World-class Frida Kahlo exhibition shines at College of DuPage

The powerful images speak for the artist who is often her own subject in “Frida Kahlo: Timeless.”

The notable collection of 26 original works is on display from June 5 to Sept. 6 in the Cleve Carney Museum of Art at the McAninch Arts Center on the campus of College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn. The artworks are on loan from the Museo Dolores Olmedo in Mexico City.

Kahlo (1907-1954) was the first 20th century Mexican artist to have her work acquired by the Louvre Museum in Paris. Defiantly groundbreaking, she objected to being tagged a surrealist.

Befitting this age of pandemic, Kahlo is emblematic of pain, loss and an incredible resilience woven into her fiercely captivating self-examinations. The show is arresting, and a timeline fills the MAC lobby, tracing her life not only in text but through additional artworks and giant photographic images of the artist. Providing valuable context, the timeline was crafted by Cleve Carney Museum and exhibition curator Justin Witte.

Kahlo is known for highlighting themes of identity, politics, sexuality and death in her self-portraits. The show is also rich in Kahlo’s revealing portraits of others.

On display is a reproduction of the four-poster bed in which Kahlo recuperated from horrific injuries sustained in a bus-versus-tram crash at the age of 18, able to paint thanks to a ceiling-mounted mirror. Stand in the right spot at the foot of her bed, and you’ll be startled to meet her eyes staring intensely back at you.

The pandemic postponed the show by a year, but organizers never wavered, using the extra time to further enhance the experience.

“It’s been a labor of love,” said Glen Ellyn native Diana Martinez in a phone interview, the MAC director and executive director of the exhibition. “And I think what’s most exciting to me is how the whole community has embraced it.”

Martinez is a familiar face in the arts and theater world, with longtime former connections to Pheasant Run in St. Charles and the Paramount Theatre in Aurora.

She said visitors from 48 states and four countries will view the show.

Tallying all the facets that go into an exhibition of this scale, she counted up almost 400 people, among them 131 volunteers including ushers. A bevy of those volunteers were wonderful in assisting visitors at the media preview, providing helpful directions to ancillary attractions outside the expanded gallery space and MAC lobby.

Martinez relates that Kahlo’s husband, famed muralist Diego Rivera, accompanied Dolores Olmedo to an art sale of Kahlo’s work.

“There was a collection being sold, and he was the one who went in and said, ‘Buy this one, buy this one’ – if you really get technical, he’s the one who curated this collection,” Martinez said.

The exhibition covers the arc of her career … to one of her last paintings, Martinez said, adding, “You see how she evolved as an artist. I think that is unique to this exhibition.”

It is the first time in over 40 years that these works have been displayed together in the Chicago area, Witte said in an email. In 1978, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago held an exhibition of works from the Olmedo collection, which proved to be an introduction for many Americans to Kahlo’s work. Her popularity since has skyrocketed, and she is now one of the most popular artists in the world, he said.

“What amazes me about looking at Kahlo’s work in person is the level of detail she put into all of her images,” Witte said. “There is a precision and intricacy in the actual works that no photographs can ever capture. … The level of detail combined with the small scale of many of her paintings create a visual density that mirrors the emotional intensity of the work. There is nothing in these paintings that is not intentional, and I would hope visitors take their time in viewing and considering all the aspects of the works on display.

“In her paintings and drawings … Kahlo is able to directly share her voice with us,” he said.

The works in the first gallery are from early in Kahlo’s career. The second highlights Kahlo’s different approaches to portraiture, while the third is focused on Kahlo’s representation of self, Witte said, adding, “And in this space, we have some of the artist’s most iconic works on display, including ‘The Broken Column.’”

The show celebrates the empowerment of women, Hispanic culture and people with disabilities.

The exhibition is full of extra touches of creativity, including mannequins wearing reproductions of the embroidered folk garb Kahlo adapted and embellished for her signature look. There also are replicas of the medical corsets she endured because of her injured spine, which were hidden by her flowing garments. She underwent dozens of surgeries. The dresses have been painstakingly recreated by Kimberly Morris, COD’s costume design coordinator, with assistance from staff member Gretchen Woodley and students, Martinez said. Morris utilized a 3D printer to create heads for the mannequins in Kahlo’s striking likeness.

Don’t miss the photographic artistry of the exhibit called the “Tres Fridas Project: Reimagining Art Through the Disability Lens” in one of the adjoining theater spaces, celebrating the talents of three women with disabilities who exquisitely insert themselves and their wheelchairs into the world’s most famous artworks.

The theater is along the way to the Kahlo Kids’ Corner, offering a variety of activities in a dedicated space where a giant papier-mache Frida Kahlo holds court. Some of the interactive projects are thanks to Glen Ellyn’s own Mike Venezia, noted illustrator and author of over 100 Scholastic children’s books, including “Getting to Know the World’s Great Artists,” among them Kahlo. Venezia, a Fox Valley Arts Hall of Fame inductee, and Martinez also collaborated on an animated video adaptation on the life of Kahlo. And a digital display shows local children’s inventive artistic homages.

Take some time to enjoy the meticulous miniature of Kahlo’s residence, The Blue House, with tiny representations of the home’s pre-Columbian art and her easel bearing one of the portraits in the show. The miniature includes her garden’s pyramid. If you step outside the MAC, you can enjoy a patio with a replica pyramid, its steps filled with the selection of plants Kahlo would have viewed from her home or depicted in her art, all provided by Ball Horticultural Company of West Chicago

“We are so lucky that the world’s largest horticultural company is tremendously collaborative and in our backyard,” Martinez said.

Patio seating provides a place to commune with the lakeside view and contemplate all you’ve just seen.

A gift shop off the gallery offers keepsakes of the show, Hispanic folk art and a special book celebrating the exhibition and the artist. For kids is Venezia’s “The Frida Kahlo Coloring Book.”

“Our setting within a performing arts center and academic institution has provided us with resources not typically available to most museums, enabling us to present work by an iconic historical figure in a new light,” Martinez said.

And that light shines with laser intensity in this remarkably conceived celebration of Kahlo’s life and art.

The McAninch Arts Center is at 425 Fawell Blvd. in Glen Ellyn. To purchase tickets or learn more about the show, related special events for all ages, and health guidelines for visitors, go to Frida2021.org or call 630-942-4000.

Renee Tomell

Covering the arts and entertainment scene in northern Illinois, with a focus on the Fox River Valley.