Fueled by Frida Kahlo’s wild spirit, the Dali Museum is blooming to life in a whole new way — pulling out all stops to immerse visitors in her world for the December 17 through April 17 exhibition Frida Kahlo at the Dali.
Kahlo — famous for her self-portraits and tumultuous relationship with painter Diego Rivera — is the first woman to be featured at the Dali Museum for a special-exhibition solo show. Everybody here is excited, and not just because it’s Frida, but because they’re learning there is so much more dimension and detail to her life and legend than they originally thought.
“What happens with all these exhibits is that someone like Hank (Hine) or William (Jeffett), curator of special exhibitions, I’d say is renowned in the world of Dali and Miro, but he’s not an expert on Kahlo, so he has to study a lot about her, doing a show like this,” said marketing director Kathy Greif. “Once we start all getting into the weeds, it’s like we all have to learn a good bit.”
They found Kahlo had a great working knowledge about native plants, their medicinal and mythological properties, as well as cooking and photography. She would throw huge parties at her Casa Azul (“Blue House”) with a yellow Aztec temple replica in the big garden where she would cook for everybody and take pictures.
“She loved to put on huge parties and she did all the cooking,” said Diane Birmingham, director of sales and merchandise. “And these were Frida’s fiestas, with a lot of the notables of the time, the avant-garde groups, artists and friends she would invite, and her family. She would throw these huge parties in the garden – this was something I wasn’t aware of.”
The museum store will carry the cookbook Frida’s Fiestas. The recipes are some of the same she prepared for Diego, Birmingham said. This museum store is going to be so swagged-out with Frida swag you won’t know what hit you when you walk in: hand-painted plant pots from Mexico, airplants, succulents, leggings, shirts, scarves (some designed by Birmingham herself, inspired by their colorful floral embroidery), laptop cases, pillows, jewelry, cooking utensils and so many books of Kahlo’s own photos, photos of her, her garden, her life, her recipes – nearly everything the museum could make happen, they’ve brought it into the store. There are even pure silk scarves from Paris with patterns of Frida’s face.
The Dali is enhancing its gardens with indigenous Mexican plants as found in Frida’s own yard and the Aztec temple she kept in her yard accompanied by the colors and stories behind the plants and their mythological components. She was, according to director of education Peter Tush, a horticulturist in her own right and, curiously, held a fascination for Luther Burbank, creator of the Burbank potato. Tush also learned that although she claimed to be Jewish–her father had a German background and Frida, for a while, spelled her name the German way of “Frieda,” meaning peaceful ruler–Frida was found by historians to actually not be Jewish at all.
“She’s a huge icon, and I can’t speak on behalf of her, whether she wanted to be that, but women consider her absolutely a powerful, strong, provocative, pioneer-type artist,” Greif said. “And then she had so much tragedy in her life…it’s a really great kind of human story.”
The exhibition includes 50 photos, 7 drawings and 15 paintings – which is a very substantial show for Frida, who painted about 200 paintings to Dali’s more than 1,500 paintings.
Executive Director Hank Hine was at a museum directors conference when he met Carlos Phillips, the director of the Dolores Olmedo Museum in Mexico City, who loaned the artworks to the Dali Museum. They began talking and established a fraternal bond which helped them navigate the obstacles along the way and lead to making the show a reality four years later. Because the laws in the U.S. and Mexico are different, Hine said, and Frida’s works are protected by the cultural heritage branch of the Mexican government, it took longer than expected.
“It’s really difficult to bring the whole apparatus of contracts and arrangements and assurances along, but it didn’t shake my faith that it’s basically a transaction between people of goodwill to do a show like this,” Hine said. “I did learn that it’s a hard road to smooth everything out, but I may have known that. But I learned it again.”
Executive Assistant Allison Cruse went to a two-day training to learn new software so she could build three different gallery simulations to bid out to the constructing company.
“This was the first exhibition for which we did not hire an outside exhibition designer,” Cruse said. “Practicing and really doing it helped me learn it.”
When they put the plans into construction, she realized the passageway was too narrow for the number of people they were expecting. She trimmed 17 inches off the wall, learning that you don’t know what it’s really like until you’re standing in the real space. Again, however, this exhibition has grown out from the gallery walls and into the entire museum and grounds.
“[Frida] is appealing because she touches so many chords of contemporary interest,” Hine said. “The whole chord of personal exploration, self-discovery, she just touches on that. It’s not enough for us to just put stuff on the wall, but we have to think of ways to dramatize this stuff for the community. We’ve amplified our own garden to drive that point home that the garden is a sort of paradise.”
Birmingham noticed that Frida embraced a lot of beautiful things that gave her joy, fueling her life-force to endure her pain.
“Yes, her life was tragic, but she also found great joy and solace in her garden,” Birmingham said. “So did Diego. That was a haven for the couple. And when we think that this was all pre- and during the Mexican Revolution, there was a lot of need for calm and to retreat into a garden.”