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Frida Kahlo: Timeless at the Cleve Carney Museum of Art

The first thing I noticed when we entered the Cleve Carney Museum of Art: An armed police officer. He was stocky, had a severe looking buzzcut, and was dressed in an authoritarian, navy blue uniform, complete with a gun strapped at his waist. He was leaning with his back against the wall next to one of the exhibition’s monitors that welcomed guests to the exhibition. He looked bored. I was taken aback. The only other times I’ve seen armed guards at an art museum was at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and at the Louvre in 2017, a little over a year after the November 2015 Paris attacks, both of which made sense to me given the high-profile nature and location of these institutions. A small, suburban college art museum though? Not so much.


Frida Khalo, The Broken Column, 1944. Photo courtesy of Museo Dolores Olmedo.

The presence of law enforcement at the Cleve Carney disregards Kahlo’s lifelong political affiliations and her own experiences with the police in Mexico City. Kahlo was a member of the Mexican Communist Party on-and-off again for 10 years and was arrested in the summer of 1940, suspected of being involved in the murder of exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, with whom she had an affair three years prior. Kahlo’s painting “Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky” (1937) commemorated their love affair and pictures Kahlo holding a letter signed “with all my love.” She was released from jail after two days. Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera were also champions of Mexicanidad, a post-Revolutionary movement that called for stripping the country of colonial influence and replacing it with the trappings of indigenous culture, so I would hazard a confident guess that Kahlo would be enraged by this sanitized presentation of her work, safeguarded by militant police officers. Personally, as a former employee of several Chicago art museums including the Art Institute of Chicago, where I helped organize the museum’s equity, diversity, and inclusion initiative, I believe there is no justification for having armed police officers as museum security—especially amidst the ongoing reckoning with police violence and racism in the US.

While Frida Kahlo: Timeless attempted to present a detailed account of Kahlo’s lifelong health struggles as a result of polio and injuries sustained in a bus accident at the age of 18; her tumultuous marriage to Diego Rivera; and her political affiliations, the exhibition repeatedly failed to draw connections between her paintings and the events of her life. There was an ambitious timeline in the room opposite the main gallery. A list of which paintings from the show were completed during the different periods of Kahlo’s life was included throughout the timeline, which was interesting but unhelpful. It was impossible to keep track of which paintings were completed when. The museum was incredibly crowded despite timed, limited tickets, making it hard to linger and read. When I finally made it inside the main gallery, I had forgotten the majority of the dates. I wished the curators had considered a timeline interspersed throughout the exhibition, contextualizing the paintings within the continuum of Kahlo’s life. Instead, it felt as though her life and artwork were presented as though they had an inconsequential relationship to one another.

The exhibition suffered from a curatorial approach that felt uninspired and rote, relying on Kahlo’s popularity to draw visitors rather than interrogating Kahlo’s relationships and circumstances to offer a compelling new understanding of her artistic practice and legacy. As I read the exhibition wall text, I was struck by how fiercely it attempted to reduce her paintings as examples of “female empowerment” while largely ignoring her affiliations to political movements in Mexico City, as well as her extra-marital affairs with both men and women. I wish I had counted the number of times the exhibition text used the word confident to describe Kahlo’s work, eliding any analysis of her work that might reveal something new about her artistic practice. The exhibition’s label for “Portrait of Virginia,” described the subject—an indigenous Mexican child—as “confident,” and I turned to my friend and laughed. The girl in the painting appears somber and respectful if anything, sitting attentively with her hands neatly placed atop one another in her lap.

A line of visitors snaked around the gallery, inching slowly forward. I caught myself impatiently tapping my foot while we waited to move closer to her paintings. It was the worst way to look at art, feeling overly conscious of the dozens of people waiting behind you while you tried to admire each piece, shuffling forward even if you wanted to linger. I watched the girl in front of us stop and take a photo of each painting, moving on without even taking a moment to consider the work. She had a tattoo of Kahlo’s face on her shoulder. A bullish gallery attendant with blonde hair paced around the gallery space and told everyone that they didn’t have to wait in the line, “You can move around freely between the paintings.” No one moved from the line. There was a small crowd in front of all the paintings, and I can’t imagine how that would have helped, having everyone ambling around the congested space.

Despite my criticisms of the exhibition’s curatorial approach, I appreciated the opportunity to see Kahlo’s paintings in person, especially her iconic “The Broken Column” (1944). I broke away from my group of friends and stood in front of the painting, which was displayed on a temporary wall in the center of the gallery. She painted the piece shortly after undergoing spinal surgery to correct ongoing issues from the bus accident when she was 18. I leaned as close to the painting as possible, trying to be mindful of the small barricade installed on the floor, so I could really appreciate the details in her face. I was struck by Kahlo’s stoic expression despite the watery glisten in her eyes and the curtain of teardrops dripping down her face. Her chest is split open, revealing a crumbling Ionic column, which appears to be held together by a metal corset wrapped around her stomach and a harness fastened over her shoulders. Her body is pierced by nails of varying sizes. The largest nail is embedded in her left breast, directly above her heart, perhaps suggesting emotional suffering that outweighed her bodily pain. My vision went soft and hot like when you open your eyes underwater in a heavily chlorinated pool; I realized I was tearing up. More than half a century after her death, Kahlo’s suffering and strength continue to echo in her paintings, reminding us of both the fragility and resiliency of our bodies. I had to step outside, sitting in the grass behind the Frida Kahlo-inspired Garden designed by Ball Horticultural Company, which was really just a tacky recreation of a Mesoamerican pyramid with a few potted plants arranged on the colorful steps.

My friend came out to find me and said, “Well, I’m not upset we came, but I would not recommend it to anyone.” I nodded in agreement.