Friday was the last official day of my internship, which means it’s time to head back to my parents’ house for a few weeks before classes begin again. I always drive directly through Tulsa, Oklahoma, and decided to make a quick pit stop at the art museum there because I saw they were exhibiting Frida Kahlo’s work. Kahlo is honestly the lone artist we’ve talked about in my seven years of studying the Spanish language and culture, so obviously I wanted to see her work in person.
The Philbrook Museum is a 25-acre piece of land smack in the middle of a neighborhood. As I was following Google Maps, I was sure I had put in the wrong destination when I was one minute away and seeing four-year-old kids playing in a sprinkler in their front yard. Once I went inside Philbrook and read more about the history though, it all made sense. The Philbrook Museum, in the 1920s, used to be the home of oil pioneer Waite Phillips, his wife Genevieve, and their kids Helen and Elliot. When the kids left the estate though, the castle was much too large for just Waite and Genevive, so they donated it as an art museum. The inside is still predominantly designed as a house, just with large pieces of art and minimal furniture. The exhibit, “Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, & Mexican Heritage” was in a traditional exhibiting room at the very front of the house.
It becomes apparent immediately upon entering that to fully understand and appreciate the art being displayed by various Hispanic artists, one must first understand the impact of the Mexican Revolution.
The Mexican Revolution was a ten-year bloody civil war that eventually ended the Mexican dictatorship and established a constitutional republic. The new republic allowed culture and the arts to be wholly transformed, and artists to experiment more with their work. As stated on the plaque at the beginning of the exhibit, “Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera were at the forefront of this effort.”
The emerging art scene being so dependent on the effects of the recent changes in government, it seems obvious now that these artists were so involved in politics. Kahlo was a very public communist and regularly attended anti-fascist demonstrations in Mexico City with her husband.
It’s always a pleasant surprise to me when I hear about artists being so involved in politics, or something else that the greater world deems “sufficient.” So often people who make a living doing art are seen as lesser than those who have more accepted jobs. I’m currently reading the Anna Wintour biography written by Amy Odell, and Odell made sure to state that Wintour continuously worked to, “prove she could be the world’s best fashion editor as well as a serious political person.”
Although Kahlo was so heavily interlaced in the politics of her country, she didn’t always make a statement through her art. My favorite era of Kahlo’s paintings was during the Real Maravilloso era of Mexican art which combined reality with fantasy. The paintings appear very whimsical, and similar to a child’s imagination. It’s as if she used paintings like these to distract herself from the stress that politics so often bring, and to channel her inner, carefree child.
Of course, as seen in the last painting, there were plenty of self-portraits, the paintings Kahlo is so famously known for. I can’t help but think of how special of a person one must be that can make painting themselves such an integral portion of their work. I can’t imagine how many hours Kahlo must have spent staring at herself in a mirror, working to get every single detail on her face exactly correct. In a sense though, it gives her so much power. Why would someone else need to paint Kahlo, when she so often did it herself? Who could make fun of or exaggerate her unibrow, when her paintings made it a famous indicator of such an accomplished artist?
Her father did say, “Frida was a master of writing her own personal myth,” and when she first started dating Rivera, he approved of the relationship because he saw Rivera as someone who could “keep up with his strong and vivacious daughter.”
Strong and vivacious indeed Kahlo was. Throughout all her political protests, she did not seem to care who she might offend. Kahlo thought a certain style of ruling was best for her country, and that is what she would fight for. Even in different countries, she was not afraid to take a stab at discussing what could be improved. The exhibit included some sketches of her trips to New York City, in which she reconstructed Lady Liberty in a way she found more fitting.
Instead of holding the torch, she was holding an atomic bomb. Instead of the tablet, a bag of money. All around her feet were capitalists and other infamous dictators.
This wasn’t the only connection to the US I saw in the exhibit of Mexican artists though. As all great art should, Frida and the other Mexican artists kept me thinking long after I left the estate and continued my highway drive home. These artists were so proud of the country they came from, that it almost seemed as though these artists did not see their art as a passion, hobby, or way to make money. Instead, their passion lies in their love and devotion to their country. The art, simply being a way to display this passion. This undeniable support for one’s country is not something I think many people from the US could stand up, with full confidence, and do.
When discussing Mexican dress, Rivera said the clothes were truly made “by the people, for the people”. It’s inevitable to think of the Gettysburg Address when hearing this line – “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” In the past few months, I’ve definitely felt the intense governing of the people, but not as much so ‘for the people’ – at least not all of the people.
There’s a huge disconnect in the US of people not being immensely proud of where they came from. It would be ignorant of me to say the US is all mighty bad – it has the eighth highest per capita nominal GDP in the world, and has the most technologically and innovative economy in the world. However, it is an intriguing angle to view my own art from. As an emerging artist around the same age most of these artists were when they began to become popular and fight for their country, my art is made for an entirely different reason.
Lola Álvarez Bravo was the first well-known female Mexican photographer and another major artist in the post-revolution Mexican renaissance. She explained that she only wanted to do photography to dignify Mexico’s working and farming classes. It’s sobering to realize a hobby for me is an important means to an end for someone else.
So I drive through the rural midwest, I read the “are you still drinking the democratic kool-aid?” billboards, listen to a podcast about the recession on The Journal, and think about the importance of our art in our political landscape right now. But to be honest, I mostly think about El Jardín de Casa Azul, because I already study economics and political science and sometimes, art really is just about taking a break.
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