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Frida Kahlo retrospective a ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’

It will be the most substantial presentation of Kahlo’s works in Chicago since 1978, when a group was presented at MCA, and Cleve Carney officials say it might be another half-century or more before another such show comes again.

“Thoughtful Frida”
“Thoughtful Frida,” circa 1950. Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907 - 1954), wearing a folk costume and flowers in her hair, leans her head on her hand while lying in a hammock.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When word comes of a big art exhibition traveling to the Chicago area, most people probably expect it to be shown at one of the big, widely recognized institutions like the Art Institute of Chicago or Chicago Cultural Center.

But when a major Frida Kahlo exhibition opens June 5, it will go on view more than 25 miles west of Chicago’s downtown in a somewhat smaller, suburban venue — the College of DuPage’s recently renamed Cleve Carney Museum of Art in Glen Ellyn.

“An exhibition like this usually goes to Milan, Budapest, Moscow or the Art Institute,” said Diana Martinez, director of the McAninch Arts Center where the museum is located. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition opportunity that’s coming to Glen Ellyn. This is so unusual.”

“Frida Kahlo: Timeless” will feature 26 of the superstar Mexican painter’s drawings and paintings — more than 10 percent of her entire output of only about 200 works. They are all on loan from the Museo Dolores Olmedo in Mexico City, which has the largest holding of her work in the world.

It will be the most substantial presentation of Kahlo’s works in Chicago since 1978, when a group was presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and Cleve Carney officials say it might be another half-century or more before another such show comes again.

“It’s really part of our mission to promote the work of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in Mexico and the world, so we’re really excited to be part of international exhibitions,” Adriana Jaramillo, the Olmedo museum’s communications director, said from Mexico City.

Frida Kahlo, “The Bus,” 1929, oil on canvas, collection Museo Dolores Olmedo, Xochimilco, Mexico.
Frida Kahlo, “The Bus,” 1929, oil on canvas, collection Museo Dolores Olmedo, Xochimilco, Mexico.
© 2020 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Olmedo officials are especially pleased that the works are coming to the Chicago area, she said, because of its large population of Latin-American emigres and descendants, and that they can be seen while the Mexican museum remains closed because of COVID-19.

In 1962, Olmedo, a Mexican businesswoman and philanthropist, bought a hacienda in southern Mexico City and restored it. Three decades later, she converted the property into a museum to house her extensive art collection, which included pre-Columbian and Mexican folk art.

Shortly after Kahlo died in 1954, a collector of her work, who is depicted in a 1944 painting in the show, Eduardo Morillo Safa, also died. His widow offered his Kahlo holdings to Diego Rivera, another famed Mexican painter who was Kahlo’s husband.

Rivera didn’t have the necessary funds at the time, so he advised Olmedo, a friend and important collector of his work, to acquire the 25 works even though, according to Jaramillo, she didn’t like Kahlo. Olmedo purchased another Kahlo work later, and those are the 26 paintings and drawings coming to the Cleve Carney.

“Frida on White Bench,” photo by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archive
“Frida on White Bench,” photo by Nickolas Muray.
© Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

That the show will be seen at the College of DuPage and not in downtown Chicago is a product of hard work and some good luck. Alan Peterson of Glen Ellyn, a supporter of the college and the Cleve Carney Museum, suggested that instead of simply giving more money, he might be able to boost the space in another way.

It turns out Peterson, who died in 2020, was a longtime friend of Carlos Phillips Olmedo, the director of the Olmedo Museum and son of its founder. “In my head, I was like, ‘What?!’” Martinez said, when she learned of this connection.

Peterson set up a meeting for Cleve Carney officials, and they pitched the idea of doing the Kahlo show in Glen Ellyn. “The opportunity to have this was too great to pass up,” Martinez said, “and so significant for the entire state, really.”

But there was a considerable hurdle. For the show to come to the College of DuPage, the school had to make to make significant upgrades to the Cleve Carney Art Gallery, an art space that opened in 2014.

It was designed to house academic and small-scale shows, not international traveling exhibitions, so the college undertook a $2.8 million overhaul, adding 1,000 square feet of display space and significantly enhancing the facility’s lighting, security and climate controls.

The renovated space, renamed the Cleve Carney Museum of Art, was supposed to open in the summer of 2020 with the Kahlo show, but the onslaught of the coronavirus forced the exhibition and the debut to be postponed until now.

The exhibition of the paintings and drawings themselves will be accompanied by an array of supplementary presentations inside and outside the McAninch Arts Center, including an in-depth historical timeline, a garden created by the Ball Horticultural Co. with Kahlo’s favorite plants, and a display of more than 100 photographs from the artist’s life.

Because most of the contextual information is presented outside the museum itself, the paintings and drawings are presented largely on their own, so viewers can zero in on their emotional intensity and artistic detail.

“Having them in that space where they have room to breathe and be on their own allows that intensity to come through, and it has an impact that is really overwhelming,” said Cleve Carney curator Justin Witte.

Frida Kahlo, “Portrait of Alicia Galant,” 1927, oil on canvas. Collection Museo Dolores Olmedo, Xochimilco, Mexico.
Frida Kahlo, “Portrait of Alicia Galant,” 1927, oil on canvas. Collection Museo Dolores Olmedo, Xochimilco, Mexico.
© 2020 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Because Kahlo has become a feminist icon and popular sensation so widely known that she is often just referred to by her first name, museum officials are expecting more than 100,000 people to attend the summer show.

Part of her continuing appeal is that her art dealt with issues of personal and national identity that remain relevant for many people today. In addition, she used her painting to confront the lifelong pain she suffered following severe injuries from a bus accident when she was 18.

“She, through her work, spoke in a new language of personal expression,” Witte said. “People who are struggling with their own issues of health, people who are struggling with their own issues of identity still find a champion and a voice in Frida, which is why so many people continue to be attracted to her.”