Will Bowen | Downtown News
You walk through a bland beige Navy barracks door into a room filled with unexpectedly bright colorful walls, decorated with paintings, photographs, furniture, rugs, bric a brac, and false windows, giving you the feeling that you, like Alice, may have fallen down a rabbit hole through space and time into the Mexican home of Frida Kahlo, considered by many to be the best woman painter of all time.
It takes a bit to get your bearings and find a place to begin. But soon you begin to walk, turn corners, and enter new rooms. You see her bed and her dresser, her necklaces and dresses, all the external trappings from her life, and there on the walls you see her life, her loves, her losses, and her feelings captured for all time. Luckily, there are comfortable old upholstered chairs for you to sit upon and ponder — to take it all in and let it affect you.
These rooms of the gallery space are comforting, but a bit macabre, a bit eerie, something like the Day of The Dead. And there is a wisp of romantic Mexican folk music coming from somewhere and it is feeds your emotional experience.
Slowly you go deeper into her psyche and you begin to love her.
Everywhere are her self portraits; the stern serious face, the tight lips, the dignity of pain; the ancient Indian jewelry, the colorful dresses, the dark eyebrows that meet above the nose, the hint of a man’s mustache, the eyes that see the political oppression of the peasants and the Indians of Mexico.
Time travel. It’s 1907 — Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo de Calderon is born in a blue house in a suburb of Mexico City, the daughter of a German emigrant and a Mexican mother. 1925 — she is in a bus accident that almost kills her and leaves her unable to bear children and in immense lifelong back pain. 1929 — she marries Diego Rivera, the larger than life mural painter who is twice her age. 1939 — she divorces Rivera because he is having an affair with her younger sister. 1940 — they remarry but live mostly separate lives, each having their own lovers. 1954 — at the age of 47 she dies in her sleep weakened by a botched back operation that leaves her reliant on pain killers and alcohol which rob her of her artistic gift.
It’s a tragic life and Frida is a tragic swan. “I have been murdered by life,” she once wrote. But she has captured her pain in her paintings and given her suffering universal meaning.
Frida was a great painter and a hero for all women. Her realistic portraits are superb in themselves, but she pushed art into new places when she began to add the surrealistic and the symbolic to her work, and made her paintings emotionally alive. The blood drips from a severed vein in her heart and turns into red flowers on her long white dress; and you bleed with her.
Alex Obregon is the museum docent and security guard. He is surrounded by Frida’s work for eight hours a day. “It’s very emotional,” he said. “To be surrounded by this art all day long. You can feel her emotion and her pain.”
Obregon’s favorite painting — the one he stares at every day — is of her feet in the bathtub, and in the water all kinds of abstract images from her unconscious are brought to life as visual images — things like the Empire State Building being consumed by a Mexican volcano or man in an Aztec mask strangling her with a rope.
Joanne Castro, a biology student at Golden West College who drove down from her home in Buena Park just to see the show, has a different favorite painting. She likes the painting of Frida surrounded by all her long hair that Rivera so loved, which she has cut off after her divorce from him, to spite him. Above the image of Frida, incorporated into the painting, is a bar of musical notes and the words of a song which she must have sung to herself.
“Her paintings are so colorful and vibrant,” Castro said. “She puts her life into them.”
On one wall we see the small painting of Frida emerging from her mother’s body at childbirth. This is the painting that Madonna paid $1 million for at auction. Madonna said, “If you don’t like this painting you are not my friend.”
Andrea Wilson is the tour manager of the exhibit and also works in the exhibit bookstore and gift shop. She graduated from UCSD with a degree in communications. “I enjoy Frida’s life story,” Wilson said. “It’s tragic and passionate.”
Frida Kahlo’s final diary entry: “I hope the exit is joyful … and I hope never to return. Frida.”
In addition to the reproductions of Frida’s work, the exhibit also features a fascinating wall of the Mexican folk art of Ex-voto, which are small paintings commissioned to praise a saint who has answered your prayers. Although most are painted on paper, one of them is painted on a tin can that has been rolled flat, and another on a round tortilla cooker.
At the exit of the exhibit, there are a handful of quest books signed by visitors from all over the world — most with glowing reports of satisfaction with the show.
This exhibition has been controversial for some, because all the paintings are copies made in a Chinese art commune just outside of Beijing, where one of the curators teaches. But it doesn’t matter; they are good enough and taken all together, give you a good overview and perspective on Frida’s life work. The exhibition is like thumbing through an oversized art book, which opens up and comes to life.
It is a wonderful exhibition and a must see. The curators have put a tremendous amount of research into it. It’s being held over an extra month or so, so see it if you haven’t been and plan to spend at least three hours. You can pack a lunch and eat it on one of the many tables that adjoin the bookstore.
The exhibit can be found at Barracks 3 at 2765 Truxtun Rd., NTC at Liberty Station, and is open Tue., Wed., and Sun. from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Thur. through Sat. 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. For more information, visit thecompletekahlo.com.