Frida Takes Berlin: A Kahlo Retrospective in Germany

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Markus Schreiber / AP

The paintings 'Magnolias', 'Self-Portrait with Small Monkey' and 'The Mask'of painter Frida Kahlo are seen at the Frida Kahlo Retrospective exhibition in Berlin

If Frida Kahlo were alive today, would she be a blogger? At a viewing of the new retrospective of Kahlo's works at Berlin's Martin Gropius Bau museum, I am struck by how effectively she translated her personal suffering to her art — from her tragic bus accident and the stillbirth of her only child to the infidelity of her husband, muralist Diego Rivera. And it's easy to imagine Kahlo posing in front of a webcam in her traditional Mexican dress in a room adorned with exotic flowers and fruits. Yet for someone who has achieved cult status for the way she spilled her guts onto the canvas, Kahlo's work remains wrapped in an aura of mystery. "You can't separate the paintings from her biography," says Helga Prignitz-Poda, the curator of "Frida Kahlo — Retrospective," which runs until Aug. 9. "But there is always another layer."

Kahlo was born in Coyoacán, Mexico in 1907 and was crippled in a bus crash at the age of 18. Her father, a German expatriate photographer, gave her a set of paints while she was bedridden. One of her first paintings was the Self-Portrait in Velvet Dress, from 1926. She spent the rest of her life in pain from the accident and underwent surgery nearly two dozen times. And it is now believed that Kahlo also suffered from an undiagnosed spinal disease. But her pain wasn't only physical: Kahlo's heart was broken by Rivera's serial infidelity. So she had an affair with Leo Trotsky, whom Kahlo and Rivera sheltered temporarily while he was in exile in Mexico, and had several lesbian affairs.

Kahlo received little recognition as a painter in her lifetime. But during the 1970s, she was rediscovered, especially by the growing feminist movement. While Kahlo always put something of herself in her work, the Berlin exhibit shows that her art was not purely autobiographical. She was constantly reinvented herself, creating a new persona to transport her ideas. At one point, for example, she gave her birth date as July 6, 1910, not to make herself younger but to link her birth with the year of the Mexican revolution. Her paintings are full of references to religion, ranging from the pietà in Christian art to yin-yang symbols to Buddhism references. "She was a very literate woman and she transferred these ideas into her works," says Prignitz-Poda.

Over the past three years, Prignitz-Poda has hunted down as many of Kahlo's paintings and drawings as she could find to assemble into the largest ever retrospective of Kahlo's works to be shown in Germany and, perhaps, in Europe. No small task, considering there are only two major Kahlo collections, one in the Dolores Olmedo Patino Museum in Xochimilco, Mexico and the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art in Cuernavaca. In "Frida Kahlo — Retrospective," both of these collections are on show in their entirety and together for the first time.

Among the classics on display is The Broken Column, a surrealist self-portrait in which Kahlo depicts her spine as a fractured Greek column, held together by a corset. Her lower body is wrapped in a white linen cloth, reminiscent of images of Christ. In the background, Kahlo's head is juxtaposed against the sky, but her crippled body is placed against a barren, lunar landscape. With such images, Kahlo appears to represent the suffering of all women and it's easy to see why Kahlo has become a feminist icon. "It shows everything of Frida Kahlo: her broken body, the surrealism, and the dry landscape ... which depicts her inability to have children," says Carlos-Phillip Olmedo, director of the Olmedo collection and son of Dolores Olmedo, a patron of Diego Rivera.

Beyond the two major collections, the rest of Kahlo's work is spread among no fewer than 45 museums and private collections, ranging from U.S. and Mexican museums to private collectors. "We had to work like detectives to locate the paintings and drawings," says Prignitz-Poda. However, some of Kahlo's most popular paintings — such as The Two Fridas, one with an open, bleeding heart and the other with her heart whole, and The Little Deer, a surrealist image of the artist as a deer pierced by many arrows — are too delicate to travel and are absent from the Berlin exhibit. "I tried to get every painting, but some collectors would not part with them," says Prignitz-Poda.

While scouring the world for Kahlo paintings, Prignitz-Poda turned up a few gems that make the Berlin exhibition stand out. She found several of Kahlo's last works, created in 1954 shortly before her death, including the self-portrait depicting the artist in a sunflower. The sunflower painting and the plaster corset that Kahlo was forced to wear — and which she decorated in paint — were once believed to have been lost, but are now on display in Europe for the first time. "Frida Kahlo — Retrospective" also shows 90 Kahlo drawings, many of them in a completely different style from her paintings and many of which have never been seen in Europe.

While the exhibition goes to great lengths to extract the paintings from a purely biographical context — they are not arranged chronologically, as is typical for Kahlo shows, for example — visitors can get an intimate look into Kahlo's private life through a collection of photographs taken of her with her family by famous photographers, including Nickolas Muray, an early pioneer of color photography. The photography exhibition was curated by professional photographer Cristina Kahlo, the artist's grandniece. "You can never tell whether the photographer is arranging a shooting of Frida or whether Frida is arranging the photograph the way she wants it to be," says Cristina.

Kahlo was often lonely and created her self-portraits for friends, signing them with message like "So you don't forget about me." Maybe it's a good thing Facebook and blogs didn't exist back then, since it was Kahlo's need to reach out that was the driving force behind her intimate, enigmatic art.