Frida Kahlo

How Frida Kahlo found her Mexican identity in Detroit

Though she distinctly disliked the experience, the Detroit Institute of Arts shows how it shaped her iconic imagery

Few artists draw a crowd like Frida Kahlo. “She seems to be a bit of a Van Gogh—people can’t get enough of her,” says Graham Beal, the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Much of the attention is due to her tabloid-friendly biography: her illnesses, love affairs and torturous marriage to the muralist Diego Rivera seem made for Hollywood. But two shows opening this spring advocate more nuanced ways to examine her life and work.

The Detroit Institute of Arts is mounting the first show dedicated to the period Kahlo and Rivera spent in Detroit in the early 1930s. Rivera, then at the height of his fame, was commissioned by the museum to create the Detroit Industry Murals; Kahlo, then unknown, grumpily accompanied him. Turned off by the excess of the city’s elite, she began to adopt traditional Mexican dress, incorporate Mexican symbols into her work and pursue self-portraiture. “The Frida we think of came out of her experience in Detroit; it was a chrysalis for her,” Beal says.

The New York Botanical Garden is taking an equally untraditional approach to Kahlo with an exhibition devoted to her interest in plant life. The artist began creating still-lifes in earnest at the end of her life, when she was increasingly confined to Casa Azul, her home and garden outside Mexico City. The garden, with financial support from MetLife, will create a series of plantings inspired by Casa Azul and present 14 works by Kahlo that incorporate botanical imagery.

• Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit, Detroit Institute of Arts, 15 March-12 July; Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life, New York Botanical Garden, 16 May-1 November