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Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) and Diego Rivera (1886-1957), the talented and tempestuous Mexican artists whose paintings and love lives have captivated viewers for close to a century, are rarely exhibited together. It is felt that there is always the temptation to spend more time speculating on their marriages and love affairs than concentrating on their art. A new exhibition in Phoenix, however, shows the two positions are not mutually exclusive. Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera: from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection is on view at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. The Heard is known for its great collections of Native American art but their new director David Roche is expanding its purview.

Ángel Zárraga, "Retrato del Señor Jacques Gelman (Portrait of Mr. Jacques Gelman)," 1945
© 2016 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. /
Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and the INBA

Drawn from a single collection, the show is hardly comprehensive but the Gelmans were friends with both artists and bought many significant paintings for their collection of Mexican modern art. European émigré who met and married in Mexico City, Jacques Gelman was a film distributor. His wife Natasha was a blond beauty, painted by Rivera as a reclining seductress and by Kahlo as a scheming frenemy. Both artists, separately in age by 21 years, were regularly unfaithful often with dramatic consequences.

Diego Rivera, "Calla Lily Vendor," 1943
© 2016 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. /
Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and the INBA

Married, divorced and then remarried, their passion is undeniable in this exhibition. Rivera was considered the more important artist throughout Kahlo's lifetime but it is her Surrealist tinged, unflinchingly personal art that is now more popular. The show is organized chronologically from Rivera's Cubist abstraction to his society portraits to his celebration of indigenous themes on a grand scale such a rounded women in native dress with bundles of calla lilies.

Frida Kahlo, "Self-Portrait with Monkeys," 1943
© 2016 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. /
Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and the INBA

Kahlo, victim of a terrible accident at 18 that left her in pain for most of her life, documented her own torments, her identification with animals, and her abiding affection for Rivera. Some of the paintings are iconic, others not well known but all reveal her diaristic and emotional process.

Frida Kahlo, "Diego on my mind (Self-portrait as Tehuana)," 1943
© 2016 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. /
Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and the INBA

A parallel presentation includes a chronological display of black and white photographs taken of Kahlo from her youthful, eccentric beauty to her actual death bed by photographers of such renown as Edward Weston and Manuel Álvarez Bravo. More dramatic are the large scale color portraits taken in the 1930s by her lover Nickolas Muray, which are joltingly contemporary. Dressed in her typical multi-colored costumes and headdresses, she was posed like a goddess against varied complimentary backdrops. Another section of the show features actual costumes from Oaxaca similar to those worn by Kahlo.

The parallel to Georgia O'Keeffe is inescapable. Kahlo, who met O'Keeffe in New York and corresponded affectionately with her, recognized how the older artist quickly controlled the way she was photographed by her husband Alfred Stieglitz and countless others. Kahlo was equally aware of the importance of presentation, always appearing with her dark hair pulled back, a shawl wrapped around her flowing dresses.

In addition, the show includes prints taken by Kahlo's German father, Guillermo Kahlo, a photographer who documented the architecture and sites of Mexico. He helped to sensitize her to the visual world. There is less supporting material around Rivera but museum officials know that it is Kahlo, not her husband, who draws crowds. She gets top billing.

People at the opening were dressed as Frida. The museum shop is laden with Frida-oriented souvenirs.

The show was organized with concision but effect by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Phoenix is the show's only West Coast stop. It is on view through August 20.

Another view of Frida, very much oriented to biography, takes place this weekend in Robert Xavier Rodriguez's opera Frida at Grand Performances downtown and at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach. At the latter venue, you can see some of Muray's gorgeous portraits of his lover. 

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