Arts & Culture · Fine Art

The World of Frida Kahlo

1 Pyramid at the Casa Azul

“Frida Kahlo: Art. Garden. Life,” The New York Botanical Garden
May 16 – November 1, 2015.

Painter Frida Kahlo (1907–1954) personified drama and self-invention. The daughter of a European father—a photographer—and a Mexican mother (half Spanish and Amerindian), she was born and died in Casa Azul (the Blue House), located in Cayoacán, now a bohemian neighborhood in Mexico City. With her husband, fellow artist Diego Rivera, she created a home, studio, and garden there. The garden, which expanded over the years, consciously celebrated Mexican plants and the folk artistry of Mexicans. Now through November 1, a wonderful and unique exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden is celebrating the visually rich world of Kahlo’s home, garden, and art—with a strong accent on the garden.

Like so many early 20th century female artists operating in a world dominated by men (Louise Nevelson and Georgia O’Keeffe, to name only two), she crafted through her appearance, as well as her art, a distinctive “image,” (in today’s parlance, a “brand”), one that was way ahead of its time and today inspires more respect than it did in her lifetime.

 

3Frida Kahlo and husband Diego Rivera

She presented herself—in photographs, paintings, and to the press—as a colorful visual icon. She dressed in a highly flamboyant and singular style—a costume of long skirts and peasant-like outfits—that hid a leg damaged from polio and a body fractured in a dreadful bus-trolley accident when she was 18.

 4                  Photograph of Frida Kahlo by Giselle Freund

The accident resulted in multiple hospitalizations, a lifetime of pain, and an inability to have children. Bedridden for months, she abandoned her dream of becoming a doctor and began to paint—primarily self-portraits, since, as she put it, “I am the subject I know best.” Also, perhaps, as the daughter of a photographer, she understood the power of presenting a distinctive image: in her case, a complex image that incorporated and elevated the flora and fauna of a mythical Mexico as well as the indigenous culture of its people.

 5Slide of a Frida Kahlo Painting

Kahlo’s inner and outer life was always at the center of her art. Pain, suffering, hospitals, and medical images haunt many of her works, alongside bright Mexican colors and dramatically symbolic Mexican animals, plants, and flowers.

It’s an immersive experience, exploring the Kahlo exhibition. It was created by a team of specialists, including guest curator Adriana Zavala, director of Latino studies at Tufts, and Francisca Coelho, principal horticulturalist of exhibitions. It can be enjoyed on multiple levels—for the art, for the plantings, for Kahlo’s story, style and beliefs, or for all of the above—depending on one’s interests and patience.

If you’ve never been to the Bronx Botanical Garden, this is a great time of year to visit. Apart from the exhibition, it’s an oasis of calm and beauty, where you can simply stroll, picnic, and visit the multiple gardens and arboretums within the 250-acre property.

 8Frida Kahlo’s “Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird,” at the Mertz Library/Art Gallery Façade

The exhibition is divided between two buildings. In the Mertz Art Gallery, you will find a small collection of Kahlo’s paintings and works on paper, highlighting her use of botanical imagery and her lesser-known still-lifes, as well as large-scale photographs of Casa Azul’s garden.

However, it is the greenhouses of the Haupt Conservatory that contain the botanic heart of the exhibition: lush, plant-lined paths with a wide variety of flowers, trees and succulents that thrive in Mexico, and the piece de resistance, Kahlo’s garden and studio at the Casa Azul, (including a facsimile of the pyramid in its garden). Also, in the courtyard, nestled within the rectangular arms of the greenhouse, are several lily ponds and more cacti. They should not be missed.  

 

Inscription at Casa Azul Back of the Pyramid at Casa Azul Frida Kahlo’s studio at the Casa Azul Creating Casa Azul Images Cacti Reflecting Pool

(To view in full size, click the image to enlarge.)

I recommend going directly to the Conservatory where you can plunge into a mix of plantings, historic photographs and colorful elements from Casa Azul, masterfully designed by Scott Pask, who did the sets for “The Book of Mormon,” and the 2012 Monet exhibition at the Botanical Garden. I spent the majority of my time here, enjoying the colorful atmosphere of Kahlo’s inner and outer world.

For me, the Metz Gallery of Kahlo paintings and photographs, though interesting as background, especially the photographs, was a bit of a letdown. I was not allowed to photograph the paintings so, below, are two images of her work taken from a slide show.

 26Frida Kahlo’s “Still Life with Parrot”

                                               

27Frida Kahlo’s “Two Women with Monkey”

                                                28Snack Bar with Purple Sign: “Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life”

There are lots of places to snack as well as dine, though many visitors bring their own food, especially families with children. If you are looking for an unusual summer outing, one that is both educational and beautiful, this is definitely the place for you.

If you are without a car, as I was, the easiest way to get to the Bronx Botanical Garden is via Metro North. There is even a combined rail and garden ticket to be purchased. The commuter train, 22 minutes from Grand Central, stops directly across from the Mosholu Gate entrance to the Garden.

For more information, go to: www.nybg.org

All images by Eleanor Foa Dienstag.

 

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  • Elma Tapley June 25, 2016 at 6:19 pm

    Thanks for writing about it. Loved it!

    Reply