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Q&A: ‘Frida Kahlo: Her Photos’

Mexican artist Frida Kahlo is well-known for her iconic self-portraits. They are, in fact, what many of us most likely imagine when picturing Kahlo. A new exhibit at Artisphere in Arlington, Va., is offering a new look at the painter. After her death in 1954, more than 6,500 of her personal photographs were sealed. In 2007, that collection of photographs was opened. Through March 25 and for the first time in the United States, 259 of them are on display in “Frida Kahlo: Her Photos.”

Art Beat spoke by phone with Mexican photographer and exhibit curator Pablo Ortiz Monasterio from Mexico City. He is also author of the book, “Frida Kahlo: Her Photos,” from which the exhibit is based.

Describe the process of putting together the exhibition.

When Frida Kahlo died in 1954, [her husband] Diego Rivera decided that he was going to give [Kahlo’s] house, La Casa Azul, to the people of Mexico, as a museum. All the photographs in the house remained closed for 50 years. So when they decided to open the thing, they called me. I started looking, and the idea was to do a show with all the stuff that was there in La Casa Azul, which was not a very big museum. So when I was asked to curate that show, I did, but as I started looking at the work, I was so fascinated that I started working on a book, “Frida Kahlo: Her Photos.” The show is a result of that book.

Why were you so fascinated?

These photographs are visually just very exciting images. We learned very quickly that there are the big names in photography from the 20th century…a lot of very famous photographers. Also, some of those photographs she took herself. Suddenly, to have this very, very famous artist that was also a photographer was like a novelty. So that became also very interesting. Going through those images was a wonderful and absolute treasure. Through these photographs, you kind of get a closer, intimate view, of who was Frida, and how did she live.

What can we learn about Kahlo’s life through these photographs?

It shows how she was influenced in her work. One part of the exhibition is about her origins, and mostly her father, Guillermo Kahlo, who was a very fine photographer. In Frida Kahlo’s archive, there were many self-portraits of Guillermo Kahlo. So when Frida started painting, what does she do? She had seen her father do self-portraits. So she does self-portraits too, and that is the main body of her work. When experts started studying the work of Frida, a lot of them saw Diego’s influence, [who was also an important painter]. Maybe the big influence was not Diego, but was her father, her mother, her family. It’s a way for people to understand why Frida painted what she painted.

There were over 6,500 photographs in La Casa Azul. How did you narrow them down for the exhibit?

These photos were used in the ’30s and ’40s as a kind of iconographic archive — they had no Internet. So there are a lot of photographs about important people, politicians. That was part of [Frida and Diego’s] interests. But we wanted to center on Frida, and not so much Diego.

Explain the layout of the exhibit.

The way it’s divided, there are six different sections. This is how we divided different subjects of Frida’s life: the origins, her family, amores [loves], the broken body, photography…. I must be honest. By the time I started working on the Frida exhibit, we were so tired of it. We’d seen it so much and she had become so big and she’s an icon. So part of the tension is to discover a novelty around Frida Kahlo, and not do the very obvious things that dozens of books on Frida do. We worked in terms of trying to present it in a way that was with some freshness.

What can visitors expect to understand about Kahlo’s character?

I would say that definitely, she was very devoted to friendship. She was very devoted to her father, in particular. She was acute in seeing and observing. She used photographs as models. Her accident [in 1925] was the biggest experience in terms of Frida’s life. She was in pain most of her life. That accident produced this immense physical pain and also psychological pain. It became a big obsession in terms of life and death, and it was difficult to face that. As she grew up, she had this strategy that I find is very clear in her paintings, and you can also see it in the photographs. Instead of avoiding it and not trying to look straight at pain and at suffering, she said, ‘Let’s talk about it. Let’s write about it. Let’s paint it. Let’s photograph it.’ One of the photographs in which she has a neck brace is dedicated to Diego. And it’s strange. If you have a boyfriend, you don’t give him a photograph in which you are in pain, but Frida would do that. So those are the elements in which you see that she had a difficult life and she overcame it. Through that attitude, she became a great artist and a very influential figure in Mexican culture.

What was your experience like working on this exhibit?

You know, when I started, I was already fed up with this Frida-mania. And then, by going deep into Frida’s life and really studying and looking closely and trying to link events and people and periods of Mexican history and specific works of Frida…suddenly, I really loved her…. I think she was a wonderful human being. She was fun, she was interesting, she was very bright, she was good looking, she was daring. I found this in these little images. So by the time I finished, I realized that I would have loved to be her friend, and have met her and drink with her. Now, I have this very intense feeling that I did after working on this for hours and hours and days and weeks and months and years. At the end, I had a feeling that she was part of my extended family, a very dear person.

“Frida Kahlo: Her Photos” is on display at Artisphere in Arlington, Va., through March 25.

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