My gallery-going companion and I momentarily puzzled over the portrait on the cover of the exhibition guide, until we copped that the portrait was of Natasha Gelman, from whose collection the works exhibited have been selected. She and her husband were personal friends of Kahlo and Rivera, which adds a poignant and personal element to the exhibition, particularly to Natasha's portraits as respectively painted by both Kahlo and Rivera (and do look at the sheer differences in the demeanour of the two portraits!).
Many of Kahlo's paintings are very well known along with her own in parts tragic life story. At the exhibition, though, we got an impression of much more deeper dimensions to her work. Although I am usually loath to connect an artist's work too much to their own life, it is highly doubtful that Kahlo's paintings can be separated from her personal life. Their symbolist nature also lends them to a great deal of viewer's response. We found grief in works, which according to the exhibition guide were supposed to convey joy and serenity, and peace and pleasure in those, which others had interpreted to signify negative or at least troubled emotions. Like it or not, Frida Kahlo is very definitely a feminine painter and her works focus on the woman - even when they are seemingly centred around her husband. Her litograph of her own miscarriage is bare with pure raw emotion, whereas The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), me, Diego and Senor Xototl displays the eponymous characters as serene components of the universe. Those who are used to seeing Kahlo's tormented self-portraits should pay particular attention to photographs taken of her by her lover Nickolas Murray, which show her as confident, remarkably beautiful, and apparently at peace.
Although Rivera was the more celebrated artist during the couple's lifetime, his paintings unfortunately do pale a little next to his wife's. Besides his portrait of Mrs Gelman, we also liked his Calla Lily Vendors, both of which play around with repeating shapes and bright colours. We spent some time discussing his two nude lithographs in display, one of Dolores Olmedo (Nude with Long Hair), which emphasises the model's face and erogenous zones, and the other of his wife, which is more realistic.
As personalities, Kahlo and Rivera cannot really be separated from their works or from each other. As such it was fitting that the exhibition should display works from both of them, to go some way towards recreating the context in which the two worked. Thus this powerful exhibition is not only of their works but also of the two people and their associates.
Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera, Masterpieces of the Jacques & Natasha Gelman Collection, continues until 26 June in the Irish Museum of Modern Art, New Galleries. Entrance €5/€3, Friday free entry.