Frida Kahlo’s personal photo collection is on display in a new exhibit in Pilsen

frida kahlo
Frida painting in her bed, Anonymous, 1940. Miguel Covarrubias stands by her side. Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera Archives. Bank of Mexico, Fiduciary in the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Museum Trust. provided / National Museum of Mexican Art
frida kahlo
Frida painting in her bed, Anonymous, 1940. Miguel Covarrubias stands by her side. Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera Archives. Bank of Mexico, Fiduciary in the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Museum Trust. provided / National Museum of Mexican Art

Frida Kahlo’s personal photo collection is on display in a new exhibit in Pilsen

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Photographs from artist Frida Kahlo’s personal collection are on display for the first time at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen, giving a rare glimpse into Kahlo’s intimate family life.

Visitors to the museum can see photos from her early days in Mexico City to the lovers who inspired some of her most famous paintings.

frida painting
Frida painting the portrait of her father, by Gisèle Freund, 1951. Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera Archives. Bank of Mexico, Fiduciary in the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Museum Trust. provided / National Museum of Mexican Art

The images are part of a traveling exhibit and were previously locked away in a closet for 50 years.

After Kahlo died in 1954, her husband, Diego Rivera, donated their house in Mexico City to the Mexican people so they could turn it into a museum about Kahlo’s life and work. Known as the Blue House, it would become what is now called the Frida Kahlo Museum.

But although Rivera donated Kahlo’s art and possessions to the museum, he asked for some of them to be locked away, according to a news release from the National Museum of Mexican Art. That archive was not opened until 2003, after which a selection of the newly-found photos turned into an exhibit at the Frida Kahlo Museum. It is this selection that is now making a stop in Chicago.

Cesareo Moreno, chief curator at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen, recently told WBEZ’s Reset that Kahlo had more than 6,000 photos in her personal collection.

“Your photos that you keep at home, whether it’s on your phone or whether it’s in a photo album, speak volumes about who you are and your entire life,” Moreno said. “That’s what we now have here at the National Museum of Mexican Art, on display from Mexico.”

Moreno
Press preview of the Frida Kahlo - Diego Rivera and 20th Century Mexican Art: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection. Here,Cesareo Moreno, Visiual Arts Director of the museum, describes the works to the press tour. …at the Mexician Fine Arts Center Museum 1852 w 19th St. Brian Jackson / Chicago Sun-Times

The exhibit, which is free to visit, includes about 200 of those thousands of photos and was thematically divided into six sections by curator Pablo Ortiz Monasterio. It explores everything from Kahlo’s childhood to her politics and struggles with physical disabilities.

One of the subjects tackled is Kahlo’s close relationship with her father, Guillermo Kahlo, who was a photographer and an immigrant from Germany, and how he influenced her own work.

“Her father, a photographer, was very well-known and recognized and celebrated in Mexico in his own right,” Moreno said. “He also took a lot of self portraits. It’s one of the curious things when you walk into that first section to see all the selfies that he took, and I’m sure there are more.”

Moreno said those “selfies” were done using a large-format camera with a tripod — different from the selfies we know today.

“It was evident that he also taught his daughter Frida how to look into the camera, how to gaze into it, which, clearly, later on becomes part of her style with all of her self portraits,” he added.

The section about Kahlo’s physical and emotional struggles touches on her polio diagnosis as a child, experiencing a miscarriage during a trip to Detroit and a bus crash that nearly ended her life.

According to Perla Labarthe, general coordinator of the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City, those challenges helped set Kahlo on the path to becoming an artist.

“She was learning to become a doctor before the accident, but after that she needs to stay in bed for several months,” Labarthe told Reset. “In that period, she started experimenting with herself, looking through a mirror and start thinking herself.”

“She transformed that pain into art, into amazing images, artworks that tell us about her story,” Labarthe said, explaining that Kahlo started working on her first self portrait while recovering from her accident.

Other photos in the exhibit are of Kahlo’s friends and loved ones — but some of them have holes that she cut out, annotations and lipstick kisses.

Diego Rivera
Diego Rivera (in his study at San Ángel), Anonymous, ca. 1940, Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera Archives. Bank of Mexico, Fiduciary in the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Museum Trust. provided / National Museum of Mexican Art

“I’m sure that it was either artistic or, you know, maybe she was a little bit upset,” Moreno said about the photos with faces or other parts cut out. “I know many people who have cut a photograph in half, only because they’re less interested in the other side or whoever was there.”

Frida Kahlo, Her Photos, comes at the same time as the separate Immersive Frida Kahlo show at the Germania Club Building in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood.

Moreno said the two exhibits complement each other, with Immersive Frida Kahlo showing visitors how she influenced contemporary artists in both Mexico and the U.S. Many of the pieces in both exhibits explore the theme of freedom.

Labarthe said people should see the exhibit at the National Museum of Mexican Art to understand Kahlo — who, she said, has become an icon for freedom around the world — on a deeper level.

“She was a very complex woman, a very complex artist, and I think that this exhibition helped us to understand some parts,” Labarthe said.

Frida Kahlo, Her Photos is on display at the National Museum of Mexican Art (1852 W. 19th Street; nationalmuseumofmexicanart.org) from April 1 to Aug. 7, 2022.

Bianca Cseke is a digital producer at WBEZ. Follow her @biancacseke1. Nereida Moreno is a producer for WBEZ’s Reset. Follow her @nereidamorenos.