Sixty-one years after her death at the age of 47, seminal Mexican artist Frida Kahlo still has the power to awe, provoke, and inspire. A striking icon—resplendent in her colorful clothes and jewelry, trademark up-do and unibrow—she now appears on everything from fridge magnets to tote bags. Her image has become one of the most recognizable (and replicated) faces of the 20th century.
Her visage today is shorthand for "the rebellious woman," and with good reason: Kahlo was the protagonist of her own story, taking what society told her were shortcomings—unconventional looks, disability, vibrant sexuality, outspokenness—and turning them into her defining trademarks. Popular culture is familiar with Kahlo the rebel, the bisexual, the intellectual, and the trailblazer, but less is known of her softer side, the one that tended a lush hideaway at her childhood home, the Casa Azul, now the Frida Kahlo Museum , in Mexico City.
This summer, the New York Botanical Garden has transformed its Enid A. Haupt conservatory into Casa Azul, complete with blue walls, succulents, organ pipe cacti, and all manner of flora. This little slice of Coyoacána in the Bronx is just one part of a seven-pronged exhibit Frida: Art. Garden. Life, up until November 1, that includes works on paper, paintings, rare photos, and programming that includes musical performances, Mexican-themed food pop-ups, and a poetry walk inspired by novelist and poet Octavio Paz (1914-1998), the Nobel laureate of Mexico.
Much like the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama more recently, Kahlo went through a period of relative obscurity, overshadowed by larger, male names from the era, including her own husband, the painter Diego Rivera, whose work helped to usher in the Mexican Mural Movement of the 20s. Then a resurgence of Neomexicanismo in the late 70s/early 80s brought Kahlo back into cultural relevance. With the release of the 2002 biopic Frida, starring Salma Hayek, the art-world favorite got further mainstream recognition. Despite fame in her time, and a host of international lovers that included French singer Josephine Baker and Soviet revolutionary-turned-dissident Leon Trotsky (among many others), Kahlo's life was also spent battling pain, both emotional and physical. After a train accident at 18 left her bedridden and temporarily paralyzed, the artist developed her own artistic style, seeking refuge in the natural world of Casa Azul. In the course of her tempestuous marriage to Rivera, Kahlo would often seclude herself in the garden to sit, think, and be at peace.
Scott Pask, designer of the exhibit, and Tony-award winning set designer for plays like The Book of Mormon and The Coast of Utopia, recognized during his trips to her childhood home the important role nature played in easing Kahlo's agony: "She was in pain her whole life from injuries—polio as a child, and then also the emotional pain of a very tumultuous marriage to a person she worshipped and respected, but who was also largely a tormentor of sorts. Her gardening was born of emotional strife, and the personal extravagance was her way of being in touch with the full force [of her emotions]." This extravagance includes thousands of colorful, native plants, and a striking Mesoamerican-style shrine, in homage to Mexico's pre-Spanish, indigenous heritage.
The garden's replication is due in no small part to the hard work of exhibit creators and coordinators Adriana Zavala, Mia D'Avanza, and Joanna L. Groarke, who spent over a year meticulously researching both botany and design, pouring over old images and Kahlo's correspondence, and traveling to Casa Azul. But why Frida, and why now?
The answers lie in our current zeitgeist, which elevates "outsiders" and the marginalized. As D'Avanza, reference librarian at the NYBG, told me, Frida's appeal is both timeless and current.
"Part of it is the force of her personality, which comes through in her paintings," D'Avanza said. "She addressed autobiographical [elements] in her paintings, and she's [since] become an icon for women, or anybody who's overcome bodily injury. She had a very dramatic life, and she transcended it."
Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo and Alfred Molina as Diego Rivera in 'Frida' (2002)
Much of this transcendence is due to an ability to lose herself in the patterns of nature, and the exhibit focuses on ways she used its imagery to tell her story. From her iconic Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940), which mimics religious iconography and features two of her pets, a monkey and black cat, entwined in her garden, to Flower of Life (1944), both on display, nature is as much a character in her autobiographical works as she is.
"She employs imagery in a way that's deeply personal," said D'Avanza, who is also the exhibition coordinator at the NYBG. "I feel people can relate to her from different angles."
Related: Oaxaca's Third Gender
Part of this image mastery is due to her upbringing as the daughter of a photographer, which led to a heightened awareness of image, cult of personality, and self-mythology.
"She's kind of like the original selfie-taker," continued D' Avanza. "She knew her angles. You see it in these early photos with her dad, with her whole family. Her sisters are conventionally beautiful, so she chooses to dress like a man because she wants to stand out. She knew that anybody could be 'pretty,' but it takes a certain kind of personality to carry off being unconventional."
Decades before Madonna or Lady Gaga, Kahlo was transforming the grotesque into the glamorous.
"She was boisterous and outspoken, and talented and feminine and masculine, and all these wondrous things," said Karen Daubmann, associate vice president of exhibitions at the NYBG. Surprisingly, this dynamic spirit fits perfectly among the curated and clipped lawns of the botanical garden, which Daubmann recognized early on.
"We loved seeing her gardens, and sitting in her studio, when we were in Mexico City, and we wanted to bring that back to everyone here in the Bronx," said Daubmann.
And Daubmann has certainly succeeded. To walk through the NYBG's Casa Azul is to get a glimpse of what it was like to see the world through the eyes of this tortured, yet brilliant artist—but to also healed be healed by nature's beauty, just as Kahlo herself was.
"She brought together all these elements of the natural world, and lived it," said Daubmann.
Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life at the New York Botanical Garden (2900 Southern Boulevard, The Bronx) continues through November 1.
Follow Laura on Twitter.