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Frida Kahlo's Affair with the Camera 

Muray's muse continues to captivate viewers

Frida Kahlo was a woman of uncommon expression in her art. Her self-portraits, for which she is famous, display a figure of pain, isolation and anguish. For all that her portraits reach out to show her wounds, her photographs taken by renowned photographer and long-time lover Nicholas Muray reveal instead a coy and composed character. This dramatic act is now showing at the FAC Modern in the exhibit, Frida Kahlo: Through the Lens of Nicholas Muray.

The FAC Modern has done well to introduce Frida Kahlo and Nicholas Muray as both individuals and lovers, tracking their lives and careers not chronologically, but in three packages. One through their relationship, another through her relationship with her husband Diego, and also as contrasted against her artwork. Divided between the three main galleries of the Modern, the photos are arranged in a way that carefully draws a picture of Kahlo and Muray's love affair.

The central gallery houses photographs of Kahlo during the throes of her affair with Muray. In this room, Kahlo eyes the camera with an intense, aggressive love. Her fingers tenderly touch Muray's cheek in one photo, and yet her eyes simultaneously seduce the camera.

In each picture, throughout the show, Muray's presence behind the camera is felt. As much as Kahlo could take a beautiful picture, his affection for her and his art offers an extra polish to the pictures. His attention to the details of her elaborate coiffures and delicate facial expressions clearly demonstrate an angle of affection.

In the South Gallery the photos of Kahlo with her husband, Mexican artist Diego Rivera are shown, and Kahlo's mood is undeniably different. She steps back from the camera, holds her head up high, peering down at Muray with an aloof expression. Two black and white prints, "Frida and Diego, San Angel," are portraits of the pair when they remarried in 1941. Muray took those pictures himself. Whether or not he still had feelings for Kahlo is ignored, as Kahlo sends a stern visual message that she has chosen Rivera, once and for all.

Despite the status of their affair, several formal portraits taken by Muray of Kahlo exemplify his craft as a photographer. The color carbon process print, "Frida Pensive (with Magenta Rebozo)" positively glows. In the same way an oil painting possesses a curious luminosity in reality, so do these photographs.

Kahlo's beauty and her photogenic demeanor is a feast for the eyes, and her calm countenance equally compelling. She is mysterious due to the fact that she is known for her arresting paintings, which the Modern hinted to, with photographs of Kahlo's works taken by Muray. Her "Self-Portrait with Hummingbird Necklace" is the only self-portrait there for comparison (more examples would complete the show). A seizing black cat and a dark monkey sit behind her shoulders, but she takes no notice of them or the ring of thorns that cuts into her neck. Her gaze is glassy and rejected, she appears utterly defeated.

With this in mind, one wonders if Muray ever completely unlocked Kahlo's wounded character and exposed it in the photos.

As to the answer, that is up to the viewer. It would be foolish to believe that Kahlo is only her paintings, or only her photographs. Her complexity is what drives the show, and what drove Muray to court her through the camera. scene@csindy.com

Frida Kahlo: Through the Lens of Nicholas Muray

FAC Modern, 121 South Tejon St., Suite 100

Through September 30; Hours: Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday-Saturday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Prices: $3.75 to $7.50; call 477-4308 or log on to csfineartscenter.org

  • Muray's muse continues to captivate viewers

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