Through Jan. 19

Lecture by Gannit Ankori: Thursday, Nov. 14, 7 p.m., $8–$10

North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh

Almost seventy years after her death, Frida Kahlo, the Mexican communist painter, is one of America’s favorite brands. Her intense unibrowed face, her folkloric traditional clothing, and her tragic biography are all objects of cult worship.

The exhibit Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism, currently on view at the North Carolina Museum of Art, underscores the sad fate of Kahlo’s legacy as an iconoclastic proto-feminist painter whose image has come to overshadow her politically confrontational, albeit deeply personal, self-portraiture.

Drawn from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman collection, the exhibit purports to contextualize Kahlo and her husband, Rivera, by placing their works alongside paintings or photographs by their Mexican modernist peers. Consisting of a small number of paintings by Kahlo and Rivera; paintings and photographs by the likes of David Siqueiros, Rufino Tamayo, and Manuel Álvarez Bravo; and an immense trove of photographs of Kahlo herself, the exhibit capitulates— even panders—to the image cult of Kahlo.

Some of the works by other Mexican modernists are genuinely wonderful, such as Rufino Tamayo’s 1948 “Portrait of Cantinflas,” which portrays the famous Mexican comedian as a slightly sad, evil clown figure in a post-Cubist style.

Other highlights include a self-portrait by David Alfaro Siqueiros and the geometric abstractions in oil of Gunther Gerzso, which capture Mexican modernism’s hybridization of indigenous architecture with modern art’s formal reductions. Manuel Álvarez Bravo’s gelatin silver prints of cone-shaped cacti and rolled-up mattresses also start to build a story about the Mexican movement’s experimentation with abstraction as a practice of reducing vernacular objects to elemental forms.

Kahlo’s use of traditional Tehuana dress becomes another trinket to move plastic-flower crowns in the museum’s gift shop.

But overall, the exhibit does not provide sufficient infrastructure for novice viewers to learn about the intellectual and political underpinnings of Mexico in the first half of the twentieth century. The sheer amount of space dedicated to photographic portraits of Kahlo by the likes of Gisèle Freund, Nickolas Muray, and Guillermo Dávila risks erasing her as a thinker and painter while upholding her as fashion icon.

These photos range from the glamorous to literal death portraits. Hungarian fashion and advertising photographer Nickolas Murray’s vivid color prints of Kahlo, which take up most of one room in the exhibit, embody its overly aestheticized take on Kahlo and Mexican modernism.

Murray’s portraits are some of the most famous photographs of Kahlo, capturing the almost-psychedelic tumeric and teal hues she favored, her rouged cheeks, and her red lipstick. In full color, they seem to bring Kahlo closer to us, eliminating the antique distance of black and white photography.

But I’m not sure we need to bring Kahlo closer without the requisite historical and aesthetic context. If they were placed alongside more of Kahlo’s paintings, perhaps these photos would have told a different story—one about how the personal aesthetics depicted in her canvas designs were connected to her engagement with indigeneity.

Instead, Kahlo’s use of traditional Tehuana dress becomes another trinket to move plastic-flower crowns in the museum’s gift shop.

When Kahlo’s actual works do appear, their strangeness and beauty shines. Her small canvas “The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Myself, Diego, and Señor Xolotl” (1949) shows her thinking and painting through indigenous comsovisions.

Meanwhile, “Collage with Two Flies” (1953) shows the artist’s Surrealist humor: She drew a unibrow on an anitique lithograph of a reclined Victorian lady and surrounded her with flies, perhaps commenting on the almost-predatory fascination with Kahlo’s biography that emerged during her lifetime. 

There are very few Rivera pieces on view, but they say more about the complexity of his and Kahlo’s relationship than the exhibit’s external narration does. There’s an illuminating contrast between Rivera’s painting of the glamorous blonde Eastern European emigree Natasha Gelman—who, wearing an immaculate white dress, is draped across a settee and flanked by calla lilies—and Kahlo’s close-up portrait of the same person, tight-lipped and stern.

The paintings show two politically committed intellectuals, one willing to flatter a glamorous female patron, the other not afraid to show a capitalist simply as someone who holds the purse strings.

A supplementary exhibit, Luces y Sombras: Images of Mexico, features stunning pictures by key Mexican photographers of the twentieth century, including Graciela Iturbide and Manuel Carrillo. It’s a rare treat to see so many of Iturbide’s gritty but visually exquisite photos in one place. Comprising about forty prints, Luces y Sombras captures Mexico’s natural and built landscape in all its spiny toughness and particular grace, providing much-needed context to the main exhibit.

But overall, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism is a bit too thin to give the viewer a sense of Kahlo and Rivera’s works, let alone of a monumental cultural project that spanned literature, architecture, and politics. The paintings on view are very much worth seeing, and they disclose glimmers of the Mexican cultural history promised by the exhibit’s title. But the festishistic worship of Kahlo’s physical appearance raises worrying questions about the artist’s legacy in the United States.

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.