Centennial celebration of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo's birth reshaping her image
As she challenged conventional ideas of beauty, she boldly flaunted her unibrow and mustache, yet kept photos of bikini-clad women and beefy sailors.
Mexico's celebration of the centennial anniversary of her birth this summer demonstrates there is still much to learn about one of its most revered 20th-century icons, whose life and self-portraits have inspired books, plays and even the 2002 Hollywood film, "Frida," starring Salma Hayek.
To mark the anniversary, curators have carefully selected for public display a small representation of the thousands of keepsakes, notes, sketches and clothing found in 2004 at her former family home-turned-museum in Mexico City.
The discovery, including the puppet theater and photos, confronts widely held beliefs of the eccentric wife of muralist Diego Rivera. Part of the new find will be on display at the Casa Azul on July 6, under the exhibit name "The Treasures of the Blue House, Frida and Diego."
If "Every mind is a world" as the Mexican adage goes, Kahlo's was a vast universe that art researchers say they have only started to understand and will spend decades more exploring, 100 years after her birth.
"This discovery has raised a lot of doubts and reshaped many things," said curator Ricardo Perez, who is part of a team of five experts overseeing the findings. "Concerning Frida, there are a lot of surprises."
Kahlo spent a lifetime building her image as a mythical, self-possessed and often defiant figure who was openly bisexual and had an affair with Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. She dressed in elaborately embroidered Tehuana Indian dresses and even scratched out the date on her birth certificate, making herself three years younger so she could say she was born in 1910, the year of the Mexican revolution.
But researchers are uncovering an optimistic, studious and even playful side of Kahlo that rarely is reflected in the self-portraits that make up her best-known work.
Perez, who has analyzed and studied the lives of Rivera and Kahlo for more than 50 years, said the puppet theater was among the biggest surprises and "is a testimony to the child inside Frida her entire life."
The theater was part of a collection of items locked away in trunks and cabinets, covered in tape, and behind bathroom walls in the Casa Azul, or The Blue House. Rivera left instructions asking the caretakers of his trust not to open them until 15 years after his death in 1957.
But Dolores Olmedo, a patron of Rivera, let the collection be, fearing it could contain personal information that would compromise the couple's image, said her son, Carlos Phillips Olmedo, who runs several museums, including The Blue House.
Curators opened the trunks in 2004, a year after Olmedo's death.
What they found was mind-boggling: 22,105 documents, 5,387 photos, 179 pieces of clothing, more than 6,000 magazines and books, and personal items such as X-rays of Kahlo's fractured back, a trolley bus ticket and a note with a lipstick-stained kiss.
Investigators say it unleashed a deluge of questions. Who took the photo of Kahlo posing seductively in her bed, partly covered by a sheet? Why did Kahlo apparently fold in half a photo of herself hugging Rivera's first wife, Guadalpue Marin, rather than rip it to shreds?
Kahlo's letters reveal her jealous side. In one, she calls Rivera's suspected mistresses "old hags" and says they make her want to vomit.
"The investigation of Frida and Diego is in its initial stages," Perez said. "Their lives offer an endless fountain of research."
Kahlo was never afraid to be vulnerable. Disabled in a bus crash and having survived polio as a child, she suffered physical and emotional pain throughout her short life. Her self-portraits helped her deal with her rocky marriage, her miscarriages and the nearly three dozen operations she underwent before her death at the age of 47.
That ability to display vulnerability in her paintings is why many believe Kahlo today rivals Rivera and other great Mexican muralists in popularity. Her paintings are now used in therapy groups, and she is held up as one of the world's early feminists.
A long line of Frida fans winds daily around the grand plaza in front of Mexico City's Palacio de Bellas Artes, which is putting one of the most extensive exhibitions of her art as part of the commemoration. Among them one recent day was Anatoly Klypin, an astronomy professor from Las Cruces, New Mexico, who said people relate to Kahlo more for her human side than for her artistic abilities.
"It's clear she couldn't really catch up with the giants," Klypin said. "She was trying to find her way because she was not on the same level of talent as the people around her."