When we think of Pablo Picasso, we think of his mural “Guernica,” perhaps, or the Cubist “Demoiselles D’Avignon.” When we think of Frida Kahlo, we think of the woman, with her long Mexican dresses, oversized jewelry, flowery headdresses and iconic monobrow.

Kahlo was every much an artist as her on-again, off-again husband, Diego Rivera, but her personal glamour has gotten as much, if not more, attention as her paintings. She was herself a walking artwork, and because of her bohemian beauty, Kahlo was the subject of hundreds of photographs by such important photographers as Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham and Lola Alvarez Bravo, and 65 such portraits will make up the “Photographing Frida” exhibition opening Feb. 1 at the Arkansas Arts Center.


Kahlo curated her image by wearing the traditional dress of the Tehuana women of southeast Mexico: rectangular huipil tops decorated with embroidery and floral patterns; and large, colorful skirts and large starched bonnets. Her dress was an expression of her feelings about her home country of Mexico and feminism.

In an essay in “Mirror Mirror,” a book of Kahlo photographs that will be available for sale at the Arts Center, Salomon Grimberg writes that Alvarez Bravo photographed Kahlo more than 30 times, nearly half the time showing Kahlo gazing at herself in a mirror, and that Kahlo surrounded herself with mirrors as a way to maintain her sense of self. One such photograph is in “Photographing Frida”: Because Kahlo’s image is so much of a piece with her artwork, Alvarez Bravo’s photograph of Kahlo gazing in a mirror is recursive both physically and philosophically.


In “Photographing Frida,” we also see a color photograph by Nickolas Murray — one of Kahlo’s lovers — of a viewer-gazing Kahlo, dressed in black and gold, wearing roses in her hair and seated in front of a flat floral background, a photograph with a startling similarity to the contemporary work of painter Kehinde Wiley. There’s a shot of Kahlo as an 18-year-old staring confidently into the camera, belying the incredible pain and suffering of her youth: the spina bifida that affected her legs and spine and injuries in a bus-trolley crash that sent an iron rod through her abdomen and which fractured and crushed her bones. While her teenage gaze is serene, her paintings are anything but, inspired by her continuing afflictions. One photograph in the show, by Juan Guzman, is of Kahlo in a hospital bed.

Murray’s photograph of Kahlo painting “The Two Fridas,” in which a vein from an exposed heart in a Tehuana-dressed Kahlo connects to the heart of Frida in less flamboyant clothing, provides a second-hand glimpse of Kahlo’s talent. Kahlo in her later life said the painting depicted her sadness at her separation from Rivera.


There are photographs of Kahlo and Rivera, both posed and informal, and the exhibition will include the Arts Center’s famous Rivera, the Cubist painting “Dos Mujeres.”

“Photographing Frida” is the first exhibit having to do with the famous Mexican painter at the Arts Center. It’s not known whether any paintings by Kahlo have ever been exhibited in Arkansas, though reproductions of some of her work were shown at the Arts Center of the Ozarks in Springdale this winter. Arts Center curator Brian Lang, who did his master’s thesis on Kahlo, said that “Photographing Frida” may not include her own work, but it “allows one to experience a different aspect of the artist — artist as subject rather than artist as creator. In some respects, one might argue that as a subject she is also playing a role in the creation of the object.”

At 6 p.m. Jan. 31, before the members’ preview of the show, Metropolitan Museum fashion historian Raissa Bretana will give a talk on the way Kahlo used dress to express feminism and national pride. Admission is $15 for nonmembers, free to members. Memberships will be sold at the show.

Other programming includes a screening of the film “The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo” at noon Feb. 8; a family portrait-making event from noon-3 p.m. Feb. 10; a Museum School class, “Paint Like Frida,” with Robert Bean and Michael Schaeffer, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Feb. 16, $60-$75; a lecture, “Movement and Frida,” Ashley Bowman of the Artifact Dance Project, 5:30 p.m. Feb. 21; a lecture by Julie Rodrigues Widholm, director of the DePaul Art Museum, at 6 p.m. March 14 (5:30 p.m. reception), $10 nonmembers; and a lecture by Lis Pankl of the University of Utah, “Materiality, Geography and Identity Construction in the Work and Life of Frida Kahlo,” 6 p.m. April 4 (5:30 p.m. reception), free.