The Life and Art of Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo Exhibit Photo by SFMOMA

Bringing the acclaimed artist back to San Francisco

SFMOMA collected the Mexican-born artist’s works from around the world for an exhibit that explores struggles we can all relate to.

Still-lifes, self-portraits, photographs—all collaboratively tell the story of artist, icon and revolutionary Frida Kahlo.

“The Frida Kahlo exhibit is not a warm and fuzzy show,” said Blair Winn, then the museum’s director of development. “Some of the material is challenging—even difficult.”

But so was Kahlo’s life. Physical debilitation, infidelity, divorce, miscarriage—all of her challenges found their way into her brilliantly-colored paintings, 50 of which were on display, along with 70 photographs—some never-before-seen—of the artist and her milieu.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s presentation of its Frida Kahlo exhibit in the summer of 2008 allowed the Bay Area to get up close and very personal to this remarkable artist. The Evelyn D. Haas Exhibition Fund and the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund were local lead funders with gifts totaling more than $700,000.

The challenges that faced the Mexican-born, San Francisco-nurtured artist are no different than those facing many people, noted SFMOMA marketing director and docent Nancy Price. “When people look at art that reflects someone’s life, it helps them to look at their own lives and put things in perspective. It’s why her work resonates with so many people.”

Organized by renowned Frida Kahlo biographer and art historian Hayden Herrera, the presentation included approximately 50 paintings from the beginning of Kahlo’s career in 1926 to her death in 1954, as well as 70 photographs that once belonged to Kahlo and her husband, the muralist Diego Rivera. Some were taken by famed photographers of that era (Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Lola Alvarez Bravo, Gisele Freund, Tina Modotti, Nickolas Muray), and others are personal snapshots of the couple and their families and friends – including political lightning rods like Leon Trotsky.

During her short, 47-year lifetime, Kahlo created 66 self-portraits and around 80 paintings of other subjects—mostly still lifes and portraits of friends. “I paint my own reality,” she said. “The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to.”

She might have painted her own reality, but given the numbers of people who turn out for Kahlo exhibits, it is a reality shared by many.

When people look at art that reflects someone’s life, it helps them to look at their own lives and put things in perspective.

Enriching our community was always important to Haas, Jr. Fund co-founder Evelyn D. Haas. Through her leadership and decades-long involvement with SFMOMA, Evelyn sought to make art more accessible to everyone, especially through the museum’s special exhibitions. It’s one reason the Frida Kahlo exhibit was designated to receive support from the Evelyn D. Haas Exhibition Fund, which was established in 1997 to assist the SFMOMA in presenting major exhibitions that broaden the museum’s regular audience.

“It’s always important for people to have access to great art,” said Blair Winn. “This show has so many complex themes—like cultural identity. It’s very important for the museum to reach as large an audience as possible.”

The museum worked with Salvador Acevedo of Contemporanea, who used the exhibition as an opportunity to catalyze long-lasting connections with the Latino community, including representatives from ethnic media.

“A community is strengthened when it sees reflections of the cultural values that it holds relevant for itself,” says Acevedo. “With the Frida Kahlo exhibition, there is great value in looking at her portraits and photos and talking about the impressions they form, which will be different for each person.”

Additional support from the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund was used to put out the word – both in English and Spanish. A special Community Day allowed free access to the public to the Kahlo exhibit and the rest of the museum.

The SFMOMA exhibition included works such as Henry Ford Hospital (1932), depicting the artist’s miscarriage in Detroit (a first in terms of the iconography of Western art history), and The Broken Column (1944), painted after she underwent spinal surgery. It also included self-portraits such as Me and My Doll (1937) and Self-Portrait with Monkeys (1943), both of which explore the theme of childlessness. The artist’s suffering over Rivera’s betrayals is reflected in paintings like her masterful double-portrait The Two Fridas (1939) created during her separation and divorce from Rivera. Collectively, these images suggest the extent to which, for Kahlo, painting served as catharsis, as well as an opportunity to redefine and critique modern bourgeois society.

The paintings in the exhibition came from some 30 private and institutional collections in France, Japan, Mexico, and the United States. Several paintings were on public view for the first time in the United States. Two of the most important and extensive collections of Kahlo’s work—the Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño Collection in Mexico City and the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of Modern and Contemporary Mexican Art, currently housed in the Centro Cultural Muros in Cuernavaca—loaned some of their most treasured Kahlo paintings to the exhibition.

The exhibition was organized by the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, in association with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and was co-curated by Hayden Herrera and Walker Art Center Associate Curator Elizabeth Carpenter.