Frida Kahlo spun her own life into a myth. She was so good at it that her art almost got lost along the way.
But this year, as Mexico celebrates the centenary of her birth, the largest retrospective ever of her work attempts to look beyond what Mexicans call Fridamania. The result is a rich view of her art and her life, one that broadens the perspective on her career beyond the narrow, cultish view that has at times threatened to obscure her work. For the majority who know Kahlo's painting only from the movie version of her life or the unmistakable power of her face on a T-shirt, the exhibition that opened here last month at the Palacio de Bellas Artes may come as a surprise.
“She was completely instinctual,” said Salomon Grimberg, one of the show's five curators. “She put into art things nobody had dared to put into art before. She was able to access her internal reality and shape it in such a way that it grabs the viewer.”
“Her work is so flashy and so immediate that most people don't stop to look at her work as a painter,” he added. “They just get caught up in the image. Finally, after 30 years, the work is being reappraised.”
Among the 354 pieces on display are some of Kahlo's most famous self-portraits, but through lesser-known self-portraits, still lifes, portraits, drawings and watercolors, she emerges as an artist who gathered multiple influences into her own language.
Her first self-portrait, in a velvet dress, was painted at 19 for a faithless boyfriend and already shows the unflinching gaze that marked the later paintings. But here she is graceful, almost ethereal, quite different from the confrontational presence she was to become.
A tender portrait of her husband, the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, reveals an unexpected naturalism. Portraits of children show Kahlo working in different styles: a detailed painterliness with her baby niece, splashes of color for what appears to be a servant girl.
There is great humor in a frankly sexual still life entitled “The Bride Who Is Frightened to See Life Open” for which Kahlo posed a doll in a white dress at the edge of a table of fruit, the papaya and watermelon sliced open.
Among the least-known works are her drawings and watercolors. A delicate 1930 drawing of a young woman, Ady Weber, shows a draftsmanship that few have attributed to Kahlo. There is a watercolor of Central Park and later fantastic drawings from the 1940s.
The show, which runs through Aug. 19, also includes many photographic portraits of Kahlo, along with photos of her family and the Mexico City neighborhood of Coyoacán, where she was born and died, and where her home, the Casa Azul, now houses the Museo Frida Kahlo. Some of her letters are on display, and so too is memorabilia recalling the Mexican Revolution of her childhood and the communism she embraced as an adult. The whole gives a juxtaposition of her intensely domestic existence - a house full of plants, pets, famous writers and painters - and the peculiarly violent history of her times.
“We wanted to present an integral Frida through all her mediums of expression,” said Roxana Velásquez Martínez del Campo, the director of the Bellas Artes museum and another of the show's curators. “Frida is a woman in constant expression.”
But the drama of her tumultuous emotional life and her physical pain made her work uneven, Ms. Velásquez said: “On occasion she is a great painter.”
During her lifetime, Kahlo won only limited acclaim, dwarfed by Rivera's heroic reputation. She exhibited in New York and Paris, but the only solo show of her work in Mexico took place in 1953, a year before she died. Her reputation here too has grown, tinged with pride at the attention she has brought to Mexico. Among the events celebrating Frida Kahlo is a retrospective at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City that continues through Aug. 19, and an exhibition at Museo Frida Kahlo in Coyoacán that runs to Sept. 30.