Saturday, May 16, 2015

Exploring Frida Kahlo’s Green Side: The New York Botanical Garden brings together her paintings and plants, recreates her garden

Inside the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, Frida Kahlo's home and garden come back to life. Here, an interactive space inspired by Kahlo's studio, which overlooked the garden, includes artist’s supplies. Cassandra Giraldo for The Wall Street Journal. For a slide show of the Frida Kahlo NY Botanical Garden exhibit images, see:
By Susan Delson
WSJ, May 13, 2015

Is there anything more to say about Frida Kahlo? As the focus of a critically acclaimed biography, a big-budget Hollywood movie and countless art exhibitions, she is a certified cultural icon, from her over-the-top, indigenous Mexican costumes to that imposing unibrow.

But less attention, it turns out, has been paid to her garden.

Opening Saturday at the New York Botanical Garden, “Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life” brings a multifaceted approach to Kahlo as a creative force, grounding her art in her relationship to the natural world.

At the core are two exhibitions. In the conservatory, a colorful plant and flower show transports visitors to the
Casa Azul, the home and garden near Mexico City that Kahlo shared with her husband, Diego Rivera. In the library building, a small gem of an art show—14 works total—explores Kahlo’s evocative use of plant imagery, including species in her garden.

“We’re not an art museum, and we’re not trying to be an art museum,” said New York Botanical Garden President and Chief Executive Gregory Long. “But we’re really interested in gardens that are made by artists…and the connections that those gardens have to their thinking and their work.”

For Kahlo, those connections were lifelong. The Casa Azul had been her childhood home. With Rivera’s help, she assumed ownership in 1930, and she would die there in 1954. Kahlo had good reason to make the Casa Azul
a richly expressive personal environment: A harrowing traffic accident at age 18 left her in chronic pain, subject to numerous surgeries, and at times largely housebound.

“It’s clear to me why she chose to live the last years of her life there,” said Scott Pask, the Tony Award-winning set designer who arranged the conservatory show. “Casa Azul is an enchanted place.”

In the conservatory, Mr. Pask’s settings reimagine key locations in the casa and its garden—among them, the blue walls that give the house its name, a whimsical mosaic fountain depicting a pair of frogs and an evocation of Frida’s studio overlooking the garden, where visitors are welcome to sit and imagine themselves in her space.

The show’s centerpiece is a striking rendition of the Mesoamerican-style pyramid that Rivera had built in the Casa Azul garden to display his collection of pre-Columbian sculpture. Fittingly, the conservatory’s version shows off plants instead: an array of cactuses and succulents native to the Mexican desert, similar to those installed at Casa Azul in the 1940s.

The exhibition’s path to the pyramid underscores Kahlo’s and Rivera’s transformation of their outdoor space, from a European-style garden to one that reflected their deep affinity with Mexican identity and indigenous Mexican culture.

“Kahlo and Rivera were among the most important advocates of a nationalist sensibility,” said Adriana Zavala, the Tufts University art historian who guest-curated the art exhibition. “But within their nationalism, they were resolutely cosmopolitan.”

Well-traveled, hosts to a stream of visiting artists and intellectuals, Kahlo and Rivera were midcentury citizens of the world.

Themes in Kahlo’s art echo, in a surreal way, that cosmopolitan sensibility—most distinctively, the human-plant hybrid. That motif emerges in works such as Kahlo’s 1931 “Portrait of Luther Burbank,” which shows the renowned botanist and horticulturalist literally taking root. Many were made at a time when fascism, Nazism and notions of racial purity were on the rise world-wide, and hybridity of any kind, said Ms. Zavala, “was considered a very negative thing.”

Though Kahlo’s work has been pored over by art historians for decades, this may be the first time a team of botanists and horticulturists has examined it so closely.

“It was a bit of detective work,” said Todd Forrest, the botanical garden’s vice president for horticulture and living collections. “It was: ‘I think that’s yucca gigantea, because of the shape of its foliage,’ or ‘I think that’s nopal [cactus] because of the way the spines are organized on the pad.’ ”

In some paintings, Kahlo’s depictions are so realistic that investigators could identify not only the plant, but its stage of growth—as with the philodendron leaves in the Luther Burbank portrait. In others, Kahlo uses actual plants as a springboard for fantastic variations—the anthropomorphic forms in “Sun and Life” (1947), for instance, or the wall of greenery resembling elephant-ear leaves in her 1940 “Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird.”

“It’s a very astute approach for an institution like the botanical garden to take,” said Mary K. Coffey, a scholar of Mexican visual culture and head of the art history department at Dartmouth. “This exhibition is fleshing out the information we need on the botany, and why she might have been drawn to these particular plants. That’s continuing to inform an intelligent reading of her paintings.”

The botanical garden’s Frida fiesta extends beyond the core exhibitions. In the library’s rotunda, for instance, “The Two Fridas,” an installation by Mexico City artist Humberto Spíndola, reinterprets Kahlo’s painting of that title, recasting its costumes as three-dimensional paper dresses, using techniques reminiscent of centuries-old folkcraft. And poems by Octavio Paz, a contemporary of Kahlo and Rivera, are scattered throughout the garden.

Meanwhile, a program on the mobile guide—accessible at—lets users embellish a selfie with typical Kahlo touches: flowers in the hair, parrots and monkeys on the shoulder, maybe a pair of those Frida eyebrows.

Then, of course, there are the tequila cantina and the taco truck.

“It’s immersive,” said Mr. Long. “We call it the Mexican makeover of the New York Botanical Garden.”

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