FRIDA & DIEGO: PASSION, POLITICS AND PAINTING at the Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas West), to January 20. $25, srs $21.50, stu $16.50; Wednesday 6-8:30 pm $12.50. 416-979-6648. See listing. Rating: NNNN
In the 70s, when feminists rediscovered Frida Kahlo, I shocked my left-leaning mother by asserting that Kahlo was a better artist than her husband, Diego Rivera. Since then, Kahlo, the subject of plays, biographies and a Hollywood biopic, has eclipsed Rivera, in the 30s one of the world's pre-eminent painters, in the public imagination.
So I was ready to re-evaluate them at this exhibit in which curator Dot Tuer mixes the couple's work, sourced from three Mexican private collections. They're rarely shown together because the two are so different: muralist Rivera's epic, crowded compositions drew on Western history painting and a Mexicanized socialist realism; Kahlo, inspired by the folk tradition of retablo painting (small works asking for divine intervention), made an intensely personal chronicle of her own life.
But there's a reason for Kahlo's ascendance. Rivera's murals, his strongest work though dated by their naive faith in communism and industrial progress, are only represented here in reproduction and in black-and-white lithographs that reinterpret details from them. The exhibit includes two of Rivera's beautiful, famous folkloric paintings of rounded figures kneeling before flowers, but later work like The Hammock - two young women in bathing suits - and a series of small paintings of sunsets devolve into tourist images.
By contrast, there's something startlingly contemporary about Kahlo's development of a colourfully costumed persona that paid homage to her mestiza heritage and her vivid personal-is-political depiction of her experience of gender, disability (a survivor of polio, Kahlo began painting at 18 after devastating injuries in a bus accident) and ethnicity.
Photographs of Kahlo by Lola Alvarez Bravo and Nickolas Muray show that the persona represented in her self-portraits was part of her self-presentation, a layer that masked the agonizing back braces and corsets she had to wear.
Though her work may be overexposed, it's still a powerful experience to stare into the face of her self-portraits and heartbreaking to see her evocations of the pain of her multiple surgeries, miscarriage and stormy relationship with Rivera. Kahlo deserves her status as a feminist icon who was ahead of her time.