State of the Arts

Victoria Ward

Frida & Diego, Marxists in love

The Frida & Diego exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) plays out as romantic-story-book-walkabout. Like walking through a Valentine card complete with Mexican élan and Day of the Dead aesthetic; it was the very first block buster exhibition I wasn’t deeply resentful about spilling out into a gift shop at the end. In fact the opposite occurred where I felt shockingly compelled to get something with Frida on it, be it a tattoo, a fridge magnet or even oven gloves. I didn’t but I wanted to.

I am extremely familiar with these Marxist love birds who rubbed shoulders with a few of the most celebrated figures of the 20th century. When I was in high school I occasionally wore folksy tunics and flowers in my hair (on days when I couldn’t bear my black lace/velvet selection of clothing) in homage to what I felt was the most amazing female artist ever!! Those days being long gone, I have a less hysterical obsession with the cult of Frida Kahlo and more a sober appreciation of this intriguing and forward thinking woman.

The AGO exhibit clearly makes her the star however Diego wouldn’t have minded since he felt her worth more valiantly than anyone. The exhibit is essentially a love story – it would make a great date and there were many a young couple getting smoochy at several points. Of course the exhibit includes many important paintings, several of them from Frida’s dark, visceral reactions to her disability and attempts at getting pregnant (all of which failed leaving her broken hearted). But even with such deeply intimate visual accounts of her trials, the intensity of Frida and Diego’s feelings toward each other made for an emotional and exuberant experience.

I left thinking about love and the romanticism of making art work and sharing it with a partner. This is actually something I do. My partner and I are artists who share a studio, a home, a bed and a life. Can I relate to Frida & Diego? Nope, not in the slightest. Their timing was a major factor in their success, when hitting the mark of zietgeist was unavoidable; while alive and working they came to represent or be in involved in the Mexican revolution, the Marxist and labour uprisings sweeping nations, manufacturing titans who believed in art patronage like Ford and Rockefeller and the rise of film/celebrity as its own cultural phenomenon. News reels allowed these two a visual testimony that just ten years before artists could not. There’s no footage of Manet kissing his mistress for instance. They capitalized on their national pride, struggling/modern relationship and let’s face it Frida was made to be photographed, and she knew it.

These were a gift shop highlight but then I Googled ‘frida tatts’ and saw 8 million pictures of chicks with real ones on their arms and various other places. Empowerment? Narcissism? I’m just not sure anymore.

My life with my artist partner is modest and uncontroversial comparatively. This is odd since we are the ones who live with Facebook and YouTube. Or is it? There is a longing today to become what Frida & Diego seemed to be: stunningly talented, free, in love, passionate, political, rich with great clothes, a trove of personal documentarians who would follow them about, celebrity friends and a bevy of sexy young things willing to distract them when they were upset with each other. Scratch a little deeper however and I think the longing is for authenticity and originality which these guys had in spades.

The only drawbacks in all this glamour were the very sad state of Frida’s health and Diego’s constant humiliating philandering. These are two fairly huge drawbacks. But it was this dark side of their turbulent lives that made their relationship remarkable. What kept them so close? Perhaps it was art.

Art can save you. I know this because it has saved me many times. Like a monk or an athlete, I have a focus nothing can shift. As long as I can make things I believe in I am able to take on vast amounts of misery. I am not a person who finds the machinations of daily existence super easy, so being able to express myself in ways that make more sense to me such as painting or this blog makes my life better. These things help my struggle to authenticate my role in the universe. It’s not flaky or an excuse, it just is.

Artists make the world realize the importance of our individual uniqueness. As Buckminster Fuller said, “Never forget that you are one of a kind. Never forget that if there weren’t any need for you in all your uniqueness to be on this earth, you wouldn’t be here in the first place. And never forget, no matter how overwhelming life’s challenges and problems seem to be, that one person can make a difference in the world. In fact, it is always because of one person that all the changes that matter in the world come about. So be that one person.”

Tempting as they were, I didn’t need a Frida tattoo to mark my appreciation of her or a mug, an art exhibit on its own serves that purpose just fine.

Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting on at the AGO until January 20th

Picture from Kahlo Art Tattoos


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