NEW YORK — There is a shame for any serious artist in being understood. Many artists cultivate a mystique precisely to avoid being explained away. But a resistance to being too well known comes into conflict with a desire to communicate and express oneself, to belong, to be loved.
Frida Kahlo, one of the 20th century’s great artists, gives us occasion to think about this paradox. We know her. We love her. The exhibitions keep coming. And, inevitably, we think we understand her.
Kahlo’s life and work are addressed, engrossingly, in “Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving,” at the Brooklyn Museum. A second, smaller show, “Frida Kahlo and Arte Popular,” opens shortly at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The Brooklyn show is not just about how Kahlo made herself visible and known. It is as much about how she sought to avoid the ignominy of being too well known. It is, in short, about mystique.
Organized for the Brooklyn Museum by Catherine Morris and Lisa Small and based on an exhibition curated by Claire Wilcox and Circe Henestrosa at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum last year, the show hinges on 10 Kahlo paintings from the well-traveled Gelman Collection. It is filled out with dresses, jewelry and ephemera — much of it never before displayed in the United States — and there are dozens of photographs. So it’s as much about Kahlo’s fashioning of her persona as it is about fashion, painting or photography.
I have never seen a photograph of Kahlo that isn’t captivating. The Brooklyn show is filled with them, dating from early childhood to her final decade, and reminds us that she fascinated people even before she began painting her indelible self-portraits.
Kahlo became a celebrity when she was just 22, after marrying the already-famous Diego Rivera. She spent the rest of her life in his shadow. “The conclusion I’ve drawn,” she later wrote to him, “is that all I’ve done is fail . . . I live with you for ten years without doing anything in short but causing you problems and annoying you. I began to paint and my painting is useless but for me and for you to buy it, knowing that no-one else will.”
How painful this is to read, knowing that Kahlo was the better artist. She was better not because she happens to be more popular now nor because she was more talented or prolific than Rivera. She wasn’t. She was better because her art has an urgency and a specificity that his almost entirely lacks.
Rivera’s art is like political speech: In trying to apply to “the masses,” to everyone, it doesn’t actually apply to anyone. Kahlo’s is emphatically about herself, with results so jewel-like, compressed and beguiling that we are all, helplessly, interested.
Kahlo’s early fame put her on a strange trajectory. She was photographed for Vogue and Time and Vanity Fair by the most famous photographers alive: Edward Weston, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham. They were interested in her because they were interested in Mexico and Mexican politics; because they were interested in Rivera; and because when you see tiny Frida standing next to hulking Diego . . . well, how could you not be interested?