Cristina Kahlo said. “If you’ve had surgery in your life, you know the most important people is your doctor. You take the hand of the doctor and say, ‘My life is in your hands.’”

In a 1951 painting, “Self-portrait with Dr. Juan Farill,” Kahlo is shown in a wheelchair, working on a portrait of her doctor, using her own heart as a palette. A photograph at the Broad shows her working on the painting.

There is also a postcard from New York, dated Nov. 2, 1940, addressed to her “querido doctorcito” (“dear little doctor”) Leo Eloesser, with a bold, lipsticky kiss.

In a letter to Dr. Eloesser in June 1944, she describes the “corset” doctors ordered for her as “hell to wear.”

“I write to you from my bed because I am still ‘screwed up’ in the spine,” Kahlo writes. “I am desperate because it seems nothing makes my spine condition better.” She asks the traveling Dr. Eloesser to him to visit her and “explain to me what type of bullshit I have and alleviate it, or if this is going to do me away.”

Fire and frailty

Despite her repeated, prolonged hospital stays, a series of striking photos at the Broad exhibit show Frida Kahlo carrying on with her vibrant life and art, as only she could.

“She personalized her hospital room surroundings with paints, pencils, books and, always, her cigarettes,” Cristina Kahlo said.

The photos also reveal quaint bygone medical practices like operating rooms with open windows.

“That’s another interesting part of this story — the story of medicine,” Cristina Kahlo said. “She’s lying on the bed after surgery, smoking with a nurse.”

The letters on view at the exhibit open a fascinating window into the everyday concerns, and larger causes, that filled Kahlo’s and Rivera’s lives.

A letter to Dr. Leo Eloesser dated January 5, 1937, finds Kahlo in the hospital, not for her own sake, but to support Rivera, who was fighting a kidney inflammation. Rivera’s illness came at a bad time, just after he and Kahlo had persuaded the Mexican government to let them host Soviet revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky and his wife, Natalya Sedova, at their home in Mexico City. (Kahlo ended up meeting their famous guests at the dock by herself; later that year, she would have an affair with Trotsky.)

In the letter, Kahlo brushes her own concerns aside to thank Eloesser for his contributions to Spanish anti-Fascists and asks him to persuade his friends to help the cause. “I wish I could write you a longer letter, sharing personal things about me and Diego, but you can’t imagine how little time I have,” she writes. “I promise that as soon as I can, and when things calm down, I will write a letter the size of The New York Times.”

For a horrifying glimpse at the suffering Kahlo endured in later life, visitors to the Broad exhibit can read a letter in the ornate, old-school hand of Kahlo’s mother, Matilde, addressed to Dr. Eloesser in April 1950.

After more than a week of daily fevers, vomiting and pain in the spine, Matilde noticed a foul smell coming from Frida’s back.

“They fixated her vertebrae with bones from who-knows-who, and the first 11 days were horrendous,” she writes.  The doctors found an infected abscess and operated again, setting off another round of pain, fever and intestinal paralysis. After the surgery, the stitches turned black, Matilde reported a “dead dog smell” and told Eloesser more surgery might be needed. “I think the bone did not fix to the vertebrae and everything is infected,” she laments. “Seeing her suffer like this, I wish I could give her my life.”

The clinical eye of “Kahlo Without Borders” might strike some visitors as morbid and voyeuristic, if any artist but Frida Kahlo was the subject. But with Kahlo at the center of attention, every new piece of information seems to confirm, or illuminate, the artist’s own lifelong commitment to frank self-revelation.

A stunning photograph, blown up to wall size, gives visitors the feeling of dropping in on a privileged, intimate moment in 1953, as Kahlo recovers from the amputation of her leg.

“She brought a photographer to the hospital to take this photograph, which we have in the exhibition, of Frida looking frail and deteriorating,” Ramirez-Montagut said.

Her new prosthesis, complete with boot, is clearly visible. As always, Kahlo exudes off-the-chart life force, but there is a haunted look on her face betrays the deep depression she would suffer at this time in her life.

“This is Frida, documenting herself, at her best and at her worst,” Ramirez-Montagut said.

Beyond FridaFest

“I’ve been thinking a lot about why Frida Kahlo gets into the heart of the people,” Cristina Kahlo said. “It’s really interesting.”

It’s strange turn of events, to say the least, that the artist whose bloody self-portraits scared Cristina Kahlo as a little girl — the Communist diehard who wooed Trotsky and left a portrait of Joseph Stalin unfinished at her death — went on in the 21st century to become the a ubiquitous face on coffee mugs, flip-flops and handbags, a U.S. postage stamp and the subject of several children’s books, like “Frida Kahlo and her Animalitos.”

“Now you see lots of little girls who love Frida Kahlo,” Cristina Kahlo marveled. “There is a FridaFest in Edinburg, Texas, where you find little girls and old women dressed up as Frida Kahlo.”

Uncompromising and “scary” as she might be, her life and art leave many diverse groups of people many different entry points. A real-life lesson in how to flourish under conditions of isolation, illness and loss may not come amiss in 2022.

“Two years into the pandemic, it’s important to recognize that Frida resorted to art, not only for self-expression, but for survival,” Ramirez-Montagut said. “That’s what she did in the hours and hours and hours she spent in the hospital.”

Cristina Kahlo boiled the enduring allure of Frida Kahlo down to a simple idea.

“If you show your own life to someone else, they will become involved,” she said. “If she’s angry with Diego Rivera, or when she’s having surgery, or whatever it is, she’s telling you parts of her life. If you are not faithful to your husband, or if your husband has been unfaithful to you, you will relate to her. It’s like a friend. If I start to talk to you about my personal life, you will feel more involved with me, and talk to me about your life.”

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