Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving

Posted on March 21st, 2019 by

A blog post by Deputy Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.

Several weeks ago, Joanna Church and I were in Brooklyn for a meeting, and Joanna suggested we check out the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. She said there were more Kahlo canvases in one room here than there had been since her death. When Joanna’s text first came across my phone I immediately thought of some of Kahlo’s iconic self portraits (and then of her skeletal appearance in Disney’s Coco. What can I say, I am the parent of a first-grader), and I tried to remember the last time I’d seen a Kahlo canvas up close.  As I wracked my memory, I realized I had never seen a Kahlo painting in person.

That deficiency had to be rectified! Joanna arranged to get us the (very expensive) tickets to the exhibit, and we were set. (As soon as we emerged from the subway station, I knew these Brooklynites were my kind of people, as a giant “OY” statue greeted me.)

The exhibit was well-attended, with cattle-line stanchions set up to control traffic (luckily they were unnecessary for us, as it was after 7 pm when we arrived). As we passed through the bright pink and blue entry, helpful docents let us know that no photos would be permitted in the exhibit, and the excitement built.

On entering the first room, the exhibit was not what I expected. There were very few examples of Kahlo’s work, but a great deal of artifacts and photos from her life. From the very beginning, this exhibit helped me to deepen my understanding of Frida Kahlo, a figure who had become somewhat two-dimensional in my imagination.

My first surprise was realizing that Frida Kahlo was born Magdalena Frida Carmen Kahlo. In my two-dimensional caricature of her, Frida is unequivocally Mexican. That is undoubtedly true of the three-dimensional woman who lived and loved and painted, but IRL, Frida Kahlo was so much more complicated than I had given her credit for. One of her complexities was that even with her decidedly Mexican identity, she chose to go by the German “Frida.”

Just as they deepened my sense of the complexities of her identity, the curators of this exhibit provided me with context for Kahlo’s paintings—both personal, political, and cultural. Among the cultural context was a great deal of information about the history and usage of some of the costumes featured in Kahlo’s portraits. The most notable may be the Huipil Grande she wears in Diego on my mind. I was entranced by the illustrations of the article of clothing—totally unknown in my life experience—and appreciated the vintage film of young women wearing them.

Interspersed with the contextual cases were many photographs of Frida Kahlo throughout her life, and, somewhat surprisingly, photographic self-portraits of her father. Guillermo Kahlo was a German-born (his birth name was Carl Wilhelm), Mexican photographer, and young Frida grew up looking at her father’s self-portraits. There was a decided suggestion that his work was influential on her oeuvre.

(As an aside, it is really interesting to peruse museum exhibits with other, trained museum professionals. At one moment, early in the exhibit, I approached Joanna who was examining one of Kahlo’s scarves under a vitrine. She frowned and said, “I wouldn’t have displayed this that way.” Before I worked at JMM, I can tell you I never once heard or said that to a fellow museum-goer!)

As I moved through the several rooms of artifacts from Frida Kahlo’s life, I learned a great deal about her loves and losses and passions. Evidence of her repeated disappointment at her infertility (the fetus painted on one of her body casts was particularly poignant) both resonated with me and touched me. I was fascinated to read about her choices around presentation of gender and surprised by the realization of her disability (the reason for the cast).

Despite the reason I decided to come see the exhibit, the real heart of the Brooklyn Museum’s display is not Kahlo’s paintings. It is a trove of her clothing. According to the handout from the museum, “In 2004 a remarkable trove of personal items belonging to Frida Kahlo was brought to light at her lifelong home, the Blue House (La Casa Azul), in Mexico City. Locked away at the instruction of her husband, Diego Rivera, following her death in 1954, these materials—including exceptional examples of her vibrant wardrobe—are here displayed in the United States for the first time.”

It was the clothing that really stayed with me, probably because we are hard at work putting the finishing touches on our own clothing exhibit, Fashion Statement. By taking a deep dive into the motivations and of a single person, Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving investigates some of the same things we look at in Fashion Statement. My mind-caricature of Frida Kahlo as self-consciously Mexican was not wrong—in fact her Mexican-ness was an identity she cultivated through the use of traditional garments. But what my pre-exhibit understanding didn’t contain was that he loose-fitting tunics and long skirts were also helpful in disguising medical corsets and a limp—in other words, people are more complicated than we often give them credit for.

A deeper insight than the realization of the role of Kahlo’s disabilities in her clothing choices, was my new-found sense of just how deliberate all of Kahlo’s clothing choices were. The garments on view in Brooklyn suggest that she was regularly altering, modifying and pairing garments in unusual ways. Kahlo was highly aware of the connections she made (or rejected) for herself by what she wore and how she presented herself. She used her clothing to assert her affiliations and her heritage. She used her clothing to fashion her private and public identity.

(And, though I believe her influence and insights are sufficient for her inclusion here on our blog, I was tickled to learn that both Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera claimed Jewish heritage during the war, as a show of solidarity with Jews persecuted by the Nazis. Kahlo’s German father made her claim more believable than Rivera’s, though the Brooklyn curators do not suggest it was more true.)

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School Stories Shared from Jewish Refugees and Shanghai

Posted on March 14th, 2019 by

This post was written by JMM School Program Coordinator Paige Woodhouse. To read more posts from Paige, click here!


From February 3rd to March 10th, the JMM hosted a special exhibit created by the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum titled Jewish Refugees and Shanghai. While only on display for a mere 26 days, we had 8 schools visit 13 times with over 240 students, teachers and chaperones. A special shout out to the Park School of Baltimore who visited 4 times with their 4 Chinese studies classes!

Jewish Refugees and Shanghai explored the often-untold stories of the Jewish people who sought sanctuary in Shanghai during World War II. This multi-lingual exhibit (printed in both English and Chinese) weaved together the first-person experiences sharing stories of resilience and cross-cultural expectance.

Washington Yu Ying School 5 grade students exploring the panels in Jewish Refugees and Shanghai.

The exhibit provided students an opportunity to not only learn more about the history of Jewish refugees during WWII, but also the ability to interact with, and conduct research using, primary sources. These primary sources included historical photographs, birth certificates, wedding certificates, and travel documentation.

Sidwell Friends School 8th grade class learning about the story of Sonja Muhlberger and investigating her birth certificate.

The JMM education team developed an archival exploration which looked at items once owned by Jewish Refugees living in the Hongkou Ghetto and Shanghai as a whole. Critical to the development of the archival exploration was our Museum Educator Alex. Alex said this of the program:

“The Shanghai Refugees exhibit was such a great opportunity to showcase this important little-known story to our visiting school groups as a way of talking about immigration and refugees in the past as well as in current events. For our education program, we were able to highlight artifacts from the JMM archive that told the story of Wilhelm and Selma Kurz, a local couple who came to Baltimore after spending a number of years as refugees in Shanghai. Using the exhibit panels as inspiration, I designed an original panel using photographs and documents belonging to Wilhelm and Selma as well as a map that showed their journey around the world.”

Students from Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School working together in a group.

At the end of the program, students summarized the stories they learned, such as that of Wilhelm and Selma Kurz, and shared them with the class. Here are some of their responses:

“Inge and Peter lived in Shanghai where they each met important people in their lives. Inge met her husband, Ernie, and Peter met his nanny, mentor and art teacher, Amah.”

“Shortly after fleeing Germany, Wilhelm and Selma got married and lived in Shanghai for 7-8 years before moving to Baltimore.”

“Sonya’s parents fled to Shanghai to escape the Nazis, where she was born and later she went back to Germany as a teacher and activist.”

Students from Sidwell Friends School presenting their research to the group.

Students from Washington Yu Ying School sharing the stories they learned about.

Reflecting upon the program, Museum Educator Marisa shared that:

“Working with the students that came for our Jewish Refugees and Shanghai educational program was incredibly fulfilling. They analyzed the exhibit’s primary sources, asked insightful questions, and retold these survivors’ stories. Many of the students who visited us are studying Chinese in their schools, and these students also engaged with the original Chinese language text, working together to understand and interpret the meaning of the characters. Overall, I felt that the students left having gained a greater understanding not just of this often-untold story, but of the many challenges facing Jewish people seeking refuge in the 1930’s.”

Our education team is working hard to develop unique experiential programs for our upcoming exhibit Stitching History from the Holocaust, on loan to us from the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee, and the next JMM original exhibit Fashion Statement. We look forward to sharing more stories that connect students to Maryland’s Jewish roots.

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Sunday-Funday: Premiering the Winter Teachers Institute

Posted on February 14th, 2019 by

A blog post by Director of Learning and Visitor Engagement Ilene Dackman-Alon. To read more posts by Ilene click HERE.


The JMM, Baltimore Jewish Council and Baltimore City Public Schools co-sponsored the first Winter Teachers Institute, a professional development opportunity for area teachers in connection with the exhibit Jewish Refugees and Shanghai.  Teachers signed up to participate in the two-day workshop; and this past Sunday, February 10th,  we all travelled together by bus on a field trip to Washington, DC.

Our first stop was the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the US. Our teachers were invited by the Chinese Embassy to be part of a cultural exchange in connection with the Shanghai exhibit on loan from the Shanghai Refugees Museum. The embassy building is designed by the Chinese architect, I.M. Pei and features a fusion of the traditional philosophies of Chinese architecture and modernity.

We were met by Secretary Feng Haonan and his colleague who graciously led the teachers throughout the building which includes an East and West wing, beautiful gardens and large meeting rooms.

We loved gathering around the very large conference table.

The teachers enjoyed learning about the impressive art installations throughout the building that fuse together ancient Chinese art and modern Chinese culture.  The vibrant colors and designs made each artwork so unique and intricate.  Each work was created with such intention.

Our guide shows us a piece called Scholars from Thousands of Years.

The wall-sized piece in this photo is Birds Singing in a Jade Bamboo Forest, 2007.

Many teachers commented on what a unique experience the visit was, and each teacher was given a gift bag at the end of tour filled with books and tokens to remember the visit.

Our next stop was to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. We wanted to provide our teachers with some background information in connection to WWII, and the rise of Nazism in Europe.  We also wanted the teachers to see the exhibition, Americans and the Holocaust, as this topic would be the starting point for our second day of the workshop that will take place this coming Sunday, February 17th.

Our teachers returned to Baltimore invigorated and excited for a second meaningful day of study when our focus will be the exhibit, Jewish Refugees and Shanghai and issues of contemporary refugees face in our world today. We are looking forward to another Sunday-Funday!

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