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TORONTO – They stand side by side in the photo: he, a great bear of a man, his thumb tucked jauntily into the waistband of his trousers; she, a bird of a woman, leaning into him. This image of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, giants of the Mexican art world in the 20th century, is the first thing that meets your eye in the new exhibition showcasing their works at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO).

“Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting” brings together more than 80 works by Kahlo and Rivera, and more than 60 photographs. Taken from three private collections of Mexican art, the Museo Dolores Olmedo, Colección Gelman and Galeria Arvil, the exhibition features Rivera’s early paintings in Europe, his later portraits and landscapes, as well as nearly a quarter of Kahlo’s body of work.

But this is a show with a difference. As Dot Tuer, cultural historian and professor at OCAD University, Toronto, and guest curator of the exhibition, explains: “In other exhibitions ... the works were not shown together. Frida was on one side of the gallery, and Rivera on the other, treating them as quite distinct.” Tuer was determined to put the two artists together. In the process, she became interested in both the affinities and the differences that shaped their creative vision.

What they have in common is neatly summed up by the title of the exhibition: passion, politics and painting. Their personal relationship was tempestuous. They were married, divorced and remarried, and both had affairs along the way.

They were both profoundly influenced by the two great revolutions of the early 20th century, the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20 and the Russian Revolution of 1917, and they became committed communists and socialists.

And then there’s the painting.

Rivera and Kahlo shared a vision of Mexico’s rich cultural past and its social development and greatly respected each other as artists, but they expressed their vision in very different ways. Rivera’s output was huge, both in size and in number: he painted more than 60,000 square feet of murals alone, and he painted the people. “Mexican mural painting made the masses the hero of monumental art,” he said. “That is to say, the man of the fields, of the factories, of the cities, and towns.” And, as Tuer says, he was the most famous artist in the world in 1931, even more famous than Picasso. Kahlo’s body of work is much smaller. Her paintings are intimate and autobiographical. The Surrealist movement embraced her in the 1930s, but she was not well known in the art world during her lifetime. Today, the pendulum has swung; the cult of Frida is everywhere, and Diego has lost his luster.

Rivera was born in Guanajuato, Mexico, in 1886. A gifted artist, he won a scholarship in 1907 to study in Spain. He later moved to Paris, where he rubbed shoulders with artists like Picasso, Braque and Modigliani. In 1921, he went back to Mexico to take part in a program of public mural art, painting more than 200 large frescos, including those in the Ministry of Education in Mexico City.

Kahlo was born in 1907 in Mexico City. Her father was of German origin and her mother was born in Oaxaca State of mixed Spanish and indigenous descent.She had polio as a child, and when she was 18, a horrific streetcar accident changed her life, crushing her plans of becoming a doctor and sending her spiraling down into a vortex of suffering, from which she never fully recovered.

Kahlo was 22 and Rivera 42 when they married (“A union between an elephant and a dove” was how Kahlo’s parents described it). They lived for a time in Detroit, where Rivera painted a huge mural for the Garden Court of the Detroit Institute of Arts, before returning to Mexico. As Kahlo’s health worsened in the 1940s, she spent much of her time at the Casa Azul, her much-loved family home, and it was here that she died in 1954. Rivera died three years later.

Tuer’s main aim as curator is to give a sense to a North American public of the dynamic cultural and political arena that these artists worked in during the 1920s and 1930s. Her second aim is to tell the story of Rivera and Kahlo together. “I wanted to counter the way in which Frida’s pain becomes the focus of her creative vision and Rivera is positioned as a monster who caused her suffering. From my point of view,” she says, “they were soul mates. They were the most important people to each other, but they were very complicated human beings.”

The exhibition has been arranged in more or less chronological order, showing the story of the two artists unfolding before you. Rivera’s early European works fill the first two rooms. He was immersed in cubism at that time, and many of these paintings reflect the spacial distortions and multiple view points of the cubist style.

In 1921, Rivera went home to paint the walls of Mexico. Would he have been a better artist if he’d stayed in Europe? No, says Tuer. “What Mexico gives him is a stage, a context. It gives him his subject matter and it gives him an inspirational structure. The European works are very accomplished, but they’re somehow unmoored from his homeland.” And although he was a wonderful easel painter, she says, the murals are his masterpieces.

Rivera’s 1943 “Calla Lily Vendor” is just one example in the exhibition of his powerful easel paintings, but we get only a tantalizing glimpse of his mural masterpieces. There is a reproduction of one of his best-known frescoes with Kahlo handing out arms to the people of Mexico; a video and some interactive views of his murals; and a detail from a 1931 fresco, “Flower Festival: Feast of Santa Anita,” which celebrates Mexican culture and rituals.

Another room is filled almost entirely with Kahlo’s self-portraits. These paintings are heartbreakingly personal, many of them portraying her with animals and dolls amid lush vegetation and often reflecting her mixed heritage – part European and part indigenous. In these paintings, Frida emphasized her trademark unibrow—that single sweep of eyebrow extending from temple to temple. It has become part of her persona, the image she constructed for herself to mask her suffering.

The focus of the exhibition may be on Kahlo and Rivera’s relationship and their artistic commitment to post-revolutionary Mexico, but there’s no hiding Kahlo’s pain: “I suffered two grave accidents in my life,” she said. “One in which a streetcar knocked me down. The other accident is Diego.” She was tormented by Rivera’s infidelity and her inability to have children. She repeatedly and courageously painted her pain: in “Henry Ford Hospital” of 1932, you see the miscarriage that almost killed her, and “The Broken Column” of 1944, painted shortly after she underwent spinal surgery, shows her in a body brace, her spine a crumbling column.

Archival photographs bring to sparkling life the couple’s tortured but passionate relationship. They pose for the camera: Frida stands in traditional Mexican dress with flowers in her hair, and Diego sits, holding a hat; they kiss, Frida with a cigarette in her hand, Diego with a gas mask in his; they demonstrate at a rally with their fists in the air. The earlier photos show us the public image that Kahlo worked so hard to create – her glamorous appearance, her flamboyant Mexican clothing, her love of communism – but later photos show her in hospital or in bed, revealing, like so many of her paintings, her pain and vulnerability.

The final room features an ofrenda, a traditional Mexican home altar made to honor the dead during Day of the Dead commemorations. This was created by Mexican artist Carlomagno Pedro Martinez, who hails from Oaxaca. Towering over the ofrenda are five papier mâché effigies or Judas figures created by Shadowland, a Toronto Island-based theater company. Rivera and Kahlo famously had Judas figures in their home as part of their Easter traditions; two of the huge figures at the AGO represent skeletons of the artists themselves.

The Frida & Diego experience doesn’t end when you leave the exhibition space. The AGO’s FRANK restaurant is offering a series of innovative Mexican-inspired prix-fixe lunch and dinner menus, rotating every two weeks for the duration of the exhibition. And that’s where the artistry of Yarymowich comes into the picture. Yarymowich has been with the AGO since 1996, initially with Agora Restaurant and more recently with FRANK. This restaurant is named for Frank Gehry, the architect who designed the extensive renovations to the AGO that were completed in 2008.

Executive Chef Anne Yarymowich explains: “What we like to do ... is to extend the experience of the gallery visitor who has gone to see the exhibit, to extend the flavors and the textures of the work in the exhibit.” Yarymowich’s team busied themselves over the summer preparing, vacuum packing and freezing local corn.

In their dishes, the corn and other locally grown vegetables like poblano peppers and tomatillos are married with the flavors of Mexico.

She also said the Frida cookies are a big hit. “We were just having fun with that. When we had Picasso here (the AGO’s last blockbuster exhibition), I did a little gingerbread man with a striped shirt, and they said we had to have a Frida cookie.” So visitors can enjoy a spicy cookie in the shape of Frida’s head and torso with their margaritas.

The cookies are also available at the Espresso Bar, giving you another reason to visit the airy Galleria Italia, that splendid Gehry-designed space made of wood and glass running the entire length of the front façade of the building.

If Dot Tuer’s aims in putting Frida & Diego together are realized, the North American public will get a new perspective on the complexities of the Frida and Diego story. This version of their story will be on view at the AGO until Jan. 20.

If you go:

Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas St. West, Toronto (www.ago.net; 877.225.4246). The gallery is open Tuesday and Thursday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; Wednesdays until 8:30 p.m. Closed Mondays.

VIP Hotel Packages are offered by nearby hotels such as the Delta Chelsea (from $189 for one night’s accommodation and two adult tickets to the Frida & Diego show), the Sheraton Centre Toronto and the Westin Harbour Castle Hotel.

Full details and online booking is available at www.ago.net/hotels.