Her image is emblazoned on the sides of buses in ads for a garden and art show at The New York Botanical Garden — which is ironic considering Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) suffered life-altering injuries in a bus accident when she was 18. But a quiet photo show, “Mirror Mirror ... Portraits of Frida Kahlo,” is vying for our attention at Throckmorton Fine Art, a gallery on East 57th Street that specializes in Latin American photography and deals in rare, vintage photographs of Mexico’s iconic artist.
On a recent sunny Saturday, the gallery was jam-packed for a talk by psychiatrist and Kahlo scholar Salomon Grimberg. Surrounded by more than 50 photos of the artist taken by some of the 20th century’s most renowned photographers, Grimberg held forth for close to an hour on the woman he repeatedly called “the great concealer.”
Kahlo’s spine was shattered after her bus collided with a tram in September 1925 in Mexico City. Her right leg — already thinner and shorter than her left leg from childhood polio — suffered multiple fractures. She concealed her impairment with long flowing skirts, by tucking her right leg under her left leg, a habit formed in early childhood — and through the force of her personality.
Grimberg began by comparing Kahlo to the character of the Phantom in “The Phantom of the Opera,” because “like the Phantom, she lived with a deformity ... and covered it up.”
But, he continued, “she had a presence regardless of her deformity, and she had talent.”
Fans of the popular 2002 biopic “Frida,” starring Salma Hayek as the charismatic painter, will recall her famously reaching out to Mexican painter and muralist Diego Rivera to verify that talent — an encounter that led to their stormy marriage in 1929 (and to their divorce in 1939 and remarriage the following year). She had abandoned plans to become a doctor after the bus accident and taken up painting to express — and transcend — her physical and emotional torment. Rivera gave her the affirmation she so desperately needed to become an artist.
Kahlo first saw herself in photos taken by her father, Guillermo Kahlo, a German immigrant photographer (her mother was Mexican). As Grimberg explained, it was Kahlo’s father who introduced her to photography and to the arts. Comparing her to the mythic Narcissus, Grimberg said Kahlo “spent her life in front of a mirror” and “lived surrounded by (them) — on tables, walls, the canopy of her bed, the front of her wardrobe and in the garden wall.” In mirrors, he said, “she was seeing her sense of self.”
The show here features two mirror images by Mexican photographer Lola Alvarez Bravo, one of which depicts Kahlo in the garden of her home outside Mexico City, La Casa Azul (The Blue House), in the company of a pair of hairless dogs. The exhibit acknowledges Kahlo’s cult status while at the same time paying tribute to those who enabled it. It boasts the work of a string of notables, including Imogen Cunningham, Gisèle Freund, Lucienne Bloch, Carl Van Vechten, Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Nickolas Muray, the Hungarian-born American photographer and dashing Olympic fencer who was Kahlo’s on-again, off-again lover for nearly 10 years. (Muray, divorced three times, wanted to marry Kahlo; Kahlo was married to Rivera, who had his own issues with fidelity.)
Muray took gorgeous color pictures of his Mexican lover, five of which line the walls of the gallery, including the most famous one ever taken of her, “Frida With Magenta Rebozo, The Classic” (1939), which Rivera likened to a Piero della Francesca. (A rebozo is a Mexican shawl-like garment worn over the head or shoulders.) As Grimberg noted in his talk, Kahlo once told Muray that there were “only two men I love — Diego Rivera and you.”
She cultivated a masculine look until she met Rivera, thereafter accentuating her feminine side with long hair, long dresses, hair ornaments and dazzling pre-Hispanic jewelry. She visited New York on several occasions, most memorably accompanying Rivera in 1933 when he was commissioned to paint a mural for the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center — a mural that was later destroyed because it included a portrait of Lenin, much to the chagrin of the Rockefellers. In 1946, she traveled to the city for a spinal fusion at the Hospital for Special Surgery.
In the end, Grimberg concludes that Kahlo, who died in 1954 at the age of 47 after a lifetime of surgeries, hospitalizations and pain, “was stuck. She didn’t have access to the cosmos. Everything she did was about herself. She was self-absorbed and lived in a dead-end. It was like living in a mirror: How far can you go when you’re looking into a mirror?”