By Antiqua Tours Caelan Fortes
Unless you have found yourself a hermit in Rome, it is impossible to travel anywhere in the city without seeing the face of Frida Kahlo. Whether plastered on a pole or against the metro’s walls, you have undoubtedly met Frida’s fixed gaze while out and about. From underneath her trademark eyebrows, her eyes call locals and visitors alike into the Scuderie del Quirinale, where an exhibition on her life and works has been on display since March 20th.
Frida has long been lauded as the feminist avant-garde icon of the twentieth century. Her exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale explores the length of her artistic career with a collection of works from all over the globe. In fact, some of her portraits are on display in Italy for the very first time! What’s most interesting about Frida’s work is that her paintings and drawings do not simply chronicle her life; instead, they are a reflection of and a response to the artistic vocabulary of different eras, cultures, and movements, across nations, synthesized in her own unique way.
Interestingly, art was not Young Frida’s, or her parents’, vision for herself. She was studying to be a doctor when she was nearly killed in a bus accident as a teen. Rather than letting this more-than-minor incident destroy her morale, she took to painting as she convalesced and described it as a “reawakening of life.” To compare all of the “first world problems” we view as day ruining – like traffic or a lack of Wifi - to Frida’s artistic beginnings really puts life, and our reactions to its curveballs, in perspective.
Frida did not exist in a bubble. She explored and immersed herself in different cultures, values, and artistic movements, all while desperately trying to stay true to herself. It is this intellectual curiosity and exploration of identity that draws me the most to Frida. For instance, the star of one room is her “Self-Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States.” Here Frida juxtaposes Mexican and American symbols while placing herself in the middle, an autobiographical Venn diagram. As explained in the description, by standing on an elevated surface between these disparate cultural objects, she is allowing them to energize her without letting them transform her. As a Taco Bell-loving American one month into living in Rome, I like to think I can relate to the struggle of cultural assimilation while clinging to tradition - at least to some degree!
One of my favorite pieces is not even by Frida, but simply of Frida. By photographer Leo Matiz, it is entitled “Frida Drinking a Beer” - and it is exactly how it sounds. I stared at the photo for so long that the exhibition’s art guards began to eye me, as if I were going to stick the picture in my Longchamp and run away with it. It is a truly humanizing shot, and not something I see in exhibitions often. A pleasant reminder that this highly venerated artist was, in fact, a real person capable of normal leisurely activities, it was as if you were to walk into a modern art exhibit and see a photograph titled “Picasso Pouring a Shot” or “Matisse and His Mimosa.”
The exhibition ends with Frida’s still lives, which act as metaphors to chronicle her physical and emotional deterioration. The curator’s notes describe the works in the final room “as a metaphor of love which, through pain, consumes like fire. Her whole capacity on loving appears burnt-out and wounded. The long and terrible suffering she bore had prostrated Frida Kahlo gravely and she was witnessing, the funeral pyre of her own desire.” The tumultuous love of Frida and Diego pervades the whole exhibition, from his nude portraits of her to her surprising painting of his mistress. Their love story is one out of a Lifetime movie, but far better and more eloquently documented.
Frida suffered widely and deeply, and this torment is palpable in her paintings. She internalized these injustices and struggled with them, but, most importantly, she took efforts to not be defined by them. This, I think, manifests itself in her many self-portraits and their various iterations - a journey to be self-aware and self-actualized despite being highly self-deprecating. Frida’s troubles with love and loss are universal and identifiable problems. You leave the exhibition wondering, “What if that were me? How would I handle it?” Frida should be venerated for her strength along with her artistic prowess; her life and works act as a lesson on suffering for all.
This exhibition, while heavy, is definitely worth a view. You do not have to be a Frida fanatic to appreciate her life, a series of travesties documented colorfully and soulfully. Her exhibition will be on display until August 31st. Stop by the Scuderie del Quirinale during your stay in Rome - and even enjoy for lunch or dinner at its bustling cafe!