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A symbol of her nation – Frida in photos

SANTA FE – The cult of Mexican painter and cultural icon Frida Kahlo comes to town starting Saturday with the opening of “Mirror Mirror, Photographs of Frida Kahlo” at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Arts.

The exhibition of 64 black-and-white images is accompanied by something more in the Kahlo palette, a color photo exhibition by Santa Fe photographer William Frej of Kahlo’s home, Casa Azul, now a museum on a leafy street in Coyocán, a suburb of Mexico City.

The black-and-white photos reveal a timeline of Kahlo’s chaotic, pain-filled life from her birth in 1907 to her death in 1954, as both an artist and one of the most photographed women of her generation.

“It is a unique opportunity to get behind the myth of this legendary Frida Kahlo because these photographs trace her from her teenage years through her life, her celebrity and finally her being laid out in state,” said guest curator Penelope Hunter-Stiebel.

“You really go through her life, seeing her in the most extraordinary ways through the lenses of all these different photographers, which she very much cultivated,” said Hunter-Stiebel.

Hunter-Stiebel, who lives in Santa Fe, is a former associate curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and also worked as a consulting curator at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon.

She said Kahlo always recognized the power of photography, in part because her father was a professional photographer. She worked with him in the darkroom.

“She really understood what could be done through the camera and the lens. And she used it, she used the camera in the hands of other people to define her own image, which was the subject of her own works of art.”

Photographers who captured the icon included Lola and Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Imogen Cunningham, Carl Van Vechten and Nickolas Muray.

Nickolas Muray’s photo “Frida Kahlo on White Bench, New York.”

It’s hard to underestimate the significance Khalo had, and has, as her easily recognizable image adorns shopping bags, T-shirts and other items on both sides of the Rio Grande and around the world.

“In Mexico, she is considered a symbol of the nation and that is something she was very much involved in,” said Hunter-Stiebel. “In her time in the 1920s and ’30s, the Mexican nationhood was something really important.

“Mexico was just emerging from the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, where they were trying to prove their modernism by being as much like Europe and North America as possible, and then came this counter-movement of pride in Mexican-ness, which went back to the pre-Hispanic cultures and to the ethnic cultures, which is still very much alive in Mexico today.”

The Santa Fe show coalesced after Spencer Throckmorton, owner of Throckmorton Fine Arts in New York City, offered to loan his extensive collection of vintage Kahlo photographs. He did a Kahlo exhibition at his gallery last year. “It was a success and he offered it to our director David Setford and we jumped at the chance,” said Hunter-Stiebel.

‘Documenting cultures’

Fortuitously for the museum, photographer Frej moved to Santa Fe six years ago from Kabul, Afghanistan, after a government career.

“Documenting cultures is a real passion of mine,” said Frej, who retired after 30 years as a diplomat with the Agency for International Development “always with my camera at my side.”

“Frida with Michoacan Gourd on Head,” a photo by Carl Van Vechten.

Frej is keenly aware that Kahlo’s Mexico City home was not named gratuitously. “A lot of the imagery that portrays Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera has primarily been black and white … Casa Azul, to me, it really says color,” he said.

He felt it was “important to really focus on what was a great stimulus in her painting and that was the environment that she lived in for those many years: the blues, the yellows, the reds.”

To Frej, an artist’s working environment is inseparable from his or her work. He spoke of one of his large-scale images of Kahlo’s studio, with her wheelchair and paints in situ, as if she never left.

“The light that day was extraordinary, the blue from the exterior was reflected back into that studio, and you really got a good sense of what I think was a real stimulus for her and her work, and that was that extraordinary environment.”

The studio wheelchair is evidence of a woman who endured physical pain after a crippling trolley car accident and a bout with polio, along with emotional trauma derived in part from her relationship with her womanizing husband Rivera. “There have been two great accidents in my life,” she once said. “One was the trolley and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst.”

Three Fridas: This 1939 photo by Nickolas Mury shows Frida Kahlo at work on her painting “The Two Fridas.”

Her relationships contributed to Kahlo’s notoriety, said guest curator Hunter-Stiebel. “She was madly in love with her husband Diego Rivera, who was already a very famous artist when she was just a novice. And she remained devoted to him through a divorce which only lasted for seven months before they reunited, but she had multiple affairs with both men and women throughout her life, and he had multiple affairs, but only with women.”

The 1970s were a period where Kahlo’s liberated lifestyle particularly resonated, but her cultural renaissance continues, said Hunter-Stiebel.

“She is an extraordinary figure in that there is something for everyone in the life she created … particularly relevant at this moment is her status as an icon of the women’s movement. And that really emerged in the 1970s, but has been very much revived by the politics of today.”

Also on exhibit at the museum will be works created in homage to Kahlo by artists from the Santa Fe Spanish Market.