Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life


of an Exhibition

by Paula Santos

Published on June 01, 2015

  • Description:

    Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life exceeded all my expectations for an exhibition on a very well-known painter whose life has been extensively documented in photographs and popular culture. The great triumph of the entire show is how her work as an artist is investigated through botanical and historical lenses, taking into account her interests in Mexican folklore and history, her love of tending to her garden, and the major themes found in her paintings. The exhibition had several components. The main portion was a recreation of Kahlo’s garden in the conservatory, including architectural details particular to her residence in Mexico City, La Casa Azul. A second component was a small gallery show of paintings, drawings, and archival photographs that dove deeper into her artwork and life as an artist. Third, plants in the conservatory with origins in Mexico or of particular significance to Mexican life were singled out through interpretive labels.

    As you enter the recreated Casa Azul Garden, you are immediately transported there by a splash of blue color on temporary walls and by traditional Mexican music playing overhead. Having been to La Casa Azul in Mexico City last January, the details that went into transporting the visitor to Kahlo’s garden were beautifully accurate and evocative. Plants were leaning against the cobalt blue walls and brick work, containers were made of terracotta, and plants were low and dense to the ground as you walked by them. The famous sign at La Casa Azul that says “Frida y Diego vivieron en esta casa” was an exact replica of the one found in Mexico City. The choice to include the sign was magical, as it truly is a piece of what makes La Casa Azul iconic. Every few paces offered a new opportunity to read about a plant’s properties, its significance to Mexican culture, and about its appearance or meaning in Kahlo’s paintings. Details about what flowers she used to adorn her hair or ones frequently found inside her home sparked the imagination.

    At the end of the walkway, there was a recreation of a pyramid found in La Casa Azul’s patio in Mexico City. The pyramid covered with cacti and succulents Kahlo would have had or for which she’d shown interest. Approaching the pyramid was again one of those magical moments where the space truly evoked what it feels like to be in La Casa Azul. For me, it was as if I was receiving another piece of the puzzle. During my visit to La Casa Azul, I didn’t pay close attention to the plants and it also seemed as if many of the original plants were changed to make room for others easier to maintain. The recreation of Kahlo’s garden was not only physically converting NYBG’s conservatory to something reminiscent of the original, but brought back to life the plants that’d she’d cared about, tended to, and lived amongst. Gardens are living, breathing spaces, and they show the character of their caretakers. With this show, NYBG re-awakened an important part of Frida Kahlo’s history.

    Upon exiting the garden portion of the exhibition there are many other interpretive labels by plants of significance to Mexico or Kahlo herself. It was a great way to tie in the collection to the major theme of a special exhibition and kept my mind occupied with the central themes found in Kahlo’s garden.

    In a small gallery in NYBG’s Garden, small paintings, drawings and photographs helped connect how plants influenced her work as an artist. The wall labels for this portion of the show were stellar. Not only did they identify the plants in her work, but also discussed the origins of the plants and why Kahlo might have been drawn to them given what we know about her interests as an artist. They connected the personal and artistic with the botanical in a way that was surprising and inspiring. I saw this portion of the show after visiting the garden in the conservatory so I was well primed to see the plants in her garden make an appearance in her paintings. Experiencing the plants both physically and represented in paintings, it was striking how vivid they became. Botanical knowledge absolutely added to the many layers of her work.

    What didn’t quite work in the exhibition was the addition of her painting desk in the recreation of her garden. The desk was near the exit of the show in a tight corner surrounded by green foliage. There was an interpretive panel explaining the significance of the object, though it didn’t quite connect with the show. Perhaps it was an attempt to remind the visitor that she was an artist and had her studio at La Casa Azul, but I’m not convinced a replica of her desk was necessary. Also, the gallery space where her paintings were hung was incredibly small, cramped, and uncomfortable. This is a blockbuster show, crowds are to be expected. The constant reminder of the guards and the alarms letting people know they can’t get close to the paintings dampened the experience.

    Overall, the exhibition captured a part of Frida Kahlo’s life as an artist beautifully and shed a new light the meaning of her paintings. As an admirer of her work, the broader narrative is persistently about the personal, and I came away from the NYBG show inspired to look at her paintings more closely through a discerning botanical lens. Since this show runs from summer through fall, her garden will continue to change with every passing month. That is a special treat of exhibitions using living collections.

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