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Brussels Celebrates Mexico's Bicentennial with Frida Kahlo Exhibition
Frida Kahlo, "El camión" (The Bus), 1929. ©Colección Museo Dolores Olmedo, Xochimilco, México.

BRUSSELS.- Frida Kahlo y su mundo nineteen paintings, one etching and six drawings from Frida Kahlo, all from the Museo Dolores Olmedo, illustrate life and work of this exceptional artist.

Frida Kahlo y su mundo
Frida Kahlo’s disconcerting gaze stares out from the Museo Olmedo collection, the world’s largest (private) collection of her work. 19 paintings, an etching, six drawings, and a number of photographs bear witness to her brilliant contribution to the symbolist and surrealist movements. And to her life, a hard one from the outset. A tragic bus accident at just 17 led to a series of operations throughout her life, at a time when medicine was just feeling its way. Several miscarriages and a turbulent married life with Diego Rivera, the great painter of the Revolution, contributed to her works’ power and extraordinary beauty.

Frida's unfathomable gaze
Look at those eyes! You and I are incapable of painting eyes like that." With his usual brilliance, Picasso immediately identified the core of the enigma of Frida Kahlo (Coyoacán, Mexico, 1907–1954). Two eyes of unfathomable black, reproduced in 55 self-portraits, one third of her works, which leave the viewer stunned. A series of reflections with suggestions of a cry for help as well as of defiance, of both a lust for life and a death wish. They set the tone of the 19 canvasses, 6 drawings, and the etching that make up the outstanding collection of Eduardo Morillo Safa, a neighbour and friend of Frida Kahlo, which was acquired by Dolores Olmedo at the request of Diego Rivera, the artist's husband.

They present a summary of her artistic career, from one of her earliest paintings, the Portrait of Alicia Galante (1927), with its alabaster features that one might take to be the work of Modigliani, to the emblematic Self-portrait with Monkey (1945). From the freshness of a newly-discovered talent – Diego Rivera straight away recognised "a vital sensuality further enriched by a pitiless, though sensitive, power of observation" – to the brusque expression of a hypersensitive sincerity. Frida, in traditional costume, seems here to belong to the animal kingdom that surrounds her, the little monkey that Diego gave her embracing her with his paws alongside the xoloitzcuintle, the hairless dog that is emblematic of Mexico 's Nahuatl past, and a hunched pagan idol. And always that piercing gaze turned towards the spectator, feigning indifference.

Frida Kahlo kept herself under constant observation, ever since the tragic bus accident in 1925 that left her – with a broken spine, pelvis, and ribs – bedridden in a corset. A tragedy that underlay her painting and was a recurring theme in her works, as in the terrible Broken Column of 1944. For nine months, a mirror placed over her bed reflected back the image of her own suffering.

She seems to have learned much from her father, a German immigrant who was a professional photographer and who passed on to her his sense of composition and skill in retouching. Some have also seen in all this the obsessive expression of a narcissism permanently wounded by a mother – of mixed race, herself a painter with links to the surrealist movement – who rejected her at an early age. My Nurse and I (1937) offers a terrifying vision of this: we see Frida Kahlo, with a fixed stare and the body of a baby, in the arms of a nurse with skin like volcanic rock and the face of an idol. Drops of mother's milk stand out on her voluptuous breasts, but do not penetrate the artist's inert lips. At the bottom of the painting is a scroll for a message like those of the ex-votos that appear on a wall of her Casa Azul (Blue House) in Coyoacán, but no prayer is written on it. It is as if it were Without Hope – the title, in fact, of another painting from 1945, in which she weeps, confined to bed, a funnel in her mouth through which are being stuffed a number of dead animals, fish, etc.

In a recent work the psychoanalyst Salomon Grimberg has a field day with this theme, bringing together previously unpublished confessions made by the artist to her psychologist friend Olga Campos and a psychological evaluation of her carried out in 1950. Tests of Frida Kahlo's personality, he observes, suggest dysthymia (chronic agitation) with, overlaid, recurrent bouts of severe depression and of chronic pain syndrome and with major and profound damage in a narcissistic personality. The struggle within her, he believes, between her sense of greatness and her lack of self-esteem, had the effect of seriously weakening her, so that she became increasingly dependent on others to try to shore up that wavering self-esteem. In Grimberg's opinion, this struggle, from which she could only have found a way out by tackling it from inside, never came to an end. Despite the wealth of her interior world and of that around her, Kahlo, he believes, lived without coming to terms with her extreme dependence, condemned to see others as untrustworthy, just as she judged herself to be incomplete.

Be that as it may, the extraordinary power of the work resists interpretative patterns of all kinds, whether those of in-depth psychology or those based on the various events that bruised her throughout her life. Diego's infidelities, including with Frida's own sister, her miscarriages, her terrifying operations, her various affairs (including one with Trotsky), and her liberated sexuality all lend themselves, it is true, to conjecture. In The Circle a woman's body is disintegrating; Henry Ford Hospital and Frida and the Abortion (1932) clinically present her inability to have children. In one work, the end of Diego's love shows through in the background in those cold Detroit factories where the famous muralist worked to commission; in the other, her creative talent seems to substitute for the dead foetus in the form of a third arm that ends in a womb-shaped palette. Her yearning for motherhood is equally present in the opulent forms of the mixed-race Eva Frederick and in the empathic gaze of Doña Rosita Morillo, her patron's mother. But her work is not that easily penetrated. With its brightly-coloured brushstrokes, it resists – as did the artist herself when André Breton wanted to number her among the surrealists. "Those artistic imbeciles in Paris ," she remarked. "They took me for a surrealist. It's not true. I have never painted a dream. What I depicted was my reality."

The Mask (1945), finally, refers all commentators to the unfathomable ambiguity of the human condition. And of Frida, the artist. Her last words: "I hope the exit will be joyful…and I hope never to return"; her last painting: Viva la vida.

The exhibition runs from January 16 through April 18, 2010 at the Centre for Fine Arts.

Brussels | Frida Kahlo | Museo Dolores Olmedo | Centre for Fine Arts |

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