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Frida Kahlo shares spotlight with Diego Rivera in big AGO show

A detail from Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Monkeys, 1943.

The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of Mexican Art

Hard to believe but there was a time, and it wasn't that long ago, when most of the world knew nothing about the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, dead now for almost 60 years.

This would have been in the late 1970s and early 80s. Before, that is, London's Whitechapel Gallery mounted its ground-breaking exhibition of her paintings and the photographs of fellow Mexican Tina Modotti in 1982. Before the 1983 publication of Hayden Herrera's best-selling Frida: The Biography of Frida Kahlo . Before Madonna paid more than $1-million (U.S.) for Kahlo's 1940 Self-portrait with Monkey. Before 2005 when the Kahlo estate authorized the production of three brands of Frida Kahlo tequila. Before Salma Hayek got her only Oscar nomination for her 2002 portrayal of Kahlo, before … well, before Frida Kahlo became FRIDA.

The notion that anything associated with Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderon is box-office gold gets a particularly Canadian test on Saturday with the opening in Toronto of Frida and Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting, the boffo exhibition for the Art Gallery of Ontario's fall season. A collaboration with the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the show presents more than 35 works by Kahlo plus another 45 or so by her husband, Diego Rivera, who died three years after her, in 1957. Also featured are dozens of photographs of (mostly) Kahlo and Rivera by the likes of Modotti, Imogen Cunningham, Lola Alvarez Bravo, Nickolas Muray and Manuel Alvarez Bravo.

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Cognoscenti know the saga of Rivera and Kahlo as a sort of art-world riff on A Star Is Born. Until the onset of the Cold War and the rise of abstract expressionism, pop art, feminism and postmodernist aesthetics, it was Rivera, 21 years Kahlo's senior, who was the big deal – bigger even, some say, than Picasso and the first foreign artist, after Matisse, accorded a solo show, in 1931, at the Museum of Modern Art. "Frida was basically forgotten after her death," observes Carlos Phillips Olmedo, director of the Museo Dolores Olmedo in Mexico City which, as the largest repository of Kahlos and Riveras in the world, has lent 17 Kahlo works and 32 Riveras to the AGO. And she stayed forgotten for almost three decades.

Certainly Rivera was the more prolific artist, producing in a career spanning some 55 years more than 3,000 works in oil plus the famous murals, in Mexico, Detroit, San Francisco and elsewhere, that remain his main claim to greatness. By contrast Kahlo's output, which began in the late 1920s, was much smaller: Phillips Olmedo says his institution so far has catalogued only 425 works by her. Of these, 150 to 200 are paintings, including an estimated 50 to 60 self-portraits. It's these few, though (of which Madonna reportedly owns at least three), that loom "iconic' in the public imagination, notes Dot Tuer, the Ontario College of Art and Design University professor who curated the AGO exhibition. And Rivera? To many these days, he's a Norman Maine of sorts to Kahlo's Esther Blodgett, "cast," as Tuer has written, "in a minor role as Kahlo's much older and philandering husband."

Tuer, though, is convinced that both Rivera, for all his relative neglect, and Kahlo, for all the mania she's inspired, are secure as titans of 20th-century art, impervious finally to the rhythms of fad and fashion. If Kahlo to contemporary eyes seems more "of the moment" than her earnest husband, it's less a function of Kahlo's raw, often poignant, sometimes enigmatic imagery (and their depictions of female victimhood) than her intuitions about glamour and celebrity. "Creating a persona was very important for how Frida could be in the world," Tuer explains. "And she did these constructions of identity not just through her paintings – which were really personal – but especially through photography."

Kahlo's German-born father was a professional photographer. He trained his daughter as both photographer and dark-room technician. She made paintings from photographs. And perhaps most importantly, Kahlo knew how to address, and, in her traditional Tehuana attire, dress for the camera. "This idea to create a persona through self-portraiture and photographs – who does that remind you of? Andy Warhol, yes? And Cindy Sherman," says Tuer.

Yet for all Kahlo's cachet and prescience, Tuer's exhibition treats wife and husband "very democratically," focusing on the dynamic, "the story" between the artists rather than ghettoizing Rivera's art to one section and Kahlo's to another. What's tricky about this chronological/synchronistic approach, Tuer remarks, is that while it honours the creative, romantic and political passions of the duo, both of whom were ardent, life-long communists, "you have Rivera who's at the height of his powers [in the 1920s and early 1930s] when he meets Frida and you have Frida who produces most of her signature work between 1940 and 1945, '46…. So how do you put that together, how do you simultaneously create a story and honour the art?"

"The reason I wanted to shape it as a story," Tuer continues, "is also to introduce visitors who either know nothing about Frida Kahlo or just know about her unibrow to a sense of the complexity and the multifaceted relationship she and Rivera both had to Mexico, to revolutionary politics." Admittedly, a lot of visitors are going to come almost exclusively for the Kahlos but Tuer hopes the exhibition will make them realize "you can't think of Frida without Diego; they're completely intertwined and they're more intertwined artistically than people imagine."

Asked if perhaps Rivera's reputation might have been better served had he stayed in Europe (where he went to study in 1907 and stayed largely without interruption until 1921) and not returned to Mexico in the wake of the 1910-1920 revolution, both Tuer and Phillips Olmedo firmly answer in the negative. "Far from hurting Rivera, the Mexican Revolution made him as a painter, made him a great historical figure," Tuer avows. "If he had stayed in Europe he would have been a very fine painter [but] a minor footnote in the history of Cubism. Not because he's not as good a painter as any of the Europeans but it's how Western art history is written and how it writes Latin American art history out of art history."

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"Yes, right at this very moment, maybe Frida is having her cult moment in the sun. Celebrity can be fickle that way – but history," notes Tuer, "is long," Elevations and declines, rehabilitations and revisions are its constants.

Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting is at the AGO in Toronto from Oct. 20 through Jan. 20, 2013, and at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Feb. 16-May 12, 2013.

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