By Nancy McKeon
ONE MIGHT THINK that the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo was absorbed by her own image: More than a third of her 143 paintings are, after all, self-portraits. But, as she explained more than once, she painted herself because that image in the mirror—at times suspended over a sickbed—was the thing she knew best. And she used it for her own purposes: to celebrate in costume the indigenous Mexican culture that was always under threat of being subsumed by the European ascendancy and to express, beneath a stoic visage, the extreme pain (from polio, a fractured pelvis, various spinal surgeries, crushed bones and a leg amputation) that had plagued her short life (she died at age 47).
So a double exhibition at the Frick Pittsburgh of photographs of Kahlo in the fullness of her life—among friends and lovers, at the theater, even just drinking beer (or something) from a bottle—shows us the artist in a very different way. Less distilled, more a part of the world around her.
The confluence of two exhibits at the same time was a happy accident, or rather an opportunity seized. “Frida Kahlo—An Intimate Portrait: The Photographic Albums” was in the planning pre-pandemic and, says Melanie Groves, manager of exhibitions for the museums, seemed like “something that could be achieved” even under Covid restraints. The Nickolas Muray exhibition, “Frida Kahlo Through the Lens of Nickolas Muray,” was meant to be on view in Italy at this time; it became available because of Covid travel restraints, and the Frick Pittsburgh became an alternative venue for it. They add a vivid layer to the story, Groves adds, with the Hungarian-American photographer Muray being an admirer and sometime lover of Kahlo’s.
The albums in the “Photographic Albums” portion of the museum’s offerings are, in fact, Kahlo’s own albums filled with photographic memories. The albums were collected, and shared here, by the Cuban-American New York interior designer Vicente Wolf.
One hundred fifteen images in the Frick Pittsburgh’s “Intimate Portrait” exhibit are taken from Frida Kahlo’s own photo albums, featuring pictures taken by friends and family and professional photographers including her father, the German-born Guillermo Kahlo.
LEFT: Frida Kahlo with guitar, no date. / The Vicente Wolf Collection.
RIGHT: Frida Kahlo sitting on her bed at La Casa Azul, the Blue House, the home she shared with famed muralist Diego Rivera and now the Frida Kahlo Museum, in Coyoacán, Mexico City, circa 1949. / The Vicente Wolf Collection. Print photographed by Peter Riesett, courtesy of Pointed Leaf Press.
Frida Kahlo and the Mexican muralist and engraver Julio Castellanos, no date. Castellanos painted murals for public schools in Mexico and at the same time exhibited art both in galleries and state institutions. In 1946, he and Frida Kahlo received awards from the Ministry of Public Education. / The Vicente Wolf Collection.
Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, circa 1929, photographed by Tina Modotti. Rivera, some 20 years older than Frida Kahlo, recognized her as the true artist in the family. The pair were married, split, then remarried, though they continued to carry on various liaisons during their marriage. / The Vicente Wolf Collection.
Frida Kahlo with Nickolas Muray in her studio, Coyoacán, 1941. The Hungarian-American fashion and commercial photographer was a Frida fan and her sometime lover. / © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives.
Hungarian-American photographer Nickolas Muray was romantically involved with the Mexican artist and also inspired by her serene-seeming beauty. He photographed “Frida Kahlo on White Bench, New York” in 1939. / © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives.
The Frick Pittsburgh, 7227 Reynolds Street, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The museum has resumed regular operating hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 10am to 5pm. Admission fees, which grant entrance to both exhibitions, are: $15 for adult non-members; $13 for seniors/students/military; $8 for youth 6-16. Children 5 and under, free. Members of The Frick Pittsburgh, free. Timed tickets are required for entry to the exhibition and will be available for reservation three days in advance of the visit date. Tickets may be purchased online at TheFrickPittsburgh.org/tickets, or by calling 412-371-0600.
Frida Kahlo—An Intimate Portrait: The Photographic Albums, through May 30, 2021.
Frida Kahlo: Through the Lens of Nickolas Muray, through May 9, 2021.