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An unusual approach to exhibit of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera paintings in Toronto

TORONTO – The work of painter Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera will displayed in an unusual fashion in a new exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

AGO chief executive and director Matthew Teitelbaum was somewhat surprised to learn his curating team had intermixed the couple’s art throughout the exhibit “Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting.”

The show, which opens Saturday, includes more than 80 works of the artists along with more than 60 photos.

Carlos Phillips Olmedo, director of the Museo Dolores Olmedo Patino in Mexico City, which has a large collection of works by Kahlo and Rivera, noted he had never seen their paintings arranged in such a way.

“It’s funny Carlos would say it’s unusual to mingle them because I can’t really imagine how you’d tell their story without doing so,” says Teitelbaum.

“I guess the more conventional way is to say, ‘Here’s Diego in Paris, here’s Frida’s self-portraits, here’s Diego’s images of workers’ and separate them that way. We thought it was more interesting to have the (works) talk to each other about their ideas, in particular the moments in their evolution.

“One of the things that’s really incredible to note about their relationship is that they were extraordinarily supportive of each other all the way through, believing the other was the great artist. The generosity and advocacy of the other was really quite extraordinary and it was a core to their passion for each other.”

When the couple first met in 1928, Rivera was already an accomplished painter who had befriended Pablo Picasso while developing his style in Europe. Kahlo, 20 years younger, was a budding artist.

Both were influenced by the politics of the Mexican and Russian revolutions, with Rivera in particular focusing much of his work on imagery reflecting his homeland.

In 1930, the newly married couple moved to the United States for a few years where Rivera was hailed for his work and was commissioned to paint murals in Detroit, New York and San Francisco. Kahlo continued to craft her style but longed to return home.

Today, Kahlo is arguably more well known (helped by Salma Hayek’s chronicling of her life in the 2002 film “Frida”). Even those who rarely frequent art museums may find her trademark fantastical self-portraits from the 1930s and 1940s look familiar.

The collection of photographs in the Toronto exhibit are also key in reflecting the artists’ careers and their deliberate attempt to shape their image, says Teitelbaum.

“They were people who made up narratives about who they were,” he says.

“I can’t say they are the most photographed artists of their time but my god did they like to be photographed, over and over again, which was not just sort of recreational, it was all partly the creation of their myth, of their story. Part of their narcissism, you could say, became part of the identity they wanted people to understand.

“In the end, the myth or the construction became the reality.”

“Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting” runs through Jan. 20, 2013 at the AGO.