She’s one of the most significant artists of the 20th century. But most people are more familiar with her face or her life story than her work. And through her life, she was known as the wife of a famous artist rather than an artist in her own right.
So the current exhibit of Frida Kahlo works at the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg can be a revelation.
Kahlo, the iconic Mexican painter whose work blended elements of folk art and surrealism, died very young, at age 47. She did not create a large body of work, and so the Dali was able to gather a significant portion of it. William Jeffett, one of the co-curators, estimated that “Frida Kahlo at the Dali” includes about 20 percent of her paintings.
Despite Kahlo’s artistic significance and her iconic status in the art world and in popular culture, this is the first time an exhibition devoted solely to her work has ever been mounted in Florida.
The paintings and drawings span virtually her entire creative life, from her early attempts at art during her long and painful recuperation from a terrible traffic accident at age 18, to just before her death in 1954. But it also examines Kahlo’s home life, through family photographs that were in her personal photo album. In one, a young Frida poses for a formal portrait with her siblings and parents. She’s wearing a man’s three-piece suit. It’s a striking image today, and it would have been shocking in the 1920s or ’30s.
The paintings and drawings span virtually her entire creative life, from her early attempts at art during her long and painful recuperation from a terrible traffic accident at age 18 to just before her death in 1954.
“She always liked to push boundaries,” Jeffett said.
One reason her own face is so well-known is that a significant number of her works are self-portraits, with her striking face — beautiful, despite a monobrow that she exaggerates in her paintings — staring directly at the viewer, consciously in the tradition of religious icons.
During her lifetime, Kahlo and her work were discovered by Andre Breton, the founder of surrealism. He considered her work surrealist, but she eschewed the label.
“She insisted that she wasn’t a surrealist,” Jeffett said. “She said ‘I just paint what I feel.’ And of course that’s a fairly accurate way to define what surrealism is. It’s hard to say exactly what is and isn’t surrealistic, because it’s not a style.”
“Kahlo at the Dali” is in the same third-floor gallery that in recent months has featured exhibitions that compared works and showed influences between Salvador Dali and Walt Disney, and between Dali and Pablo Picasso.
The Kahlo exhibition consists of her own works, plus those photographs, and Jeffett said it’s not known whether Dali and Kahlo ever even met. And although their styles are very different, the similarities between their work are obvious from the exhibition. Both artists worked with religious imagery and incorporated autobiographical elements into their paintings.
A few of the works in the Kahlo exhibit do show what could be the influence of Dali. One is a portrait of botanist Luther Burbank, which has him standing in a field, his lower legs transforming into roots that extend into the ground and become entwined with a human skeleton.
One is a painting titled “A Few Small Nips” show a dead woman lying naked on a bed with a man standing over her. The woman’s body is covered with knife wounds. Blood spills onto the floor and even onto the frame of the painting
Portraits of herself and others were a Kahlo specialty, but there’s much more to the exhibit than just portraiture. In fact, for this exhibition the gallery is divided into parts, one of which features Kahlo’s work that parents might not want their children to experience.
One is a painting titled “A Few Small Nips” showing a dead woman lying naked on a bed with a man standing over her. The woman’s body is covered with knife wounds. Blood spills onto the floor and even onto the frame of the painting. It was, Jeffett said, Kahlo’s response to a news story about domestic violence.
Visitors can explore the exhibit on their own, but a great way to get the most out of the experience, and to learn about Kahlo’s life — including the bus accident that drove a metal rail through her pelvis and left her frail and in pain for the rest of her life, her tumultuous marriage to the painter Diego Rivera, and her exploration of feminism and celebration of the Mexican identity — is to take the audio tour, recorded specifically for the Dali Museum by actor Susan Sarandon.
Details: Through April 17, Salvador Dali Museum, 1 Dali Blvd., St. Petersburg, 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. $24 adults; $22 seniors, military, police, firefighters, educators; $17 students 13-17; $10 children 6-12; free for children under 6. 727-823-3767, thedali.org.