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Rivera and Kahlo: the power, insight and sadness of art radicals

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Siân Ruddick visits a new exhibition of the art and revolutionary politics of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo
Issue 2261
Diego Rivera, Calla Lilly Vendors (detail) © 2011 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust
Diego Rivera, Calla Lilly Vendors (detail) © 2011 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust

“If art is not revolutionary, it is not art.” So said Diego Rivera, one of the most important and radical Mexican artists. His life and art revolved around his politics.

This new exhibition brings Rivera and his wife and comrade Frida Kahlo’s work together for the British leg of a world tour.

There are few Rivera works hung here—partly because much of his work comprises of murals which decorate cities in Mexico and the US.

The progression of his work can be seen though. Last Hour, painted in 1915 when he was part of the Cubist movement, stands in sharp contrast to his later depictions of ordinary people.

Rivera broke with Cubism in 1917. This was the year of the Russian Revolution, when Rivera also began to learn more of the nationalist struggles in Mexico.

He saw Cubism as increasingly looking inwards when, for him, the world desperately needed to be understood and depicted.

In a later Rivera, Calla Lily Vendors (1943, below), girls wear traditional hairstyles and dress. It could be a section of one of his later murals—showing life on Mexico’s streets. It features lilies, a recurring theme in Diego’s work.

Both Rivera and Kahlo were full of contradictions. Rivera called for workers’ power, while painting the wives and mistresses of the elite to pay the bills.

These commissions funded his major public works—and it is these that were his priority. Kahlo once told him, “If you lie with dogs, you will catch fleas.”

There has been an argument in some of the press about why this exhibition has the two curated together.

But the exhibition makes clear that Kahlo and Rivera shared a powerful and dramatic connection.

Kahlo’s painting, Diego In My Thoughts, is perhaps the most obvious example of this. In this self-portrait she paints a delicate image of Rivera in the centre of her forehead.

She was always an artist with her own identity. After a horrendous trolley bus accident that almost killed her she was confined to bed for long periods. Her father, a photographer whose work is also shown in this exhibition, gave her a paint box and encouraged her.

This is partly why she used self-portrait as a central theme in her work.

She was so often alone, and was left to analyse, criticise and shape her own image for hours on end.

But she was determined not to be isolated. She battled her illnesses—attending demonstrations, rallies and parties with Mexican radicals and left wing Europeans seeking exile.

Kahlo’s work shows strength and determination alongside sadness and loss. One of the most moving pieces in the exhibition is The Miscarriage.


In 1932 she and Rivera were based in Detroit, as Rivera worked on his now iconic public murals.

She had a miscarriage there and plunged herself into her work. This lithograph shows her trauma—tears rolling down her face surrounded by the force of nature and things beyond her control.

Kahlo’s work is heavy with cultural symbolism and identity.

She had a mixed cultural heritage, her mother was Indian from Oaxaca in the south.

As Kahlo became more aware of Mexico’s political heritage she began to wear clothes which reflected that tradition.

She, and other politically active women, wore their hair in traditional styles and pre-colonial jewellery, dresses and shawls.

Her painting The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico) perhaps illustrates her links with Indian culture strongest (above).

Here the universe—day and night, morning and evening—embraces the Mother Earth that is Mexico. Mexico in turn supports Kahlo who cradles Diego.

Tears fall from Kahlo’s eye. She looks lonely despite being surrounded.

In a symbol of fertility, milk drips from Mexico’s breast, and Rivera holds a flame and has a third eye—still showing power and insight despite being portrayed as a baby. The whole image is bittersweet—almost like it has all the ingredients for satisfaction but hopes have been distorted by reality.

These paintings are the highlights of the exhibition. But there are other interesting pieces too. Kahlo would paint over pages in her diary, ripping out sheets and reordering her account.

Some of these pages are displayed here, alongside photographs including the iconic colour portraits of Kahlo taken by her lover, Nickolas Muray.

This is a stunning exhibition—seeing the work of Rivera and Kahlo together adds depth to understanding of their lives and art.

Their political commitment and principles can be questioned. Though they had links with Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, both later became supporters of Stalin. And Kahlo in particular developed a confused set of politics.

But their work—boldly communicating their political and personal ideas and desires—helps us to see the beauty and the pain in the world around us.

Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera: Masterpieces from The Gelman Collection, Pallant House Gallery, Chicheter, until 2 October.

Frida Kahlo, The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico) 
(pictures © 2011 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust)
Frida Kahlo, The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico)
(pictures © 2011 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust)

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