Manufacturing Frida

To see 'Frida Kahlo' at the SF MOMA is to know her?
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REVIEW Though overshadowed during her lifetime by her famous muralist husband Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo is one of many examples of driven artists who achieved their icon status posthumously. And, like other historical figures with life stories loaded with tragedy, Kahlo underwent her share of suffering, which makes for great book sales and dramatic film plots. But as anyone who knows a bit of her story beyond her groundbreaking art can attest, she handled the physical and emotional pain with flair: she was a modern, intelligent Mexican woman who, from the 1930s through early '50s, chose to flamboyantly dress herself in celebration of her cultural ancestry. She was exotic — even among her circles of culture vultures and political activists — and strikingly beautiful, so it's no wonder that nearly half of her paintings are self-portraits. One thinks she might have wowed herself. Nonetheless, the well-known photographers who caught her on film left more telling documents than her paintings — of someone who radiated charisma and soul.

Before we dismiss a round of would-be Fridamania as an attempt to generate even more profits from Kahlo reproductions on bags and T-shirts, we should remember why she was plucked from history. Currently on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is the first major American exhibition of Kahlo's works in nearly 15 years. Last year, for the centennial of Kahlo's birth, the Palacio De Bellas Artes in Mexico City held a comprehensive show of her artistic accomplishments, along with personal photos and documents. Visitors to SFMOMA's "Frida Kahlo" — which was organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis — will get a similar experience to the Mexican exhibition: beyond almost 50 Kahlo paintings, there is a trove of documents and photographs. Don't expect to see just the greatest hits, though those are present.

Strange still-lifes — like the pile of bodylike root vegetables in Still Life: Pitahayas (1938) — are displayed alongside bizarre folkloric conglomerations of Aztec mythology, Mexican jungle life, and political figures merged with events from Kahlo's life. Her portrayals of other people are as mesmerizing as her self-portraits. Portrait of Luther Burbank (1931) presents the odd scene of the elder Burbank sprouting from the soil of a browned landscape. The area where his feet should be is a mass of roots growing into a decaying corpse. He holds a leafy tropical plant — a reference to his horticultural focus. Another compelling work rarely viewed outside of Japan's Nagoya City Art Museum is Girl with Death Mask, (1938) in which a skull-masked child in a pink dress stands on a barren, sky-dominated expanse with a mask of a tongue-wagging monster at her feet.

When we enter the last rooms of the show, we are greeted with walls and display cases of family photographs, many with Kahlo's handwritten notes. Two photos of Rivera, from 1929 and 1940, have her lipstick kiss prints on the back, and several other images are marked with pencil or ballpoint doodles. These funny, poignant bits of reality were not meant for public consumption, and the fan is given a deeper view into the real person. Add the early color photos of Kahlo and a home movie of Kahlo and Rivera fawning over and goofing around with each other, and you could begin to think that you actually know her.

So when one views the photos of Kahlo in traction, her strained face attempting to smile, or the pre-tragic pregnancy photos, subjects explored repeatedly in her art suddenly become even more clearly felt. Icons rarely get to be real after their ascension: we don't want them to be mortal, perish, and take their magnetism away. When Kahlo died in 1954 at 47, a final diary entry read, "I hope the exit is joyful, and I hope to never return." Yet no one wants her to go.

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