Inside the fantastical world of Frida Kahlo
Immersive exhibition bridges the gap between the iconic 20th-century artist and today’s tech-driven world.
Take one look at Frida Kahlo’s fantastical, dreamlike and often-graphic depictions of life, death and pain, and it’s no wonder surrealists saw her art as works of mysticism.
But Kahlo never saw herself that way. She rejected the surrealist title, saying, “I don’t paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality.”
“Kahlo was an artist that truly painted her personal experience, including love, pain, torture, culture and politics,” said Carlos Frésquez, a professor in Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Department of Art.
Kahlo’s art compositions are raw, unfiltered and personal, reflecting the chronic physical pain she suffered for much of her life; the emotional torment she endured in her turbulent, all-consuming marriage to Mexican muralist Diego Rivera; and her controversial political ideations. Her paintings are physically small and painstakingly detailed.
“That (the size of her artwork was small) was largely due to the fact that she was bedridden for much of her life,” said Cecily Cullen, director and curator for MSU Denver’s Center for Visual Art. “She took to painting to pour her experience into her artwork. In that sense, the small scale is very fitting to the content in her work.”
A new Kahlo exhibition at Lighthouse Artspace Denver portrays each delicate brushstroke on a grander scale with “Immersive Frida Kahlo.” The walls of the museum serve as a floor-to-ceiling canvas for light projections of Kahlo’s work, allowing visitors to view the art more intimately than ever before. The exhibition, which runs through June 5, lets viewers step into the artwork and thus into the fantastical world that was Kahlo’s reality.
“You’re stepping inside her painting, and it gives you a truer sense of what she experienced,” Frésquez explained. “If you can bring a person inside your artwork, you’re pulling that person inside your brain and your heart.”
While immersion art may be new for Kahlo’s work, it’s not a new concept, said Cullen.
“I would say all artwork is a provocation of sorts,” she said. “Artists are trying to elicit an emotional response to their work. And immersive art takes this to an extreme through the experience of having the viewer feel like they are walking into the artwork. It’s a way to step out of our reality and into a new experience, but (that idea) is actually not new.”
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She pointed to live theatre and circuses as immersive forms of art that have been around for centuries. Cullen added there are many visual artists, including James Turrell, who’ve been making art in the immersive realm since the 1960s. She acknowledged that in today’s technology-driven world, massive digital wall projections may translate art — especially complex, century-old pieces such as Kahlo’s — to viewers in a different way.
“It’s upping the entertainment value of art in a way,” Cullen said. “This presentation may appeal to viewers who wouldn’t necessarily visit a museum.”
Anything that can be done to promote art in today’s world, Frésquez said, is a good thing.
He described the respect for and recognition of Kahlo’s work as coming in waves over the past century. Though her eccentricities and disposition warranted a lot of public attention while she was alive, her work has experienced resurgences through the years. She was heralded as a symbol of resistance and empowerment during periods of the U.S. feminist movement of the 1960s and again during the Chicano movement of the ’70s and ’80s.
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Kahlo was a Communist and notoriously anti-capitalist, so Frésquez joked she would have hated seeing her face on a tote bag or graphic T-shirt. But there’s no doubt she accomplished a lot for the advancement of women and Chicano rights, and her artwork is powerful.
“Maybe a young kid will see this show and think, ‘Wow, she did all these amazing things. … I should go learn more about her,’” Frésquez said. “It might propel them into learning more about art. And the more art we get into people’s lives, the better off we all are.”