You are in the Utah Museum of Fine Arts and, as you move through the impeccably lit space of the gallery in question, they follow you. It is a dance, a pas de deux upon richly polished hardwood. They are a repository of closely guarded infatuations — of thirsts accustomed to being quenched. Unnamed passions hang in the air. There is complexity, but no smile, at least not upon the lips. Too much depth for that.
They are the eyes of Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Caldern and they just sit there doing their thing beneath the fabled "unibrow." They have seen beyond the surface& and into the soul& of things. There is a knowing, and with it, an intimidation of sorts. They have been there and done that and, in the doing, acquired a keenness of perception.
Behind the dark eyes are ascertainable traces of the rebellious Mexico City tomboy who would evolve into the world-renown artist and icon, Frida Kahlo. She always saw herself as a child of modern Mexico – going so far as to fudge on her birth year — giving it as 1910 so as to coincide with the outbreak of the revolution.
Frida’s was a journey both long and arduous in transit, but along the way, quite the ride. There was the bus accident when she was 18 that broke collarbone, ribs, pelvis, and foot — the latter, actually dislocated and crushed. There was also her right leg (fractured in 11 places) and her spinal column (broken in three). A metal handrail violated much of what was left.
But, rather than die, she arrived home encased in a full body cast and, with the help of a mirror and a specially rigged easel, took up painting her lifelong subject: herself. A miraculous recovery had her walking again but cycles of relapse throughout her life brought further hospitalization and surgery. Both pain and triumph gaze out from her eyes.
Once out and about, she began to run with a bohemian group of artists that included Mexico’s larger-than-life muralist Diego Rivera. It was love at first fight. Theirs would be a marriage populated by mutual devotion, wide-ranging infidelities, allegiance to communism and a deep reverence for the indigenous cultures of their homeland.
Two years into her union with Diego, Frida would meet famed portrait photographer Nickolas Muray. Their affair was passionate and lasted, on and off, for over a decade. She who had gained relative fame for painting self-portraits now began posing for Muray’s shuttered lens. The results, currently on display at the UMFA, are breathtaking. Especially, those eyes.
Although much less surrealistic in motive than Kahlo’s work, the art of Muray is no less striking. His color imaging, when taken in context with the photographic arts of the 1930s, is groundbreaking. Of course, the subject matter, Frida in traditional dress with cultured hair and makeup, doesn’t hurt his cause much, either.
The exhibition, titled "Her spirit is stranger than the angels: Frida Kahlo through the Lens of Nickolas Muray" runs through May 14 and if you pick your spot and are as lucky as some, you might have the run of the joint, have Frida all to yourself. A caveat: The intoxication level is rather high if you’re susceptible to such seductions.
Although texts accompanying the exhibit attempt to give the impression that Frida’s covetous gaze is driven by her feelings for her "Nick," as you wander about the gallery, the hair on the back of your neck might argue the point. Hers is a spirit that easily survives reproduction.
Of course, also entered into evidence are a couple of letters she wrote Muray. In the manner that rants can also be love letters, she espouses her love for both Diego and Nick while totally going off on the French in general and surrealist poet, essayist, critic and editor Andr Breton in particular. She would come away with a pair of earrings from Picasso on this trip.
And it’s not just because she was beautiful and loved tequila and dirty jokes that so enthralls the pilgrim. There is an overall enchantment about the life, the art, and, of course, those eyes and the hurt they hold and the way they look out at her lover as he composes her portraits — 24 of which are included in the exhibit. Sliding across the floor from one image to another, you begin to get a sense of the relationships between the artists and the man and the woman and each of them with their own inner selves. The first time around is a slow, soft adagio dance as an unconscious mode of movement.
The next turn around the hall is more reactive. The hair, the clothes, the cultural icons she holds, the objects resting on the mantle in the background, the jewelry, the entire pre-Columbian motif, and her overall presentation of herself as indigenous Tehuana, send you back and forth from one Frida to another in a somewhat composed, yet urgent, ballet folklorico.
One moment you are a housemate in her Casa Azul, while in the next you are hanging with her and Diego and various friends and family all about the landscape. Lending aura to the ambiance are pieces from the UMFA’s own collection of pre-Columbian artifacts many not unlike those surrounding Frida in the portraits. You keep returning to the eyes, however. There is a nurturing quality. These are the eyes of a healer, they seem to say. But there is also vast potential to rend asunder, to see through pretense, to sort out the bogus from the bona fide. But they are so inviting. You can sense why the men and women of her circle found them fascinating, mysterious and so attractive.
It’s an interesting story how these prints came to be and how the negatives were discovered crammed in suitcases in a shed down in Moab and how they end up adorning the gallery walls at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. But that’s a narrative for another time. It can be fathomed, however, by allowing oneself to fall endlessly into the recesses of the eyes of Frida Kahlo. In such spaces, truths are told.
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