Frida Kahlo exhibit opens at the College of DuPage, and here's what not to miss
Back in 1978, when the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago held a major solo exhibition of Frida Kahlo's work, one newspaper critic wrote a dismissive review of the Mexican artist.
Alan Artner concluded Kahlo's art "will satisfy none but the most caterwauling feminist."
How times have changed.
A Kahlo retrospective that opened Saturday at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn celebrates her continuing, far-reaching influence.
"Frida Kahlo: Timeless" shows Kahlo as a daring artist, a strong-willed personality, a pioneer to people with disabilities and a Mexican cultural force.
"The thing that we're all drawn to in Frida Kahlo's story is her resiliency," exhibition curator Justin Witte said. "She overcame the restrictions of her body, of her time, of her gender, and she became the most recognizable, inspirational and important artist of the 20th century."
The exhibition is part historical biography, part gallery show. The latter begins with a Kahlo masterwork, "Self-Portrait with Small Monkey," in direct contrast with what she considered her first completed painting.
In her 1927 portrait of her friend Alicia Galant, Kahlo painted an elongated figure with a dark palette that draws comparisons to Renaissance artists.
Moving toward the second half of the college's Cleve Carney Museum of Art, viewers see Kahlo develop into a radical, taboo-breaking artist.
All 26 pieces, on loan from the Museo Dolores Olmedo in Mexico, represent the largest selection of Kahlo works seen in the Chicago area since the landmark exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art 40-plus years ago.
The Olmedo collection can travel out of Mexico only with a temporary export permit under national patrimony laws.
"The works need to return to Mexico, be exhibited in Mexico for some time, and then they can go out again," said Adriana Jaramillo, who joined the Olmedo museum in 2008 and handles the logistics of international exhibitions.
She called "The Broken Column," Kahlo's 1944 self-portrait, the "crown jewel" of the collection. "It's Frida Kahlo's Mona Lisa."
But also take special note, curators say, of some of her smaller-scale paintings, of how she infused Indigenous imagery into her works.
The "Timeless" exhibition covers the range of Kahlo's artistic output, and people will connect to different paintings for different reasons, said Diana Martinez, the director of the college's McAninch Arts Center.
"People who have overcome great adversity and pain will connect to certain paintings," Martinez said. "People who love Mexican art will see through the colors of her work and the spirit that she has in it."
One of the most moving works in the collection is "The Deceased Dimas Rosas," a 1937 painting that reflects the long history of postmortem portraiture in Mexico. Children who had died were often dressed as a saint or an angel, said Cesáreo Moreno, chief curator at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood.
"It was a way of keeping the memory of that child as part of the oral tradition of the family, of not forgetting them," Moreno said in a lecture leading up to the Kahlo exhibition.
In Kahlo's painting, the child is wearing a crown and lays on a petate, or woven mat, that was used in Indigenous communities to wrap newborns and bury the dead. Kahlo also painted flowers traditionally used in Day of the Dead celebrations.
She breaks with tradition by painting the figure vertically, directing the viewer to the child's slightly open eyes.
"Like in a lot of Frida's work, she doesn't shy away from kind of brutal realities of life," Witte said.
On the surface, Kahlo's painting of a baby chick looks unlike any of her other works in the Olmedo collection.
It's not as unsettling an image as "Henry Ford Hospital," the depiction of her miscarriage.
Instead, the 1945 painting shows a sweet, little bird, dwarfed by a bouquet of blue and purple flowers. But the plants are covered in insects and webs in what may be another reference to the cycle of life and death.
It takes on a deeper meaning when Jaramillo tells the story behind the painting.
As Jaramillo recounts it: Kahlo and her husband, muralist Diego Rivera, were staying at Casa Azul, the home they shared in Coyoacan, south of Mexico City. He goes to the market and buys her a little chick.
Kahlo loves animals and painted them in her self-portraits -- of the 143 paintings she created, 55 feature her animal companions, according to David Ouellette, a College of DuPage art history professor.
Kahlo tries to take care of the chick, feeding it, keeping it warm. But the next day the bird died.
"She woke up and she found it dead, and she wrote to a friend of hers because there's a letter that says, 'not even a little chick I can keep alive,'" Jaramillo said.
Kahlo was unable to have children because of devastating injuries from a bus crash in 1925 when she was 18. Her pelvis was fractured. A steel rod pierced her body. Her spinal column was broken in three places.
'The Broken Column'
Kahlo lays bare her physical and emotional pain in one of her most acclaimed works. Of all the nails piercing her body, she placed the largest near her heart. And she's staring directly at the viewer with tears on her face.
"But in her look, you have this sadness, but she's strong and stoic," Jaramillo said. "She's always like saying, 'Here I am. Look at me.'"
Frida Kahlo: TimelessABOUT THIS SERIES: This is one in an occasional series of stories about the Frida Kahlo exhibition presented by the Cleve Carney Museum of Art and the McAninch Arts Center at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn.
The exhibition: June 5 through Sept. 6, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays-Wednesdays and Fridays-Sundays, and 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Thursdays.
Ticket prices and more info: Frida2021.org, (630) 942-4000
COVID-19 precautions: Masks required; temperature checked at main entrance; social distancing protocols in place. The exhibit is designed for one-way traffic; advanced ticketing is required, and tickets are scanned touchless.