"To reflect the social life of Mexico as I saw it." — Diego Rivera
"I paint my own reality." — Frida Kahlo
Rivera, born in 1886 in Guanajuato, Mexico, was academically trained and prolific. By the time of his death at the age of seventy in 1957, he had produced hundreds of large-scale frescos acclaimed for their sweeping historical themes and dense figuration as well as numerous oil paintings, watercolours and lithographs. Kahlo, born in 1907 in Mexico City, was a novice painter when she married Rivera, twenty years her senior, in 1929. Self-taught and painstakingly measured, she completed fewer than 150 small works — mostly self-portraits and still-lifes — before she died at the age of forty-seven in 1954. During their life together, Rivera was the more celebrated of the two artists, lauded as Mexico's greatest muralist. In recent decades, however, Kahlo's posthumous fame has eclipsed Rivera's to enshrine her as one of modernism's most iconic women artists. Her paintings embody the physical pain she suffered after a debilitating bus accident at the age of 18 and the spiritual anguish caused by Rivera's infidelity and by her inability to have children.
Rivera's mission was, in his own words, to "to reflect the social life of Mexico as I saw it and, through my vision of the truth, to show the masses the outline of the future." Kahlo, who famously declared "I paint my own reality," affirmed her independence as a woman and her mestiza identity through an autobiographical lens. Where Rivera depicted the rural protagonists of the 1910 Mexican revolution as the heart and soul of mestizaje, Kahlo embraced her dual heritage by referencing the popular folk art tradition of anonymous retablos or ex-votos — small paintings on tin asking for divine intervention or recording a tragedy. For Rivera, nature was aligned in harmony with an indigenous Universe and represented by flowers; for Kahlo, it oscillated between parched earth and enveloping vegetation. While Rivera idealized the revolutionary masses and the pre-Columbian past in his murals, Kahlo kept company with animals and dolls in her self-portraits. When paired together, their distinctive oeuvres — Rivera's, expansive and historical; Kahlo's, inward looking and intimate — find common ground in their "vision of the truth" of Mexico's post-revolutionary culture.
During Kahlo and Rivera's life together, their admiration for each other's "vision of the truth" never faltered. In 1938, Rivera wrote to an American art critic to recommend her, "not as a husband but as an enthusiastic admirer of her work, acid and tender, hard as steel and delicate and fine as a butterfly's wing, loveable as a beautiful smile, and profound and cruel as the bitterness of life." In 1949, Kahlo wrote an essay to accompany Rivera's fifty-year retrospective at the National Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico in which she penned an impassioned defense of his communist ideals and "love of the Indian" as "the living flower of the cultural tradition of the Americas."
— Text by Dot Tuer, excerpted from ART MATTERS 2012 – No. 4