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Too little, too late: Artisphere paints Kahlo’s life
If you are offered a magnifying glass while walking into an art exhibit, it is natural for a bit of confusion to set in. These sentiments set the tone for Frida Kahlo: Her Photos, the highly anticipated U.S. premiere exhibition at Rosslyn’s Artisphere, as Kahlo’s photos hold their own element of surprise.
While one might expect to see deeply personal photos taken by Kahlo, offering a glimpse into her complicated marriage with Diego Rivera or her friendship with Leon Trotsky, the featured photos are not “hers” in the way that viewers might assume. Rather, the collection of more than 250 photos consists of those that Kahlo owned, making the collection a display of Kahlo’s interests and surrealist vision as opposed to her art itself. With the exception of a handful of photos taken by the artist herself, the majority are photos taken by famous photographers of her day, most notably Man Ray, Brassaï, and Tina Modotti. The exhibit’s title is misleading in another sense; in addition to not being taken by Kahlo, the photos are copies that are aged through a careful process to make them look like the originals.
However, a larger issue than the misleading content of the exhibit is the overt dullness of the collection. If visitors are not drawn in by the way Frida once selected, saved and annotated some of these images—among over 6,000 were found at her home in Mexico, Casa Azul—visitors will likely be left underwhelmed by the exhibit. The miniscule size of the photos compounds the general disenchantment that the exhibit provokes, as the pictures are far too small to see and, for that matter, to appreciate—hence the magnifying glasses offered to Artisphere visitors. For an artist who was heralded for her bold and colorful style, these tiny snapshots offer an unsatisfying peek into the incredible life behind her art.
There are, however, a few gems tucked away in the painstaking collection of tiny photos. One notable image by Tina Modotti, an Italian artist and political activist, shows overlaid images of an ear of corn, a guitar neck, and a crescent of bullets arranged in a way that captures the Soviet Union’s hammer and sickle. Another standout is a photo of Kahlo with her doctor, positioned next to her last signed self-portrait in her studio at the Casa Azul. This photo is particularly striking, as it is one of few on display connecting images of her personal history to her artistic career.
The biographical context of the collection is another missing element that the exhibit would benefit from including. Frida’s dramatic and compelling personal history, from her debilitating accident at the age of fifteen to her countless affairs with men and women, is hinted at but for the most part left unexplained.
In the only U.S. venue of this traveling exhibition, Frida Kahlo: Her Photos tries to take on the tricky task of capturing an artistic icon’s private life. While the Artisphere exhibit contains some interesting tidbits of Kahlo’s collected images, her photos might be best served to return to their original exhibit at Frida’s Mexican home. Someone should have told the Artisphere that Kahlo’s own studio would have been a better setting for an exhumation of her knickknacks.