After six endlessly long months of closure, four San Francisco Museums, the de Young Museum (opening September 25, 2020), the Asian Art Museum (October 3, 2020), SFMOMA (October 4, 2020), and The Contemporary Jewish Museum (October 17, 2020) are re-opening to the public. All are permitting only reduced capacity with safety measures in place. I was delighted to be among the first to attend the newly opened de Young Museum by viewing the largely biographical exhibit “Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving.”
The uniquely attractive Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo (1907–1954), has reached iconic status for her inimitable life and persona, as much as for her art. She was raised in Mexico City by her Mexican mother and her German father and lived there throughout her life. Kahlo’s health was debilitated first by polio, and then by a traumatic bus accident, which caused her lifelong pain and medical disabilities. Her interest in painting began in 1925 after the accident. At age 22, Kahlo married 43-year-old Mexican artist and muralist Diego Rivera (1886–1957). The two shared a love of Mexican art and culture and revolutionary politics. Their marriage was difficult and tumultuous at times. After a 1939 divorce, they remarried about a year later in San Francisco.
The intriguing “Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving” highlights many of Kahlo’s possessions from her lifelong Mexico City home, La Casa Azul (now, the Museo Frida Kahlo). Closeted away following Kahlo’s death in 1954, these personal items were unsealed 50 years later in 2004. The poignant personal belongings, family photographs, letters, medical corsets, jewelry, and cosmetics seem to minimize the 34 interesting Kahlo drawings, and paintings. Photographs of Kahlo, by Nickolas Muray, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, Gisèle Freund, and Lola Álvarez Bravo, are striking and provocative. The assortment of Kahlo’s extravagant, colorful, long Tehuana /European costumes looks fabulous.
Unique to the San Francisco show are some of Kahlo’s drawings and paintings from private collections. On public view for the first time, they were created during Kahlo’s stay in San Francisco. The exhibition also contains a vitrine of pre-Hispanic Mexican sculpture from the permanent collection of the San Francisco Fine Arts Museums, which, while never owned by Kahlo, are indicative of some pieces from her collection.
After arranging for timed tickets online for the Kahlo show, I waited on a mid-day, socially-distanced line on the main floor of the museum in order to enter the show. The wait line meandered around like a TSA checkpoint, while the museum staff let a few of the masked patrons enter at short intervals.
The Kahlo exhibit, which first opened in Mexico City (2012), then traveled to London (2018), and Brooklyn (2019), was not designed to be viewed during a pandemic. Many of the exhibit objects are small and are placed against the gallery walls. This made it difficult to get close to the items and their placards without either waiting patiently for an empty spot or crowding in. So it would be best to see the show early in the day, and after the first blush of enthusiasm for the exhibit has subsided. The remainder of the museum seemed peaceful and empty.
This unique exhibition of Frieda Kahlo’s possessions and artwork gives one new insight into the life and works of this original and creative artist. It was wonderful to be back at the de Young Museum.
By Emily S. Mendel
© Emily S. Mendel 2020 All Rights Reserved