Frida Kahlo didn’t give a fuck about her unibrow.
She didn’t give a fuck about her mustache, either. Her life is a study in existing on one’s own terms: She married a known womanizer, celebrated Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, despite her mother’s staunch disapproval and Diego’s full-disclosure warning that he wouldn’t, couldn’t, remain faithful. She engaged in extramarital affairs with both men and women. She employed symbolism to depict deeply personal, distinctly female experiences—miscarriage, breastfeeding, relationships between two women—at a time when many of her contemporaries drew heavily from the physical, external world.
As one art critic wrote following Kahlo’s only solo exhibition in her native Mexico, “It is impossible to separate the life and work of this extraordinary person. Her paintings are her biography.” Naturally, the New York Botanical Garden has chosen to present Kahlo’s work within the context of her city, home and garden. The result is a holistic look at Kahlo’s life and the people, experiences, and, yes, plants that inspired her.
On a recent Saturday evening at the garden, during “Frida al Fresco”—a series of weekend soirees complete with a themed taco truck and a complimentary drink ticket for each admission—fellow patrons turned out in full Frida regalia, sporting milkmaid braids anchored by flowers at the crown of the head, a living homage to the Mexican painter. Mariachi Flor De Toloache, New York’s first and only all-female mariachi band, played near the entrance, serenading patrons as they nursed Mexican beer and prickly pear margaritas.
In the garden’s conservatory, curators have recreated the exterior and gardens of Kahlo and Rivera’s famous Mexico City abode, La Casa Azul, stocking it with a reproduction of Kahlo’s painting desk and hordes of horticulture selected to represent the specimens the painter grew in her lifetime. In her brightly colored and “distinctly Mexican” space, Kahlo nurtured indigenous plants like the black sapote “chocolate pudding tree,” allspice, zinnia, Swiss cheese plant, and marigold, used for ceremonial rites during celebrations like Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican “Day of the Dead.”
A short stroll down the garden’s main artery, the LuEsther T. Mertz Library houses 14 of Kahlo’s paintings and drawings on paper including, perhaps most notably, “Self-Portrait With Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird” (1940). In it, we see the artist staring dead on, an oppressive choker of thorns around her neck, weighted by what appears to be a dead hummingbird in the place of a pendant. Kahlo must be the original queen of the selfie—portrait, that is: Her life’s work includes 143 paintings, 55 of which are self-portraits. When asked why she was so often the subject of her art, she replied that it was because “I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.”
In the Ross Gallery, a visual directory of Mexico City highlights the artistic, cultural and intellectual depth of the hometown that influenced and inspired so much of Kahlo’s work. (It’s interesting to note that Kahlo did have a New York connection: She lived and held solo exhibitions in the city during the late 1930s, but ultimately missed the land of her childhood.) Here guests can learn about the sites that held personal significance to Kahlo and Rivera, as well as present-day museums where their collections can be seen.
Photos courtesy: The New York Botanical Garden
Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940. Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin. © 2014 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Gallery photos by Ivo M. Vermeulen