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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Travels with Grace: New York, 1919 Part 3

Posted on January 29th, 2019 by

Welcome to our 2019 #TravelTuesday series: Travels with Grace, where we’re sharing (and annotating) posts from the travel diaries of Grace Amelia Hecht, native Baltimorean, b. 1897 and d. 1955. As mentioned in my introductory post transcription errors sometimes occur and I’ve made my best guesses where possible, denoted by [brackets]. – Rachel Kassman, marketing manager


November 13, 1919

Stopped at Macy’s this morning. Then rode over to Brooklyn, visiting the Navy Yard, Prospect Park, etc. On our return we went into St. Patrick’s Cathedral and saw the big Collage of the City of New York. Tonight we saw the Greenwich Village Follies at the Norah Bayes Theater[1] and afterward we went to Churchill’s which however isn’t as gay as it used to be.


November 14, 1919

Left: Henry Miller’s Theater. Courtesy of the Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library digital collections. Right: Ruth Chatterton in the play Moonlight and Honeysuckle, on page 529 of the December 1919 Muncey’s Magazine. Via.

Took Marjorie and Billy with us on an all day automobile trip to West Point and Bear Mountain. The scenery was lovely. Went up on one side of the Hudson thru Hackensack, Tuxedo Park, passed the [Harriman] Estate, Interstate Park, and back on the other side thru Peeksill, Ossining, Tarreytown, Irvington, Ardsley, Hastings and Yonkers all beautiful residential towns. We went to Henry Miller’s theater[2] tonight where we saw Ruth Chatterton in “Moonlight and Honeysuckle.”


November 15, 1919

The New York Public Library, c.1910-1915. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Spent most of today in the New York Public Library, a most beautiful repository for one of the city’s greatest treasures. I was particularly impressed by the foreign languages department. This evening we saw the “Crimson Alibi” at the Broadhurst theater.


November 16, 1919

This afternoon we heard a lovely concert by the New York Symphony Orchestra led by Damrosh in Aeolian Hall. Dined at the Hotel Commodore and later went to Carnegie Hall to hear Newman’s illustrated lecture on Alsace and Lorraine.


November 17, 1919

The Capital Theatre, top: exterior, 1920; bottom: interior. Courtesy of (respectively) the Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy and the Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library digital collections.  

The last day of our visit. The time has simply flown. Lunched today at the Ritz-Carlton and then went to the Capitol which is the newest and largest theater here. They showed a splendid high class vaudeville followed by Guy Empey in the picture he wrote called “The Undercurrent.”[3] Tonight we attended the opening performance of the season at the Metropolitan Opera House[4]. Caruso[5], Scotti and Farrar[6][7] sang “La Tosca”[8] and the audience itself was worth coming a long way to see.

Left: Metropolitan Opera House, 1914. Courtesy of the Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library digital collections. Right: Errico Caruso, c.1910; Antonio Scotti, 1915; Geraldine Farrar in a 1919 film advertisement. Via 1, 2, 3.


This trip to New York was the only set of entries for 1919 in Grace’s travel diaries. It seems she and her family packed in quite a bit during this trip! Next week we’ll pick up with her next documented trip, in June of 1924. This one also starts in New York City but goes a bit farther afield – Grace is headed to the West Coast.


[1] Nora Bayes

[2] Cinema Treasure’s: Henry Miller’s Theatre

[3] Ad for The Undercurrent

[4] Metropolitan Opera

[5] Ovation for Caruso and Miss Farrar

[6] Miss Farrar Sings Tosca (1913, audio)

[7] Geraldine Farrar & Antonio Scotti performing together (1909, audio)

[8] Tosca


 

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Travels with Grace: New York, 1919 Part 2

Posted on January 22nd, 2019 by


Welcome to our 2019 #TravelTuesday series: Travels with Grace, where we’re sharing (and annotating) posts from the travel diaries of Grace Amelia Hecht, native Baltimorean, b. 1897 and d. 1955. As mentioned in my introductory post transcription errors sometimes occur and I’ve made my best guesses where possible, denoted by [brackets]. – Rachel Kassman, marketing manager


November 8, 1919

Stayed in today and received our friends. They have a famous painting in this hotel in the bar which is now closed, it is “Old King Cole and his Fiddlers Three” [1] by Maxfield Parrish. Caruso and wife have an apartment here and I saw June Caprice, the movie star in the Elevator!


November 9, 1919

View of Bronx River, Bronx Park, New York, 1910. Courtesy of The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library digital collections.

Went to see Uncle Mayer [Heowberger?] nice old man. Took Aunt Julia for a ride. In the afternoon visited the botanical gardens[2][3] in the Bronx Park. This is the prettiest natural park I have seen. The Bronx River runs thru it and forms a series of beautiful cascades. The Guggenheim family have given some new hot houses for orchids and the displays of rare specimens are charming. We then rode thru Van Cortland Park where they have fine golf links free to the public. Saw a new suburban development called Fieldstone but do not think it as pretty as our Balto suburbs. Saw Alice Joyce in movies tonight at the Broadway – The Vengeance of Durand.

Advertisement for the American silent drama film The Vengeance of Durand (1919) with Alice Joyce, on page 82 of the November 1919 Shadowland. Via.


November 10, 1919

Spent this morning at Dr. [Fraueuthal’s] hospital. He is one of the leading orthopedic surgeons in New York and has done some wonderful work. Took dinner at the Plaza. This evening we went to the Plymouth theater to see the Barrymores in “The Jest” a most marvelous play which is the sensation of the present theatrical season. I have never witnessed such wonderful acting.


November 11, 1919

Wannamaker’s Department Store at Broadway and 9th street, 1913. Courtesy of the Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library digital collections.

We spent the morning at Wanamaker’s. They have on their pre-xmas toy display and it is fascinating, especially the fairy tales enacted by electrically propelled figures. Stayed here for lunch. This afternoon I was Mrs. [Leerburger’s] guest at the Waldorf-Astoria for a dramatic reading by Jane [Mauners] of Hervieaux’ “The Torch.” This evening the Maas family entertained us at a huge dinner at a Rumanian restaurant in Broom St.

The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, New York, 1908. Courtesy of The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library digital collections.


November 12, 1919

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1910. Courtesy of The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library digital collections. While the Met was between special exhibits during her visit, check out their 1919 Guide to the Collections for some of what Grace may have seen on her visit! (Thanks to Melissa Bowling at the Met Museum Archives for pointing me to this great resource!)

We devoted the entire day to a tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art which was a real revelation to me. Aunts Julia and Henriette joined us there and we had lunch together. Saw so much that I can scarcely remember it all. Only sorry that I cannot come here every day. Tonight we went to see Francine Larrymore in “Scandal” at the 39th St. theater.


[1] Up Close: Maxfield Parrish’s King Cole Bar Mural

[2] New York Botanical Garden

[3] Secrets of the NY Botanical Garden


 

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