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3 pixel gap Sunflowers, by Diego Rivera, 1943, oil on canvas

Sunflowers, by Diego Rivera, 1943, oil on canvas - one of the stunning paintings on display in the Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW.   Picture: supplied © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of Mexican Art

Frida and Rivera - one of the great
love stories and a top art exhibition



What: Exhibition of more than 30 artworks by Frida Kahlo and Diegi Rivera and 49 photos
Where: Art Gallery of NSW
When: Exhibition finishes October 9
Tickets: $18, $16 concession, $14 member, $44 family (2 adults + up to 3 children), $8 child (5-17 years), free for children under 5
Getting there: About 10 minutes walk from St James station

The paintings of Diego Rivera have long been among my favourite works of art. I adore the vivid colours, vibrance and iconic imagery of The Flower Sellers, Lilies and Sunflowers series of paintings, which are in strict contrast to the more sombre tones of his extraordinarily powerful murals reflecting the lives of the working class and native peoples of Mexico, which rank among his best works.


Frida Kahlo, however, was not at the top of my list of great artists, mostly because the paintings I had seen were hard paintings - works that came about as a result of the trauma of physical and pyschological events from her childhood and early adult life. Works that were emotionally raw and visually disturbing. Kahlo rejected being tagged as a surrealist but gosh many of her paintings certainly had the appearance of surrealism.


Frida's early childhood affliction with polio and an accident on a bus as a young woman - which damaged her spine and caused her to have 32 operations during her lifetime, resulting in her having to wear a metal corset for the rest of her life - shaped her early works. But the hardest of her paintings came about as a result of the extreme anguish she suffered after a miscarriage. These paintings depicted a butchered Frida, her stomach ripped apart, aborted foetuses and a constant flow of body organs. At times in her life Frida used her personal tragedies as key ideas in her art. Still, I found this side of her work ghoulish and her artworks hardly appealed to me as paintings I would want to hang on my walls.


Take for example The Two Fridas, said to be a painting depicting her deep hurt at losing her husband Rivera and regarded as one of her most notable works. I love the rich colours and Frida's depiction of herself as having two personnas - each shaped by her love for Rivera - but I can't get past the exposed hearts and tangle of arteries. To my mind these symbolic devices mar what should have been the most beautiful of paintings. Whenever Frida got emotionally or physically hurt, it seemed, out came the body parts.


But I'm pleased to say the oil paintings by Frida currently on dispay at the Art Gallery of NSW, which are part of the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, show a different side of Frida Kahlo's work as an artist. The softer, more gentle, less anguished side. Most of the paintings on display in this exhibition are self-portraits that chronicle the passage of her life. Minus the body parts, thankfully. The Gelmans have cherrypicked the Kahlo painting for their collection. No tough canvses here. Two of the self-portraits - Self-portrait with monkeys and Diego on my Mind - are among her most accliamed works.


When you Frida's the softer works, the self-portraits, you can't help but be impressed. What surprised me most is how beautiful they are, both visually and emotionally. The richness of colours, and the luminosity of the paintings due to the way in which Frida uses whites and light tones in the centre of her paintings, hit home. Under the gallery's bright lights the self-portraits literally glow. None of the many images on the Internet do justice to how stunning these paintings are when you see them in real life.


Self-portrait with monkeys, by Frida Kahlo, 1943, oil on canvas

Self-portrait with monkeys, by Frida Kahlo, 1943, oil on canvas.   Picture: supplied © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of Mexican Art


One of her most acclaimed works, Self-portrait with monkeys, glistens under light due to the vibrance of the skin tones and the tonal contrast between Frida and the monkeys and the vegetation. Skin tones are delicately graduated through the use of fine brush strokes. It has been said that Frida Kahlo uses different tones to add a sense of reality and to make her paintings look 3D-ish and this is evident in the Monkeys painting.


A great many art critiques have been written about about monkeys being a symbol of lust, Frida's bonds with the natural world, and the monkeys in the painting there to protect her. There is all that in the work and more. Frida is at ease with the monkeys and the lush natural environment, moreso than the physical world that has maimed her and tested her mental health and wellbeing through her precarious relationship with Rivera.


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Diego on my mind, by Frida Kahlo, 1943, oil on masonite. 

Diego on my mind, by Frida Kahlo, 1943, oil on masonite.   Picture: © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of Mexican Art


The self portrait Thinking of Diego is particularly interesting in that Frida started it in 1940 - the year she and Rivera divorced. (She finished the painting in 1943.) Although she isn't able to come to terms with Rivera's womanising, this painting shows how much he is in her thoughts and, as depicted in the minature portrait of Rivera on her forehead, how much he is on her mind.

She paints herself in a traditional Tehuana costume, one she knows Rivera admires, as though this will draw him back to her. From the costume threads grow, perhaps spider webs that represent the tangled web she is caught up in in her love for Rivera. There is no look of joy on Frida's face, only the bitterness that comes from the acceptance that her love for Rivera will never be returned in the same context.


This painting, depicting her in a shawl with delicate white flowers on a subtle pink background, is luminescent and undeniably beautiful, and I can even forgive that small detracting image of Rivera emblazoned on Frida's forehead.


There is a black and white photo in the collection that shows Rivera watching Frida paint this very painting. You could be forgiven for thinking that the expression on Rivera's face reflects that he knows only too well what this work is all about.


Although this exhibition is titled "Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera: from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection", it has to be said that this is largely an exploration of the life of Frida and Rivera, in particular Frida. There is a big emphasis on the telling of the Frida and Rivera story with detailed timelines set up on walls in the exhibit rooms. There are more than 30 artworks exhibited along with 49 photos by internationally known American and Mexican photographers such as Leo Matiz, Martin Munkácsi and Nickolas Muray that track the artists' lives from 1911 through to the 1950s, but most of the artworks are Frida's and most of the photographs are either of Frida, or else Frida and Rivera together. That's okay because although Rivera is by far the more acclaimed of the two as an artist, it's Frida who stands out as a heroine in history, and rightly so.




So what about Rivera, you ask? Well, there are two excellent paintings by him in this collection - one is Sunflowers, 1943, and the other, Portrait of Natasha Gelman - but you won't find his best works in this collection.


The Frida Kahlo/Diego Rivera relationship is one of the great love stories of all time, immortalised in the excellent film Frida, starring Salma Hayek and Alfred Molina, and here in the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection there is the opportunity to immerse yourself in a love story unparalled in the art world. Highly recommended.


- Rod Ashcroft


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The bride who becomes frightened when she sees life opened, by Frida Kahlo, 1943, oil on canvas. 

The bride who becomes frightened when she sees life opened, by Frida Kahlo, 1943, oil on canvas.   Picture: supplied © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of Mexican Art