Frida Kahlo is easy to think about in terms of one-word descriptors.
Painter. Mexican. Communist. Adulterer. Sick. Bedridden. Sufferer.
But Frida Kahlo and Arte Popular, running from Feb. 27 through June 16 at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, thoroughly dismisses these biographical generalizations. In their place is a more contextual rendering of the famed artist to her culture and the many faceless contributors to it.
Among other questions the exhibition raises—especially about common oversimplifications of Kahlo’s life—it asks why her collection of over 3,000 works of arte popular, Mexican folk art created around the time of the Mexican Revolution in the first decade of the 20th century, should have any relevance in her work.
“She is inspired by folk art, but [is] not a folk artist” said Layla Bermeo, the show’s curator at a recent walkthrough of the two galleries that make up the show. In fact, collecting arte popular was for everyone. The Mexican government invested in encouraging everyone to take pride in the nation’s rich artistic traditions and establish their own collections of arte popular. Kahlo was no different.
The exhibition’s goal is not to harp on the common tropes of Kahlo’s career. Though she was a prolific self-portraitist, the show contains only one, albeit one of the most striking. “Self-Portrait with Hummingbird and Thorn Necklace” (1940) hangs opposite the left entrance to the gallery. Despite its saintly, resolute gaze, it’s off to the side to contrast it with Kahlo’s much earlier “Dos Mujeres” (Two Women,1928), opposite the entrance right.
One of the MFA’s recent high-profile acquisitions, “Dos Mujeres (Salvadora y Herminia)” is a portrait of servants in Kahlo’s mother’s home and is just as compelling and just as inspired from arte popular. Kahlo “elevated them into an art form,” Bermeo said.
Considering their social class, these are not the kind of women typically deserving of a portrait. Then again, the exhibition showcases anonymous folk artists alongside Kahlo, María Izquierdo, the latter a far more prolific exhibitor than Kahlo. The show doesn’t concern itself with highlighting notoriety.
Kahlo’s radically inclusive artistic bend is explored further in her interest and hijacking of the ex-voto or retablo style of art. Traditionally, retablos are works of devotional art created by amateurs after some miraculous event or recovery in their lives and are displayed in their homes or churches. In arte popular, however, their religiosity is stripped away in favor of their amateur, almost surrealist-like techniques to convey more popular themes.
“My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree),” echoes this style, replacing venerated saints with her diverse family background. At a time where her father’s German homeland introduced the Nuremberg Laws forbidding many interracial marriages, Kahlo’s work remains defiantly proud.
Just as she traces and reimagines her own history, this exhibition forces viewers to reimagine Kahlo’s life. Interspersed throughout are arte popular figurines and anthropomorphized coconuts alongside whimsically exciting photographs of Kahlo by Bernard Silberstein and Edward Weston. These pictures explore Kahlo as an energetic and vibrant painter, collector, and reflector of modernism, in addition to all the anonymous cultural prerequisites that made her work possible.
Featured Image Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts Boston