Despite long queues for the Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera exhibition at the NSW Art Gallery, this colourful and revealing display is worth waiting for.
It’s already one month into the three-month exhibit but the number of visitors is yet to ease off. With 150 tickets sold every half hour at the gallery, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection is proving to be one of the most popular seasonal exhibitions in recent years.
I wait just 20 minutes as the line snakes through the Sydney modern art section, welcoming the chance to say hello to a few old favourites hanging on the walls. The majority of the crowd is made up of well-dressed older women and trendy 20-somethings with bed-head and double denim. The ticket vendor recommends 45 minutes to look through the show; I pay my $16 concession fee and excitedly headed upstairs.
As I turn the corner I am greeted with a nearly five-metre Frida and Diego, an iconic image of the couple standing between bold red and yellow walls. Even though they are introduced to me as a pair I notice quickly that Frida is the star, with the show’s collection and catalogue giving greater space for her images. Frida had only one solo exhibition a year before her death in 1954; I can only imagine what she would think of such an impressive celebration of the couple’s life today.
The decisions made by the team of curators involving colour scheme choices are a delight to drink in with the eyes. Fiery chilli reds, egg-yolk yellows and soft warm grey tones create a beautiful palette for the works to be displayed against, yet the works themselves do not lose a single bit of character. The colours themselves are reminiscent of those found in rich and vibrant traditional Mexican folk art.
I couldn’t imagine both Diego and Frida’s works sitting on blank white walls – that’s much too clinical for such intimate pieces. Giant black-and-white photographs of Frida stand neatly in the gallery corners, spaced out from floor to ceiling, making an interesting transition between each section. It creates a sensational space, a different feel to the traditional colours usually chosen for accent walls.
At first I have trouble immersing myself in the space and relishing each work completely due to the large numbers of people. But the crowd slowly scattered as guests wandered between each exhibit. AGNSW is careful to offer the best experience of the works, limiting numbers of guests booked for each half hour session. I really appreciate that the show doesn’t rely on prior knowledge of either artist, allowing everyone from art critics to school students to enjoy the work. I am also warmed by the idea that both artists are referenced by their first name throughout, unlike most mid-20th century artists in catalogues and history texts. It gives a sense of familiarity with the artists, making them seem like old friends.
Halfway through my pleasant gallery wandering, I come across an unexpected exhibit highlight where guests could read half a dozen telegrams and letters sent between Diego, Frida, her parents and aunt. I take the opportunity to sit down infront of one of six tablets placed on a long table which allowed guests to skim through or pour over them. I have read translations of Frida’s poetry before and found them fascinating but I have never seen the personal texts. After reading over these letters and telegrams, which mentioned her mother’s health, or what Diego had for lunch that day, or her father’s new camera he was so proud of, I feel a greater connection with the artworks that followed. I had been given a precious look into a version of Frida previously reserved for her loved ones and I felt the letters allowed me to reach beyond her well-known public image into something much more intimate.
One of the most fascinating and thought-provoking parts of this collection is 100 or so gelatin silver print photographs, varying from palm size to a standard sheet of paper that draws in the crowds, with people lining up to slowly shuffle down a chronologically organised timeline of snapshots from the 1940s and 50s.
One image that stayed with me for hours after I left the gallery is of Frida in her casket, lifeless – almost as if I forgot that such a vibrant woman could meet death the way we all will.
But even though the image made a huge impression, her paintings celebrating life will always be what I am reminded of when I think of Frida.
My first experiences with Frida and Diego were in a small high school library. The town in which I lived had a population of 400. That in itself speaks volumes about the immense appeal and prominence of both artists, as their work can be found in all corners of the world. At 13 I spent as much time as I could in the art room, pouring over art history books and old magazines.
Frida’s vivid palettes and surreal dream-like style spoke to me and inspired me to draw with great emotion, not to simply focus on technical skill. I admire the way she strongly holds my gaze out of her paintings, completely unapologetic, not the usual painted female depiction of a pretty wilting flower strung over a couch in countless other 20th century oils. I know 13-year-old me would be incredibly excited to know I finally got to see these pieces I loved so much in person a decade later.
Frida has been many things to many people: a brave survivor; a fashionable image; a communist; an inspiration. For Diego she was “the only artist in the history of art who tore open her chest and heart to reveal the biological truth of her feelings.” To me I will always associate her with the fiery passion and dedication she showed to her work. But above all, Frida is a remarkable artist with no one else like her, whose legacy will live on through the images she left behind.
I’d love nothing more than to be able to visit her images more than this rare chance, the way I do with other favourites within the gallery. Visitors of the AGNSW have until October 8, 2016 to see the exhibit. Tuck a bright flower behind your ear and bring a favourite aunt or friend along to share the experience. You will definitely leave with a new appreciation and deeper connection to the colourful couple of Frida and Diego. – Story and photos by Caitlyn Hurley