Let’s face the obvious first. Surrealism isn’t everyone’s bag, especially in its more nightmarish forms. And if that’s true of you, if the darker Dalis make you cringe and the chilling Ernsts give you the sweats, taking in the work of Frida Kahlo may not be the optimal way to spend an afternoon.
But please, this reviewer implores you, don’t let that stop you from visiting the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting. If you are interested in politics, if you are interested in history, if you care about the role art plays in society, you will be enthralled by the work of Kahlo’s husband, Diego Rivera.
Though often overlooked today, Rivera was, in his own time, a globally renowned painter, muralist, and political voice. While Kahlo’s work, interpreting her family, miscarriages, illnesses, even her own imagined murder in clinical and bloody detail, seems insular and cut off from the rest of the world, Rivera’s brought challenging, controversial new ideas and vibrant Mexican culture to a wide audience.
A prodigy of classical art who developed a Cubism-influenced style while painting alongside Picasso in Europe, Rivera dedicated his life to portraying Mexico and its people. This practice put him at the cutting edge of contemporary political movements. While Mexico’s Industrial Revolution Party was establishing a socialist society, Rivera was painting populist images of the country’s farmers, flower sellers, and labourers.
One of Frida & Diego’s most stunning pieces is Rivera’s massive 1928 mural “En al Arsenal”. Painted in the chubby geometric figures of Post-Impressionism, it depicts Kahlo helping distribute bayonets to Mexicans in preparation for a People’s Revolution. Hammers, sickles and red stars abound.
During the Great Depression, while the Western World was in the depths of a Red Scare, Rivera took his art and politics to the doorstep of America’s industrial giants. In 1933, when commissioned to paint a mural at New York’s Rockefeller Centre portraying a vision of a better future, Rivera produced “Man at the Crossroads,” which included the likeness of Vladimir Lenin. An enraged Nelson Rockefeller fired Rivera and the mural was destroyed a year later, but photos of the original can be seen at the AGO’s exhibit.
Also on display is film of Rivera painting a 27-panel series for the Ford Motor Company, called “Detroit Industry”. The fresco, commissioned by Henry Ford’s son in 1932, was less partisan than his work for Rockefeller, but no less populist, depicting the Ford automobile as a product of miners, metal workers, factory operators, rather than industrialists.
Frida & Diego is only on until Jan. 20. Now is the time to see it. Whether the art’s style, or its creators’ politics appeal to you or not, the exhibit tells the story of a wife who pushed the boundaries of confessional art and a husband who championed the world’s workers; a married couple who existed at the forefront of 20th Century history.
Peter Goffin is the Managing Editor of Chirograph.