It’s easy to get the impression that, for a time, Frida Kahlo was the most photographed person in Mexico. Balancing the work of Kahlo, her husband Diego Rivera and their contemporaries with photographs of the artists themselves, the Norton Museum’s astounding “Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican Modernism from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection” presents its most famous subject both formally and informally, at rest and at work, as a fashion plate and a revolutionary, in somber reflection and in spirited play. We even see her dead, stricken at 47 from a probable pulmonary embolism, her husband Rivera looking down at her coffin.
Kahlo likely would have approved of these postmortem images being immortalized for history. As one series of astonishing works in this exhibition reveals, she explored even the darkest corners of her life in her work, creating lithographs inspired by her own miscarriage.
But the beauty of this blockbuster exhibition is actually how little it lingers on the cinematic tempests of Kahlo’s life—the health impacts, from polio to a car accident, that she endured for her entire life, the sturm and drang of her relationship with Rivera—that formed the backbone of Julie Taymor’s 2002 biopic of the artist. “Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican Modernism” is about their roles in creating a Mexico for the people and an artistic canon for the ages.
With 150-plus pieces drawn from the collection of Jacques and Natasha Gelman, foremost collectors of contemporary post-revolutionary Mexican art, the exhibition showcases more than the key figures in its title: Nine other artists are on display as well, in works from portraiture to cubism to abstract expressionism, that capture their collective zeitgeist.
But as its title suggests, its two most famous exports are the primary reason for its existence, and “Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican Modernism” reveals the couple’s dual strengths in looking inward, through some of the most recognizable self-portraits in all of 20th century art, and outward, to a changing Mexico and their role in it. Comprising an entire gallery wall, Rivera’s “In the Arsenal” is an overwhelming work of populist rebellion, a mural in which Kahlo is presented front and center, arming her fellow countrymen in a proletarian uprising.
Kahlo and Rivera’s inextricability in each other’s work is a through-line of the exhibit: Clearly, they helped inspire some of their most audacious masterpieces. In Kahlo’s mystical layer cake of a painting “The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth, Myself, Diego and Senor Xolotl,” the artist is depicted cradling an infant Rivera, the baby sporting a third eye. Desert flora blooms around them, and theirs is one of many embraces within embraces culminating in a hug of cosmic proportions. It’s a painting that captures, more than any I’ve ever seen, how it feels to listen to the consciousness-expanding jazz of Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders.
While the exhibition is not a complete survey, it includes many of the artists’ most iconic works, shown in their vivid splendor. Kahlo’s “Self-portrait With Monkeys” finds her in communion with four of her simian pets, a bird of paradise punctuating the painting with a burst of orange and blue. Rivera’s outsized respect for the natural world comes across in marvelously disproportioned works such as “Calla Lily Vendor,” with the blooming flowers dwarfing the little girls collecting them, and “Sunflowers,” with the enormity of the title subjects towering over a kids’ play date.
Part of the genius of both artists was their ability to combine surrealistic perspectives with a talent for figurative realism, enhancing both the magical and the mundane. In Kahlo’s most serious portraits, of both herself and Rivera, every hair is meticulously in place, every wrinkle and mole and neck bone shown with photorealistic precision. And yet it offers a veritable window into the masters’ souls. Even when Kahlo doesn’t draw a third eye on her husband’s forehead, we know it’s there.
“Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican Modernism” runs through Feb. 6 at Norton Museum of Art, 1450 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach. Tickets run $22-$25. Proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours is required to enter, and masks are required on premises. Call 561/832-5196 or visit norton.org.