Mexico celebrates the real Frida Kahlo

Two new exhibitions in Mexico City reintroduce the artist's many facets.

Some Mexicans were livid when artist Frida Kahlo's life turned into a Hollywood biopic starring Salma Hayek, speaking English.

"I'm sure [Kahlo] would have walked out," Mexican writer Guadalupe Loaeza huffed in the daily newspaper Reforma when the movie premièred five years ago.

So it is with particular glee that, upon the 100th anniversary of her birth (July 6, 1907), Mexico is mounting its largest-ever exhibit of her work. Another exhibit at Kahlo's former home here, now a museum, opens Friday, and includes photos, letters, and personal items that have been hidden from view for 50 years.

The intent is to reintroduce the many facets of Frida; to turn back the commercial tide of "Fridamania" that has reduced her complex life to a CliffNote of tragedies and her art into a series of self-portraits reproduced on refrigerator magnets and book bags.

"In Mexico we know she is a pop icon, it's a fact," says Roxana Velasquez, the director of the Museo de Bellas Artes, which is hosting the exhibition through August 19. "But she is much more than a self-portrait."

True, on a recent day, the thickest crowds filled the gallery that displayed her best-known works, including her haunting piece, "The Two Fridas," and her various self-portraits with monkeys or skulls – the same paintings that dominated the reel of the movie.

Yet for those wanting to learn more, there is plenty to examine. More than 350 pieces are on display, including works from loan across the globe. There is a series of still lifes and a room dedicated to portraits of friends and colleagues. There are 50 personal letters, and 100 photographs and paintings that have never been publicly viewed before. "I had no idea she did portraits of her friends, or still lifes. She has so much more talent than I thought," gushed Maricela Garcia, who was visiting Mexico City from the northern state of Sonora. "For me she is a symbol of Mexico."

She has been a symbol for many others as well: leftists, feminists, lesbians, and the disabled. Many admirers have drawn morals and courage from the life of a woman who was injured in a trolley-car accident, unable to bear children, suffered the infidelities of her husband muralist Diego Rivera, and reportedly had an affair with Marxist Leon Trotsky.

Not a few art historians have bristled at her current cult status, in which she has been understood as a caricature that has not always been to her benefit as an artist nor to the causes she came to represent.

"There is a certain sense of identifying with her," says Margaret Lindauer, author of "Devouring Frida: The Art History and Popular Celebrity of Frida Kahlo" and an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., particularly among those who suffer social stigmas. But Ms. Lindauer says Kahlo's works are far more complex than just a documentation of her biography or emotional state. "They are also a critique of women in society: expectations that a woman should be a mother, expectations that a woman should dress a certain way because it pleases her husband."

Standing in the gallery where Kahlo's most iconic and colorful paintings hang is Karen Uno, a sixth-grade teacher from Washington State, on a two-week vacation with her husband. The two had walked across the street from their hotel and happened upon the exhibit. Ms. Uno says she knows the works in this room – some she's shared with her students back home – but not the rest. "I'd say my knowledge is on the low end," she says.

"Well, but you know who she is," pipes in her husband, Doug Uno.

After all, many Americans wouldn't.

"Of course," she says, taken aback.

After all, there has been a movie.

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