seven things I learnt from philadelphia’s frida kahlo exhibit


1. People can get a bit possessive about Kahlo.

….and I am no exception. Crowds of people milling around small portraits reminded me of jocks clamoring around a popular girl at a party. Kahlo’s work has its own presence and you don’t want to share her with anyone. When someone would crowd my space, I questioned their right to hang out with my Frida. And I experienced the same looks from bystanders myself.

2. Audio tours don’t have to suck

I thought I was too punk-rock for an audio tour, however I’m glad I took up the silly looking headset for some genuinely insightful commentary. There’s the plummy voiced curator who does all the contextual natterings (and jolly good natterings they are) and there’s also commentary by female artists like Patti Smith about how Kahlo inspires their work.

3. Don’t assume you know Kahlo’s paintings

….because seeing them close up is a whole new experience. Before the exhibit, I would claim My Dress Hangs There to be one of my favorite Kahlo works. It still is, but I didn’t realize how ignorant I was about all the little details. Other works, like Moses, have a mandala-like complexity that gift books seem to miss.

4. Look at the frames!

Another detail that I’d completely missed is how Kahlo deploys the pictures frames – such as the thick red blood splattered in “Just a Few Nips”

5. “ex voto

Kahlo’s affinity with indigenous Mexican traditions is well-documented, although I didn’t know about how she uses the specific tradition of ex-voto. Ex voto is (according to my notes scribbled on a museum flyer) religious paintings/painted on tin/ given in thanks to saints for answered prayers/. You can see some examples and more info here. This is a whole tradition of “outsider art” and there are some anonymous ex-votos featured in the exhibit. Could ex-votos reveal a “hidden tradition” of women artists? Maybe. Kahlo draws from this tradition, using the same naive style and tin materials, perhaps with a slightly ironic smile.

6. Kahlo is timeless

Yes, it’s a cliched thing to say about an artist. But hey, I found I needed to remind myself over and over of the time in which Kahlo painted. For I always imagine her to be more contemporary than what she was, thinking she could still be alive and 80 years old somewhere. But the exhibit marks 100 years since her birth. I think it’s her unflinching subjectivity that keeps her outside time. Because she paints of her own truths: a pained body, a co-dependent relationship, her own reflection; her work doesn’t seem to age the way other works might.

7. This is how to “do” a retrospective

This is a thorough, well-thought out exhibit that leaves one well satisfied. It’s not like other retrospectives I’ve been to, where there’s only one or two “star” pieces amongst dregs of unfamiliar, boring bits. The Philadelphia exhibit does Kahlo’s most popular works justice, with enough background info and lesser-known pieces to truly celebrate Frida Kahlo.


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