Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera offer taste of Mexican modernism at Pallant House

By Mark Sheerin | 08 July 2011
A colourful painting of fruit with an owl in the foreground
Kahlo, The Bride Who Becomes Frightened When She Sees Life Opened (1943)
© all rights reserved
Exhibition: Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera from the Gelman Collection, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, July 9 – October 2 2011

Frida Kahlo, arguably the most famous female artist of the 20th century, has never been shown in the UK alongside her husband, Diego Rivera. In some parts of the world, Rivera is even better known, so this show was always going to have its work cut out.

In her paintings, Kahlo comes across as a solitary figure. Many of her self portraits here wear a look of imperious self-containment. The spider monkeys which clamber over her in the Self Portrait with Monkeys seem to compound her removal from the world. And even the way she gazes back at lover Nicholas Murray in his iconic colour photographs might be called magisterial.

A colour photo of Frida Kahlo sitting on a white bench
Nicholas Murray, Frida on White Bench (1938)
© all rights reserved
But as demonstrated here, this was loneliness in a crowd. Socialist mural painter Rivera loved women as much as he loved the people. Kahlo's own lovers, along with Murray, included the exiled Trotsky.

Friends are much in evidence, and the show includes a drawing she made as a gift for Josep Bartoli and photos by Manuel and Lola Álvarez Bravo (Lola gave Kahlo her first solo show in Mexico).

The complications of these private lives are common knowledge. But at Pallant House this has been boiled down to three medium sized rooms in which biographical context is as much a feature as the work.

Frames on the wall also feature a letter by Kahlo, a diary page, a meditative drawing which deals with her miscarriage, a collage about her ill health and a sketch from a hotel room window on a trip to New York. The entrance is lined with vintage photographs by her father Guillermo.

A painting of a woman in a white dress surrounded by lilies
Rivera, Portrait of Natasha Gelman (1943)© all rights reserved
But the paintings are no mere colour plates in the pages of a biography. No book could contain the bursting floral displays in the grandest pieces by Rivera. In Portrait of Natasha Gelman, the collector looks like a starlet and an abundance of lilies are arranged to look anything but pure.

Kahlo's contributions may be smaller, but they are no less exhuberant. Exotic fruit fills the entire plane in The Bride Who Becomes Frightened When she Sees Life Opened.

These watermelon, pineapple, platanos and coconut would make a plate of apples by Cezanne look impoverished. And the tiny doll and mysterious owl offer magical realist touches, much less academic than many flights of surrealist imagination seem to be.

Some viewers may perhaps be left wanting more of this sort of thing. The most interesting pieces in this show are not about Frida or Diego, but about Mexico. This show is a tantalising glimpse of the world's greatest collection of that country's modernist and contemporary art.

It is concentrated and potent; it will no doubt please Kahlo fans; but it also makes clear there is much more to be seen. Marital and extra marital relations would not be of the slightest concern if that wasn't the case.

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