“Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving,” with items ranging from clay dogs to medical corsets, remains on view at the recently reopened de Young Museum.
The exhibition of personal items that belonged to the popular Mexican artist considers how disability, politics, pain, gender and cultural identification shaped her distinctive art, and adds enlightening shades toward the understanding of who she was beyond her iconic person.
On view through May 2, the show contains dozens of objects from La Casa Azul (the Blue House), Kahlo’s home in Mexico City. Representing Mexican culture to which Kahlo was devoted, the piece were sealed up in the house after Kahlo died in 1954 and stayed that way for 50 years.
Guest-curated by designer Circe Henestrosa, and featuring a San Francisco section curated by Hillary Olcott, of the Fine Arts Museums, the presentation also contains more than 30 paintings, drawings, and other original works created by Kahlo.
Areas of focus include Kahlo’s childhood and family, which included a German father, who was a photographer (who shot many of the photographs on view in the show) and a Mexican mother with European and indigenous-Mexican ancestry.
Kahlo experienced two life-threatening traumas in her early years. At age 6, she contracted polio. Twelve years later, a bus accident left her with a painful lifelong disability — a condition she frequently addressed in her work.
Kahlo married fellow Mexican artist Diego Rivera in 1929, and the relationship was turbulent and included infidelities. The pair divorced in 1939 and remarried in 1940. While Rivera was the more famous and revered of the two, Kahlo, whose singular style of art — folkloric, classical, fantastical, deeply personal — was impressing some in the art world.
The exhibit also covers how Kahlo, like Rivera, embraced communist ideals and Mexican culture and history and how Kahlo, in works ranging from her self-portraits to her lithograph “The Miscarriage,” addressed gender in her art and bucked norms.
Her meticulously crafted appearance, itself a work of art, made her a favorite subject of photographers. The exhibit contains images of Kahlo shot by, among others, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham and Nickolas Muray, who became Kahlo’s friend and lover. Muray’s portraits of Kahlo include the classical-looking “Frida in Blue Dress” and “Frida With Olmeca Figurine, Coyoacan.”
The show’s San Francisco component revisits Kahlo’s trips to The City, in this country Kahlo called “Gringolandia.” In 1930, she accompanied Rivera when he was painting murals here. In 1940, Kahlo received medical treatment here and remarried Rivera at San Francisco City Hall.
A sizeable portion of the show involves Kahlo’s wardrobe ensembles, which feature colorful, flowing Tehuana dresses, a fashion choice that demonstrated her love for Mexico.
Also on view are letters, jewelry, cosmetics, medicines and clay figurines from Kahlo’s Blue House collection.
Most fascinating are the respectfully presented prosthetic devices and plaster medical corsets worn by Kahlo, who beautified these items by decorating and personalizing them. The corsets contain hammer and sickle imagery, for example. A red boot has been placed on a prosthetic leg.
In a drawing titled “Appearances Can Be Deceiving,” Kahlo shows how the dresses she wore not only were attractive but covered up her disability.
Self-portraits by Kahlo warrant mention, and the exhibit includes some gems. In “Self-Portrait Dedicated to Dr. Leo Eloesser,” painted after Kahlo remarried Rivera, the artist wears flowers in her tall hair and a necklace of thorns, suggesting Christian imagery. In “Self-Portrait” (1948), Kahlo wears a Tehuana ceremonial headdress.
Additional highlights include the painting “The Two Fridas,” which illustrates Kahlo’s recurring theme of duality. In the work, which Kahlo created after she and Rivera divorced, the artist appears as two selves holding hands. One Frida wears a traditional white dress; her heart, cut up, is dripping blood. The other has a modern, European look and appears less distressed.
“Frieda and Diego Rivera” (Kahlo used the old spelling of her name) has been described as a wedding portrait. In it, Rivera holds a palette and some brushes and looks more committed to his art than his marriage. Kahlo, meanwhile, is holding on to her husband.
While this exhibition is not loaded with revelations, it quietly enables viewers to understand Frida Kahlo and her art a little more deeply.
IF YOU GO
Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving
Where: de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, S.F.
Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; closes May 2
Price: $20 to $35; advance purchase required
Contact: (888) 901-6645, https://tickets.famsf.org/orders/283/calendar
Note: COVID-19 safety guidelines are in effect. Visit famsf.org for ticket and entrance policies.