One might think that as the subject of innumerable books, a Hollywood movie, and status as a feminist and artistic icon, there wouldn't be anything more to add to the conversation on Frida Kahlo. However, the recently opened exhibit at the New York Botanical Garden entitled, "Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life" is proof to the opposite.
The New York Botanical Garden, located in the Bronx, has previously presented shows that delve into an examination of public figures and their connections to nature and gardens. The subjects were Charles Darwin, Emily Dickinson, and Claude Monet.
With the Kahlo exhibit, visitors not only experience what the staff has termed "an evocation" of the artist's garden at the Casa Azul (Blue House), they have the opportunity to view artworks by Kahlo that specifically reference her relationship to the natural world.
Over two years in planning, a top-notch team was assembled to bring veracity to a replicated environment. Todd Forrest, Vice President for Horticulture and Living Collections, spoke about efforts to "create a sense of place." Kahlo's vegetation imagery was "rendered with botanical specificity," noted Forrest, who pointed out her "sophisticated understanding of plants."
Adriana Zavala, Ph.D, was tapped to be the guest curator. Author of Becoming Modern, Becoming Tradition: Women, Gender, and Representation in Mexican Art, Zavala brought a specific sensibility to her focus. Moving away from the drama of Kahlo's life and loves, her goal was to have attendees see Kahlo through "her plants and house," and to comprehend her as the "exuberant, deeply intelligent" intellectual that she was. Zavala spoke of Kahlo's work as being "charming and challenging -- reflecting a sharp wit." Qualifying Kahlo's home as an "extension of her personal cosmology," Zavala said, "There are still things to learn about Kahlo."
Leading several trips to Mexico, Zavala steered the exhibition team to resources needed for immersion in the sphere of all things Kahlo. This included researching archival materials and photographs of the garden at the time it was being developed. Scott Pask, a Broadway design veteran, implemented his digested analysis to formulate the "scenic design" he then staged in the Bronx. One of his stunning contributions was translating the organ cactuses situated at Kahlo's and Rivera's home In San Ángel to an "organ cactus wall" abutting the outside of the Courtyard Garden.
Kahlo's husband, Diego Rivera, is sharply felt in the Casa Azul, specifically in a regeneration of the pyramid that Rivera had built to house his pre-Hispanic collection. This structure is front and center, with each individual step showcasing flowering plants and and a vast array of succulents and cactuses.
The Mexican pots were hand-dyed with tea and coffee to capture the exact hue sought by Francisca Coelho, who designs and installs the major exhibitions in the Conservatory. At the base of the pyramid, are additional specimens.
In the Casa Azul setting, we see Kahlo's work table with paints, brushes, and books on botany. She regularly pressed flowers and leaves in the pages of her volumes of reading material. It was not surprising to learn that she observed specimens of insects and plants through her father's microscope.
Another feature of the exhibit is an installation by artist Humberto Spindola. Originated at the Museo Frida Kahlo in 2009, Spindola used the painting, Two Fridas, (1939) a quintessential Kahlo oil on canvas, as the premise for his creation. Building mannequins structured from reeds, hemp, yarn, and wax, and dressing them in acid-free tissue paper colored with special pigments, Spindola incorporates traditional Mexican folk art techniques to fabricate the dresses from the painting. Kahlo's two outfits, one of European derivation and the other from her mother's region of Oaxaca, share equal power in the balanced halves of Kahlo's personal character.
In a performance piece, two male models in wearable versions of the clothing, walked in opposite directions circling the sculpture. The use of men to embody both Fridas operates as a subtle nod to Kahlo's fluid sexuality.