Inside the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Walker

By Tatiana Craine

Frida Kahlo once said, “I paint my own reality. The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to, and I paint whatever passes through my head without any other consideration.”

The visiting Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Walker Art Center is as commanding and sincere as Kahlo’s words. The collection of over fifty paintings is premiering in Minneapolis before touring the United States after January 20. Also included in the exhibition are numerous candid shots of Kahlo and her family.I walked into the Kahlo exhibit knowing very little about the artist besides what I saw in the 2002 film “Frida,” and the various paintings I had seen in art classes. I was never a huge fan of the Mexican painter; I always thought her paintings revolved solely around the image of a stony-faced woman with a neglected unibrow. To me, she was another over-hyped, supposedly tortured soul with a style I was never quite fond of. Even after seeing Salma Hayek’s amazing performance as Frida Kahlo, I was a little unsure if I would fully appreciate the art displayed at the Walker. Nonetheless, I was excited and eager to see real Kahlo works.

I was not disappointed.

The halls of the exhibit are white-washed blank, but the bold paintings lining the walls more than make up for the lack of color. I was greeted by “Self-Portrait 1926,” featuring a young, very reserved Kahlo against a background of swirling darkness. Painted shortly after a debilitating bus accident, Kahlo’s turmoil emanated from her oil-painted eyes.

I quickly realized that much of the power of Kahlo’s work came from her ability to capture a flurry of emotions with brush-stroked eyes on Masonite, one of her preferred support mediums. In many of Kahlo’s self-portraits, her body language remains the same, but her eyes give the paintings true meaning. From moods like anguish or playfulness flitting behind the oil paint to blank stares that bore into the soul, Kahlo’s talent for encapsulating feeling is immaculate.

However, the awe of the Walker’s exhibit is not limited to the eyes of the conflicted artist. There are many other Kahlo works from still life to miniature murals, such as Moses, in which Kahlo displays a number of ideas and feelings. Symbolism in her work is quite evident, and her obsession with fertility plays a large role in much of her work. A handful of paintings like “Sun and Life” and “Flower of Life” feature female and male genitalia at the height of passion subtly disguised as flowers. The idea of motherhood (and her lack thereof), another of Kahlo’s fixations, is featured in many of her works as well. She poses with child-like monkeys, a baby-doll and even as a child herself.

Exhibit-goers find themselves in a realm of both whimsy and agony with each successive painting. A perfect example of the fancy and distress evident in much of Kahlo’s work is “The Wounded Deer.” Kahlo’s head is planted atop a deer’s body impaled with a mass of arrows while the word “Karma” can be found at the bottom of the painting. Without doubt, Kahlo felt her situation was beyond her control, and the countless surgeries she had gone through were taking their toll on her spirit.

The masterpiece of the collection, The Two Fridas, is immediately enthralling and a must-see. Representing her feelings after divorcing husband, Diego Rivera, the painting is eerie and heart-breaking all at once. The feeling is quite fitting, as the picture displays a heart severed in two, one half for the Frida that Diego loved and the other for the Frida that Diego deserted.

Hardly just an exhibit of Kahlo’s paintings, there is also a room devoted solely to photographs of Kahlo and those close to her. At first glance, it would seem that one is granted a ticket into Kahlo’s life; however, upon closer inspection Kahlo is putting up a facade in nearly all the snapshots. She controlled not only her painted image but her photographic image as well. Yet in contrast to any image-related pretenses, Kahlo’s actions reveal a softer side to her spirit. Resting in a clear case is a handful of photographs marked by the artist. The back of a photo of Diego Rivera is adorned with the feathery pink remains of a lipstick kiss. The love Kahlo felt for Rivera is unmistakable when looking at this tiny token of affection, and it grants Kahlo a sense of humanity that her normally guarded exterior hid.

Discovering little details from the way Kahlo changes the spelling of her name (Frieda versus Frida) to the various examples of symbolism abundant throughout her work is part of the Kahlo experience that definitely requires an astute eye and an open heart. In person, Kahlo’s paintings are so animated and bold they nearly leap off the wall, and some extend to the surrounding frame as shown in “The Suicide of Dorothy Hale.”

Both Frida fanatics and newcomers to Kahlo’s art will find it difficult not to be moved by the artist’s emotions brushed on cold Masonite and tin. I arrived at the Walker apprehensive and left deeply satisfied. I felt I had been touched by something great and marvelous, like Frida Kahlo actually looked at me through her cocoa-brown eyes and divulged her secrets and desires. Then again, maybe that is what she would have wanted me to think.

The Walker Art Center is located in Minneapolis at 1750 Hennepin Avenue. Admission is $6 with a student ID or free on Thursday nights from 5-9 p.m. To get to the Walker from Macalester, take the 84F bus to the 46th Street station; then take the lightrail into downtown Minneapolis at Hennepin and 5th Street; then take the 12C bus to Lyndale Avenue and Vineland Place, or visit metrotransit.org for other routes.