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Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera: The frog and the swallow reunited

First ever show bringing together Mexico’s twin stars at the Fondation Pierre Gianadda, Switzerland

“Diego Rivera-Frida Kahlo” (until 1 June) at the Fondation Pierre Gianadda in Martigny, Switzerland has been organised by freelance curator Christina Burrus, who is the first to unite the two artists—so linked in life—in an exhibition. She has succeeded in persuading anonymous donors to allow eighty-nine letters and documents to be exhibited (with the proviso that they not be published) and 160 photographs of the Riveras, which give what Burrus calls a “sociological” aspect to the exhibition.

The fifty paintings and drawings by Kahlo and sixty paintings by Rivera exhibited here span both their careers. As in the case of the recent Kahlo show at Ordrupgaard in Copenhagen, the source of many of the loans is the Dolores Olmedo Patiño collection, but the emphasis in Martigny is on the dance—the complex interaction between the two artists. Ms Burrus believes that in hanging Rivera’s and Kahlo’s works side by side we see something more in each of them.

In 1922, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siquieros, the three great painters of the Mexican revolution known affectionately as “Los Tres Grandes” were busy at work on a series of populist murals in the National Preparatory School (the “Prepa”) in Mexico City. The murals celebrated a new sense of cultural and racial integration known as Mexicanidad, and proclaimed the utopian socialism of José Vasconselos, the newly elected Minister of public Education. Diego Rivera was thirty-six years old, very famous, twice married, an open womaniser, a vociferous Communist, a father of three, an atheist and he weighed over 300 pounds.

One of the students at the “Prepa” was a young woman of fifteen. She came from a conservative, middle-class family and planned a career in medicine. She weighed scarcely 100 pounds and was still suffering from the ravages of polio in childhood. She limped badly and was prone to dressing as a man. One day, as this young woman later recounted, she shouted something provocative at the obese man working on the scaffolding. He answered kindly. The story goes that she turned to her fellow schoolgirls and said she would marry this man and have his children. Six years later the first part of this prognostication would come true. The second part would never happen, much to their shared grief.

It is difficult to determine whether love, ambition or political committment informed Frida Kahlo’s decision to marry Diego Rivera, for the dramatic circumstances of their two marriages (they married, divorced and remarried) are now the stuff of cultural myth in Mexico, where both are now National Monuments, and indisputably the twin stars of twentieth-century Latin American art. Certainly the relationship of the “frog” and the “swallow” as they fondly referred to each other, was dramatic—two artists living together is not always easy—but from the beginning of their relationship Rivera’s encouragement of his wife nudged her into a real sense of herself as a painter.

Rivera’s most famous work is monumental, usually writ as large as he and painted on public walls in true fresco, but a canvas like “The adoration of the Virgin and Child” (1912-13) is breathtaking in its riskiness. The hieratic, proto-Cubist Virgin, the arching, curved landscape brushed onto the picture’s surface with rich, saturated colour is a very Mexican interpretation of the scene.

Kahlo’s work is small, delicate and personal. Her subject matter is always herself. Her emotional self-portraits are emblems of introspection in which problems with her gender, her frail health and her psyche torment her in detailed imagery which owe much to folk art and votive paintings. There are five in this show. The European art which so inspired Rivera serves to point up the freshness of vision of Kahlo’s New World. He refers boldly to the post-Renaissance tradition, whereas his wife, who hated travel (only going to Europe in a disastrous flirtation with Bréton and the Surrealists) is unashamedly Mexican in her brazen idiosyncrasy. The famous “My nurse and I” (1937) is a self portrait in which the infant Frida suckles from the breast of a wet-nurse. The nurturing mother bears the head of a brutal pre-Hispanic deity. Kahlo is in no doubt about her artistic progenitors.

Although much deserved attention has been paid to both artists individually in recent years, the opportunity to see their work hung side-by-side would have pleased them. They were so proud of each other. For all their public squabbles, misbehavings and peccadillos, Kahlo and Rivera were united in one thing—their dedication to their art.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The frog and the swallow reunited'