MFA Exhibit Explores the Inspirations Behind 

Frida Kahlo's Work

June 13, 2019 | By Sanya Mittal

Arte popular, a term coined for the traditional Mexican folk art that emerged after the Mexican Revolution, served as a driving force of inspiration for many Mexican artists, including the renowned Frida Kahlo. Painting in the era of the post-Mexican Revolution, Kahlo’s art spoke of the socio-political instabilities that still existed in Mexico at the time. “Frida Kahlo and Arte Popular” at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) showcases some of Kahlo’s most famous pieces, alongside the lesser known works of other Mexican artists. The exhibit connects the gap between Kahlo and the political and personal inspirations which drove her to become the celebrated painter she was before and after her death.


Photos by Sanya Mittal

The first room of the exhibit only holds works of art by various Mexican artists. For example, “Judas,” a large paper-mache sculpture by Leonardo Linares, was created to represent Judas Iscariot, a biblical character who betrayed Jesus. Judas figures were commonly used and burned in Mexico as part of Catholic celebrations. Kahlo and her husband, Diego Rivera, commissioned artists such as Linares to create these figures for them. However, rather than burning them, the couple kept the statues as pieces of art. 

A collection of textiles that Kahlo owned is also on display in the exhibit. Kahlo’s huipiles, or blouses, came from various Hispanic countries, but the ones on display at the MFA are from Oaxaca, a city in central Mexico. The bright red fabric and phrases stitched on them, such as ”Mexican Republic” and “State of Oaxaca,” displayed the national pride many Mexican artists had at the time. Kahlo, along with other modern artists, desired to preserve Mexican culture in a time when instability shrouded the nation. They desired arte popular to be a unified form of art, one which combined the past arts and culture of Mexico with present modernism. Following the Mexican Revolution, an armed conflict which roughly lasted from 1910 to 1920, Kahlo, as well as many other middle class women, collected their pasts and dressed in the traditional clothing of indigenous women. Kahlo did not simply copy her ancestors, but drove to meld the past and the present through her clothing and art.

Following Kahlo’s death in 1954, her husband Diego Rivera took all her belongings and stored them in her bathroom, too overcome with grief to look at them. Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide was commissioned to photograph the bathroom 50 years later once the room was finally opened. These photographs, all of them in black and white, are on display at the museum. One image shows a dirty hospital gown that Kahlo once wore. Hospitals were no stranger to Kahlo, who contracted polio at the age of eight, and was in a horrible bus accident when she was 18. It was known she also often wore the hospital gown when she was painting as a form of inspiration. In an eerie photo, Iturbide’s feet are shown photographed as she lays in the bathtub Kahlo would lay in. This photo captures the emotion felt in another one of Kahlo’s works, “What the Water Gave Me,” where Kahlo painted her own feet propped against the bathtub.

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Photos by Sanya Mittal

The exhibit also touches on the modern art of other countries around the time Kahlo was painting. In the United States, an era of Geometric and Organic abstract art was taking hold. The geometric styles focused on the orderly, while the organic laid claim to the more natural and unplanned aspects of life. During the period after World War II, European immigrants flooded the United States where they played a large role in the emergence of these art styles. “City Rhythm,” a piece by American artist Charmion von Wiegand, showcased the dynamic geometric designs that became present in American modern art. The concept behind arte popular, the blending of past culture with the present, also reached the United States. One example of this was the blending of African American culture with modern urban art and music. American Folk Art emerged as a genre similar to arte popular. It existed as a collection of works which contained similar motifs and were reminders of simpler times with its bold colors and geometric shapes. Edward Hooper’s “Drug Store” on display in the exhibit captures the bleakness of late night urban life in the 1920s, using bright colors contrasted with a dark background to capture a surreal feeling of loneliness.


Photos by Sanya Mittal

A common theme in arte popular was giving human traits to nonhuman things. Kahlo’s still life paintings capture this theme, particularly in her piece “Weeping Coconuts,” which features  coconuts on the brink of tears. These non-living objects appear to capture the complex human emotion of despair. 

Perhaps the most popular piece of the exhibit is Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait, titled “Self-portrait with Hummingbird and Thorn Necklace.” The painting itself is incredible, due to the detail of the creases in her neck and her eyes. The improvement and growth Kahlo had as an artist is clear by observing this portrait, painted in 1940, and her earlier piece “Two Women (Salvadora and Hermina)”  which was done in 1928. However, the organic feeling that is indicative of arte popular remains present in both pieces. A green foliage background is painted in both, showcasing the leafy, organic patterns present in many arte popular works.


Photos by Sanya Mittal

The exhibit is on display in the Saundra B. and William H. Lane Galleries (Gallery 332) and Saundra B. and William H. Lane Galleries (Gallery 334) at the MFA until June 19.