I don’t profess to be an expert on Frida Kahlo, and I guess it took me a long time, many years in fact, to be persuaded towards her particularly raucous Latino-Mexican aesthetic. The exhibition title in itself 'Frida Kahlo. Beyond the myth' at MUDEC of Milan is asking quite a lot of us skeptics for a start and to make such a claim is tantamount in my view, to some kind of provocation. I think that this is unfortunate for two reasons, firstly, it assumes that we all buy into the Kahlo, Rivera, angst-riven soul-breaking narrative as if it’s the be-all and end-all. The second is that this show (at Chipperfield’s rather beautiful new Museum of Cultures in Milan) is aiming explicitly for a classic revisionist blockbuster, offering what it intimates as being a new insight into the psyche of the artist. Surely a hiding to nothing here too when one looks at the sheer volume of expert narratives and picture books dedicated to unpacking her life. The show certainly does offer unique access to previously unseen material, letters, photographs and watercolours that, apparently have never been configured in such a way before… and.
So the curators and lenders are trying really hard in this show to tell us that the dominant historical narratives essentially underestimate Kahlo’s talent as a person, thinker, poet, painter and associate of Rivera, not to mention the aftermath of her most dreadful accident. My gripe is that only a revisionist theorist/art historian would have the audacity to foist Gestalt on an audience in this way to come up with the genius conclusion that Kahlo was a really good female Mexican painter.
For me the show is excellent, but the point is missed and the forensic neo-narrative woven around the exhibits condescends. For me, what is extraordinary about Kahlo is not her association with Rivera, or her disability, or her gender, or her frustrated desire to bear children. The extraordinary thing about Kahlo is the intensity of her vision and her ability to manifest this in sometimes painfully frank and candid visual terms. This work is not cosy and for me it sits uneasily with the risible armchair revelation that she was sensual, witty and ironic – no kidding Sherlock. I would much preferred to have a more candid thesis to mobilise the marvellous materials in this show and to talk about death and Catholicism and the darkness that is inextricably linked to Kahlo’s nightmarish, Day of the Dead sensibility and the bridge between good and evil and the living and the dead. I greatly respect the curatorial intention to select works according to an analytical criterion in search of difference, but ask the elephant in the room if this is what really compels us about Kahlo’s intent.
My translation of the exhibition blurb tells us that 'Frida Kahlo. Beyond the myth', intends to overcome the simplistic view of the Mexican artist's work, derived from the inextricable intertwining of her life and her work, showing that for a serious and thorough analysis of her poetics it is necessary to go beyond the limits of her biography, overcoming the consolidated myth which has been fed by the fashions of the last decades.
Diego Sileo, curator of the exhibition and art historian specialized in contemporary Latin American art states: "Paradoxical as it may seem, it is precisely the large number of exhibition events dedicated to Frida Kahlo that led to the creation of this new project because - contrary to what appears - the legend that was created around the artist's life often only serves to obscure the effective knowledge of her poetics".
The work is fabulous, the exhibition really well worth a visit and the curation is methodical, but don’t be fooled by the smart language and solid curatorial method, Kahlo’s work is raw, visceral, unmanageable and undeniable. The show reiterates the artist’s power but inversely renders the worthy curatorial hypothesis oddly shallow.