Celebrity encounters provide interesting and fun moments for the public relations executive. Crossing paths with musicians, authors, actors, prize winners and presidents -- it's all good, and something to tell the kids and grand kids down the road.
In the pantheon of fine art rock stars, Mexico's Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera are among the most recognized and revered, and through a freelance P.R. client assignment at the High Museum of Art, during the last 10 days I enjoyed the pleasure of green room-like access to some of the artists' best known and rarely seen works.
Until recently, my only familiarization with Kahlo was via the feature film "Frida" starring Salma Hayek. Rivera's work was something seen only in books, or maybe in a museum (The Metropolitan or MoMA, perhaps).
Atlanta residents and visitors may now enjoy the rare opportunity to experience dozens of paintings, drawings, lithographs and photographs of and created by Kalho and Rivera as this month the High mounted the largest gathering of their works in a single exhibition.
Rare indeed. The High is the only U.S. museum for the exhibition "Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting," featuring more than 25 percent of Kahlo's works for the first time in the Southeast. The exhibition runs through May 12.
Promoting the exhibition, I learned more of the Frida & Diego story. As a teenager, Kahlo nearly died when she was impaled in a bus and trolley crash. Following this bone breaking accident, Kahlo met and admired Rivera, lovingly or longingly stating to her friends (insert voice of Ferris Bueller's girlfriend) that he was the man she would marry.
After years of painful recovery and evolving as a self-taught artist, Kahlo did marry Rivera, several years her senior, embarking on a loving yet rocky relationship during which the heights of their mutual admiration remained tethered and dragged down by their cheating one-upmanship. Both artists enjoyed the peaks of fame and remarkable career milestones infused with dark valleys including failed pregnancies and the revelations of their infidelities (Rivera slept with Kahlo's sister, and Frida returned the favor hooking up with one of Diego's political heroes).
The High exhibition begins with smaller works juxtaposed by massive floor to ceiling photographs of the couple -- one of these images is a new acquisition by the museum (don't miss the original photo in the final exhibition gallery).
"Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics, and Painting" quickly turns to explore giant canvases from Rivera's early career. I enjoyed most the large cowboy portrait, a smaller cubist work (referencing a flea market) and an other-worldly painting filled with curious shapes and faces.
Rounding the corner, visitors are treated to the first of two reproduced Rivera murals, and several more giant paintings featuring workers harvesting peace lilies. This is the Diego I recognize from books and museums (upon entering this third gallery, a 180 degree turn yielded an image of a farmer carrying a huge sack of cabbages, reminiscent of the flower carrier on a mural I once visited).
The cheery floral paintings by Rivera are followed by several "dark days for Frida" captured on canvas. Guests learn of her lost pregnancies, her forced-feeding of liquefied meat, and the brutal knife killing of a Mexican woman whose murder Frida read about in the news. Viewers also get a glimpse of the bus in which young Kahlo rode before the trolley accident left her broken and isolated in recovery.
Though the topics of her paintings in this section are not for the faint of heart, their attention to detail reveals Kahlo's skill and craftsmanship. How did this self-taught artists perfect so many little elements reminiscent of Salvador Dali's tiny and detailed oil paintings? Her most surreal images, such as a star-headed plant growing arms, or Buddha-like eyes gazing at the viewer -- are now among my favorites.
I learned through this exhibition that Kahlo often painted while confined to a recovery bed. A photograph of Kahlo painting her own body cast chest plate appears beside the actual cast. And across the room, the High installed a reading room area with a bright red bunk bed inviting visitors to explore the exhibition catalog while reclining to reflect on Kahlo's often bedridden status.
There's another "yellow" reading room with an enormous and functional seating area -- a couple of chairs enshrined in several dozen more chairs stacked 20 feet high. Have a seat!
Two side galleries -- located by the reading rooms -- should not be missed. Check out the reproduced "Rockefeller" mural, and some of the Rivera's late career landscape paintings. I learned in this room the other nation Rivera visited while suffering penile cancer (ouch!), spotting a portrait of a woman shoveling snow much like the aforementioned cabbage carrier.
Though a great artist, Rivera shamelessly slept with a lot of women. The biggest revelation of this exhibition for me (other than the leg-crossing, wince-inducing thought of penile cancer) was an introduction to one of Rivera's muses turned patrons -- many of the works in the exhibition came from this woman's collection.
It was also interesting to spot Kahlo's drawings, including one elaborate ink on paper work she scribed on the back of air mail stationery.
Six remarkable self-portraits serve as the climax of "Frida & Diego." I loved witnessing the uncrating of "Self-Portrait With Monkeys" about a week before the exhibition opening. The other works on this wall -- notably Kahlo's oil painting after cutting her own hair (a retaliation toward Rivera) and her broken back portrayed as a shattered Greek column -- require a long study to appreciate their detail.
More must-see works accompany dozens of photographs in the final gallery. Be sure to explore the Mother Earth-infused self-portrait of Kahlo cuddling an infant-like Rivera, and Kahlo's answer to Willie Nelson's "You Were Always On My Mind" on another large self-portrait (to the right of this painting, nestled in the gallery corner, is a photograph of Rivera watching Kahlo paint it). I also loved Kahlo's anniversary gift painting of the dynamic duo as a two-face single person melding their features.
"Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics, and Painting" features several special events, including a Mexican cinema film series, lectures and family events. I plan to finally watch "Frida" and attend Friday Jazz.
Inspired by the exhibition I also began study of other Rivera and Kahlo works, recently finding that Rivera created a mural in the Olympic Stadium of Mexico City (site of the 1968 Olympic opening, closing and athletics competition). I'm also on the hunt for details about both artists' inclusion in Cultural Olympiad events in Mexico and elsewhere.
May the exhibition "Frida & Diego" inspire you.
Photos by Nicholas Wolaver