The Bowes Museum, a grand nineteenth-century chateau in the historic Durham market town of Barnard Castle, is the British venue for a touring exhibition of photography
that contextualises the famously turbulent relationship of painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera with the social and political changes of their native Mexico.
Lucienne Bloch, 'Frida Kahlo winking', 1934. Modern print. Museo Estudio Diego Rivera / Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes y Literatura Collection. 70 x 50 cm.
Rivera recalled fondly that when he first met Kahlo she was whistling the left-wing anthem the Internationale; they went on to fight together for causes including workers’ rights and the defence of indigenous culture. The personal and political continually collide in the exhibition of 35 photographs, with images of the couple on a march in Mexico City and then punching the air at a Communist meeting juxtaposed with a picture of them signing the registry at their marriage in 1940 (their second marriage to each other, after they divorced the previous year) and images of their domestic life. The couple sometimes look rather stiff in these latter pictures, as if perturbed by the presence of a camera, an exception being Louis Riley’s charming portrait of them talking at a table at home.
Left: Louis Riley, 'Diego and Frida sharing a table in San Angel', c.1945. Modern print. Private collection, Mexico. 70 x 50 cm. Right: Anonymous, 'Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in front of their prehispanic art collection, Mexico', 1943. Modern print. Museo Estudio Diego Rivera/ Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes y Literatura Collection. 70 x 50 cm.
Tina Modotti, ‘Mother and Son’, 1929. Oaxaca, Modern print, safety negative film, 70 x 50 cm. Fototeca Nacional/Instiuto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia Collection
About half of the images do not feature the pair at all and are included to give an impression of the society in which they lived: a revolutionary fighter in 1914 in a room full of weapons, traffic in the capital city, student protesters scaling walls.
One of the most evocative of these photographs is Mother and Son (1929), an unconventional take on age-old theme by Tina Modotti, the photographic pioneer who was friends with Kahlo and Rivera. There are also some interesting images of the painters individually, shown either relaxing or at work on a canvas or mural.
- 'Complicidades: Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera' is at The Bowes Museum,
12 May–24 June 2012
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and contributor to RA Magazine