In just four words, “Frida Kahlo: Her Photos” manages to convey three squishy untruths.
The first is “Photos,” for these are not. Of the 240 images on display at Artisphere in Rosslyn, none is a photograph that hung in or belonged to La Casa Azul in Coyoacán, Mexico City, the home where the famous surrealist painter lived from her birth to her death. Not the images of Kahlo’s father, Guillermo Kahlo; her mother, Matilde Calderón; or her husband, Diego Rivera. Each image is a finely framed and convincingly rendered facsimile of those original photographs, copies that extend the range of a set of artifacts that, like everything having to do with Kahlo, is considered sacred.
The next is “Her,” because most of these images aren’t Kahlo’s—not in the way that any potential viewer would understand from reading the title. These are not copies of photos that Kahlo necessarily shot, but copies of photos that Kahlo owned. Included in the exhibit are pictures taken by Man Ray, Brassaï, Tina Modotti, and others that serve, in some strained sense, to elucidate Kahlo’s surrealist eye. For the most part, the exhibit is an exhumation of Kahlo’s stuff. Copies of pictures of revolucionarios, family portraits, and images of everyday life in Mexico City serve as a forensic examination of Kahlo’s interests—a reconstruction of Frida Kahlo from the contents of her image library.
That’s the last lie in the exhibit: “Frida Kahlo.” But at this point, that one’s hard to pin on Artisphere. The work of the Mexican surrealist painter has been so exhaustively reproduced that the question of authenticity—I’m not talking about her intent or reception, but simply work that the artist has actually touched—is beyond the point. Viewers will line up for “Frida Kahlo” just as readily as they will for Frida Kahlo, whether it’s paintings or posters. She is an event, a reason to celebrate, an association that has, for very good reasons, captured something inimitable for Mexicans, for Latin Americans, for women—and for anyone who would wish to understand their experiences.
Kahlo means just as much to museum directors, who know that a Frida Kahlo show, even a “Frida Kahlo” show, is one of the most reliable predictors of blockbuster attendance available to the art world. For a sick institution, Kahlo is a cure for what ails—a morbid irony given that so much of her imagery centers on health and dysfunction, reproduction and fidelity, and hope and salvation.
Can Kahlo save the struggling Artisphere? (The show, which has been in the works for some time, predates the venue’s public revenue and attendance woes.) The arts center proved up to the task of hosting the hundreds of fans lining up to see the exhibit. An Artisphere spokesperson said that the continuous current conveyed some 3,294 people through the exhibit during opening weekend. Artisphere has space enough to pair with the show plenty of programming, from a screening of the Salma Hayek biopic to a salsa dance party. There’s also some rather more legitimate and obscure artwork on display in the cultural center, such as a screening of a video installation by contemporary artist Cristina Iglesias.
There’s a cost to bringing contemporary art to Rosslyn, and that’s the solitary truth behind the show—it takes so much lower-c culture, so much abject pandering to Washingtonians in search of the “arty,” to bring one contemporary artwork into broader circulation. Frankly, the truth could be worse. Other Frida shows only serve to sell Frida tchotchkes. Artisphere is better than that, if only because it doesn’t have a gift shop.