Thursday, July 30, 2015

Art, Plants, and Mexico: Frida Kahlo at the New York Botanical Gardens

As long time readers of these missives know, traipsing around New York City is one of my favorite things to do. New York gives me opportunities to engage in two of my favorite things-encountering new museums and exhibits and walking around a big city. Last week my wife and I went up to New York to go to the New York Botanical Gardens for the very first time to see their exhibit on the art and gardens of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, one of my favorite artists. We went with two long time friends of ours, and we had an amazing time. I had known Kahlo's artwork and had known about her connection to Mexican muralist and artist Diego Rivera. But I had not had any real knowledge of her as a gardener or cultivator of plants. Nor had I been seriously aware of the role of nature in her art and life. This exhibit provided tons of information and examples of that side of Kahlo, and it was mindblowing. I learned much more about Kahlo, Mexican plants and fruits, and Mexico in the 20th century than I had ever known before. 
Kahlo produced a whole catalog of works, including a ton of self portraits. What the works at the botanical gardens focus on, though, are the works that highlight the connections between her work and her knowledge, love and care for the fruits, plants, and flowers of her native Mexico. Frida 's life and work celebrated the unique heritage of Mexico, from the worlds of its native peoples to its interactions with its European conquerors, African slaves, and immigrants. There were paintings that featured types of indigenous melons and fruits that I had never heard of much less seen or tasted. There were native trees and plants used in ways that served as powerful sexual and social symbols and that commented on social situations in Mexico and beyond. Like the US, Mexico is a country of cultural mixtures, and Frida used many of those mixtures in her work. There were elements of Christianity, native religion iconography, native animals, and more. And with her use of deep rich colors, her symbolic points and humor stood out clearly and powerfully. While this section of the exhibit was somewhat small, it was quite powerful and effective. It highlighted a part of her art in a way I had not really noticed before.

The main observatory building at the gardens was devoted to the plants and trees of Frida's Mexico, and for me this was the highlight of the exhibit. There were tons of different types of palms, cacti, succulents, and ferns of different shapes, sizes, and environments, and it was almost overwhelming. There were things growing out of the sides of trees, projecting from pots in the ceiling, snaking around other plants, and lining replicas of the fence and walls in Kahlo and Rivera's Mexico City residence. Tree ferns of different sizes and shapes lined platforms, walkways and stairways throughout the building. Day and water lilies abounded in the indoor and outdoor pools, and there were more orchids than I ever knew existed in the greenhouses. It was like being in an alien environment-nothing was familiar. Everywhere you looked there was something new, exciting and strange. We spent a long time in the observatory and could easily have spent more. It was wonderful disorienteering.

The final stop of the exhibit puts Frida and Diego Rivera in the context of a Mexico fresh from revolution and independence and trying to face the modern world and adjust to it. It is a two walled presentation of the Mexico City of Kahlo and Rivera with reproductions of some of their public artwork and the layout of the central city, their residence and studio, and the public places of downtown Mexico City. There are wonderful representations of some of Rivera's storytelling murals, photos of Kahlo's Casa de Azul residence, and photos of Kahlo as a youngster and in her gardens. This part of the exhibit marks Kahlo's importance not only as an artist, but also as a symbol of her time and place, and as a unique personage able to draw history, culture, and art together in a way that spoke and still speaks to people in powerful and transformative ways. The whole exhibit, in fact, is a celebration of her unique position and vision, and it was truly inspiring and enlightening. It is at the Botanical Gardens until September, and I may well go up and see it again. It is that compelling and interesting. It was another great trip to New York and another wonderful Big Apple experience.

(Here is a link the Botanical Gardens website and the Frida Kahlo exhibit:

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