Sydney's Opening night - The Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera collection - ART GALLERY NSW

River Bennett

It was opening night for the works of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera - a Jacques and Natasha Gelman collection, at Art Gallery of NSW in Sydney. 

I had parked my car beside The Domain and headed towards the gallery. 

Walking to my left was a woman dressed from head to toe in traditional Mexican attire - she looked amazing. And to my right was a bunch of enthusiasts laughing, beaming, smiling and talking as though they were about to meet Frida in person. I had to smile. I knew what they were feeling. I felt exactly the same way. 

"I can't believe Frida is in Sydney," I chimed in, uninvited at first but immediately accepted into the inner circle of the Frida Trust. 

"I know!!" they all chorused at me. 

"Can you believe it?!" 

As I  walked towards the NSW ART GALLERY, I continued a conversation with a woman who would have been in her 40’s. Immediately we connected and opened up about life. We talked about our children and what lay ahead of us at the ‘parenting teenagers’ stage. We discussed the beauty of Frida's work and how the tragedy of her life evoked a deep sense of purpose for the artist. We talked about sliding doors. How life can side-swipe you in an instant and yet beauty is often found in the mess. 

What a mystery art is - that it opens meaningful conversation between two complete strangers. 

We politely acknowledged each other and left our conversation at the door as we headed into a room full of guests. The atmosphere was dignified, elegant and electric - like the deep, powerful hum of a Porche as the key turns in the ignition.

We listened to a powerful opening speech by Michael Brand (Director of the Art Gallery of NSW) and David Gonski (Chairman of the Art Gallery of NSW) honouring and paying respect to Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. And acknowledging Jacques and Natasha Gelman for sharing such a stunning collection.

They all spoke with such respect for Frida Kahlo and Deigo Rivera and their work.

After a glass of champagne while watching a Mexican band preform, I excused myself from my circle of like-minded guests, and made my way up to see Frida's and Diego’s work. I needed to see it by myself. I didn't want to be distracted. It had been her work that had inspired me creatively for years and now I was close enough to see her brushstrokes.

Her story was one of tragic circumstances and yet somehow she found the beauty in the mess.

At the age of 6 yrs, Frida contracted Polio and was confined to a bed for 9 mths. Although she recovered from the illness, the disease badly damaged her right leg and foot causing her to walk with a limp for the rest of her life.

On September 17, 1925, Frida was traveling on a bus when it collided with a streetcar. As a result of the collision, Frida was impaled by a steel handrail, which went into her hip and came out the other side. She suffered several serious injuries as a result, including fractures in her spine and pelvis.

This accident transformed Frida. "It left her at the mercy of surgeons and encased in various plaster casts and haunted by thoughts of death.”  (‘Life Portraits of Frida Kahlo’ by Zena Alkayat and Nina Gosford.)

Bedridden for months on end Frida distracted herself by painting. She had a mirror attached to the canopy of her bed and this was the time Frida painted her first self-portrait. 

“I paint myself because I am so often alone, and because it’s the subject I know best.” - Frida Kahlo

By the time Frida was 20yrs she was back on her feet, and ready to make a living from art. She sought professional advice from muralist Diego Rivera whose work she had admired for many years. 

Diego was impressed with her work and took her under his wing while also falling madly in love with young Frida. Frida reciprocated his love, falling for his creative brilliance and his passion for politics. 

They later married and moved to the USA to work, but Frida never truly felt at home in America and longed to get back to Mexico.

She also longed to be a mother. She miscarried her first child due to the foetus being in the wrong position, and her second pregnancy ended after 3 and half months with a miscarriage that lasted 13 days. 

Frida threw herself into her work and sketched and painted work depicting herself alone and exposed, with emotionally symbolical images. 

Frida’s work was now being noticed and acclaimed as “a ribbon around a bomb.” (Andre Breton) and an invitation by Julien Levy, an American art dealer, offered her a solo show in New York. Frida accepted as the doors across Europe began to open up for her.

Sadly, her husband Diego began to have affairs with various women which left Frida heartbroken and she divorced him not long after. 

The two continued life alone, but it was in 1940 he tried to win her back. Diego regretted the separation and wanted to re-marry. So, on the 8th of December 1940 (less than a year after they divorced) Frida agreed to marry him again. 

It was during the 1940’s that some of Frida’s best work was produced and she also took students under her wing and taught them everything she knew. 

By 1944 Frida’s health was fast declining. She continued to have major surgeries on her spine and was encased in 28 different corsets. They were made from leather and steel to help alleviate the pain in her spine. She would wear them for months on end. 

Frida was by nature a fun-loving and hospitable woman. She had a zeal for life and a connectedness to nature. But she was often heard to say, “No matter how much I do play the strong one, there are times I would like to throw in the sponge.”

When her right leg was amputated the reality of loosing part of herself haunted Frida. She became erratic, and her determination to live sometimes faulted. Her last painting (a still life of watermelons) was signed with the words “Viva La Vida” - meaning “Long live life.”

On July 13th, 1954 Frida Kahlo died in her sleep. She was 47 yrs old.

Seeing Frida’s life story in her paintings left me undone. She had such a fight in her. Determination trumped quitting, and I like that about a person. I like that she painted her reality. Not dreams or nightmares. She brought forth such beauty out of the light and dark valleys of her life. I guess that's where true beauty is found. Maybe that's why her work is so powerful.

As chance would have it, I walked out of the gallery that night at the same time as the woman I had walked in with. We amused ourselves at what a coincidence it was and quickly threw ourselves into conversation about what we thought of the show. 

The male companion beside her listened to us unravel our thoughts, and then said, “Can I say, it’s like Frida’s work is every woman’s mojo!”

We laughed. It was true. The vibe from the women in the gallery had been slightly terrifying! Ha.

“I think it’s because she was brave enough to use colour. So many women deep down want to be that brave. She was vibrant in her painting of the dark seasons of her life, but this to me represented that she acknowledged that even in tragedy beauty CAN come forth. If we allow it to. I think all of us can relate to the fact that life isn’t always easy but the we are now all left with the challenge to bring something beautiful to the table.” 

The woman beside me agreed and we were silent the rest of the way to the car left deep in thought.

“Lovely to meet you,” I smiled.

“You too,” she said.

I got in my car that night determined to be more like Frida. Beauty is often found in the mess of our lives and I believe if we search for true beauty we may just find it. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more info and ticket sales to Jacques and Natasha Gelman's Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera Collection head to:

artgallerynsw.gov.au

@artgalleryofnsw

 

(Images - "Deigo On My Mind." by Frida Kahlo, "Frida" by Guillermo, "Self Protrait With Necklace" by Frida Kahlo, "Frida Paints Self Portrait While Diego Observes" by Bernard Silberstein, "Diego On My Mind" Frida Kahlo, "Self Portrait with Braid" by Frida Kahol, "The Miscarriage by Frida Kahlo, "Self Portrait with Monkeys" by Frida Kahol, "The Bride Who Becomes Frightened When She Sees Life Opened.")