Art Exhibition Review: “Frida Kahlo: Timeless”

A chance to view the Mexican surrealist’s works first hand should not be missed

Chicago, Illinois has many great places to see famous works of art. One museum that doesn’t immediately come to mind, however, is the Cleve Carney Museum of Art at the College of DuPage, in the suburb of Glen Ellyn. I certainly wouldn’t have made a visit there with my family this summer if it weren’t for their Frida Kahlo: Timeless exhibition, which is a chance to see a good number of the Mexican surrealist’s works first hand. In these days of worldwide pandemic, a trip abroad to Mexico may not be in the cards for me, but this visit really quenched my thirst for Mexican culture.

My family and me at the start of the exhibition. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown

The exhibition begins with a short video in which the visitors are introduced to Frida and the legacy of her work. Visitors are then directed to a hall in which her life story is told in text, pictures, and various artifacts. Surprisingly, my nine-year-old son had to read every word, only stopping to ask me occasionally what one word or phrase meant. He wouldn’t even let me continue on to the next panels until he was finished with the one he was reading. This historical section included many photos I hadn’t seen before, as well as detailed and accurate replicas of her bed, to which she was confined for a long time, and the corsets she wore as she recuperated from her severe accidents and experimental surgeries. The mannequins, all of which are made to look like Frida, with their colorful dresses are a highlight.

Replicas of dresses owned and made famous by Frida Kahlo. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown
Replica of Frida Kahlo’s bed, where she spent a lot of time recovering from her accidents and surgeries.
Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown
Replica’s of Frida Kahlo’s medical corsets, which supported her weak spine. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown

As an American hispanophile married to a Mexican woman, one panel that especially caught my attention in this section was about Frida’s opinion of the United States. She was somewhat ambivalent in her observations, since she was impressed by some of our innovations, yet she also was repelled by our economic disparities and lack of taste, which are critiques that might still be valid today. One could only wonder what she would think about her huge popularity in the US in the 21st century and the commodification of her ubiquitous image.

Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown

From the historical part of the exhibition, which serves as an appetizer, visitors get to the main course, Kahlo’s works themselves on loan from the Dolores Olmedo Museum. This gallery is somewhat small, but the number of works it contains – about 27 paintings, drawings, and lithographs, by my count – is quite impressive. Among the exhibited works, there were portraits, self-portraits, depictions of everyday life, and mind-bending and sometimes heart-breaking surrealist paintings. Some of the more memorable works, for me, were La columna rota (1944), Autorretrato con changuito (1945), Sin esperanza (1945), Unos cuantos piquetitos (1935), Hospital Henry Ford (1932), and Retrato de Luther Burbank (1931). Of these, maybe her self portrait with her monkey is the most well-known, since the her face is a classic and somewhat realistic representation of the artist herself and it gives the viewer some insight to her personality. This work is used in much of the promotion of the exhibition, and it is the only one made into a poster available in the gift shop.

Autorretrato con changuito. Photo credit: Dulce María Brown

Even more memorable, for me at least, is the self portrait made after her miscarriage at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, which shows her naked and crying in a pool of blood in a hospital bed, attached by umbilical cords to different things, including a fetus. Unfortunately, she was never able to have a child.

Hospital Henry Ford. Photo credit: Dulce María Brown

My favorite portrait in the exhibition was that of Luther Burbank, an American innovator in agriculture, who is shown literally planted in the ground, being fed by a decaying corpse underground.

Retrato de Luther Burbank (1931). Photo credit: Dulce María Brown

Unos cuantos piquetitos is also fascinating because it is a rejection of violence against women, and in so doing, it ridicules the way men justify their violence. The painting shows a man standing over his girlfriend, whom he just stabbed to death. This painting, completed with a frame that includes spots of red paint, resembling blood, is based on a story Frida read in a newspaper, in which the man accused of murder defended himself by stating, “They were just a few nips.” It is infuriating that more than 80 years after this painting was created, violence against women is still a major problem in Mexico.

Unos cuantos piquetitos. Photo credit: Dulce María Brown

Other parts of the exhibit include a selection of little seen photographs of Frida with her family and friends, an exhibition of works by contemporary artists who were inspired by Frida, an area for kids to make their own art, and an outdoor patio made to resemble that of Frida’s casa azul in Coyoacán, Mexico City. The gift shop also has some unique items. One souvenir that I bought for myself was the Frida Kahlo: Timeless book, which contains high quality images of all the works in the exhibition, including many of the photographs, and essays on the life of the artist and the significance of her works.

My family in the children’s section of the exhibition. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown
My wife and me as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Photo credit: Lorna Brown
My daughter and me on the patio. Photo credit: Dulce María Brown
My son enjoying his visit. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown

One surprising effect of this exhibition is that it has inspired the whole community of Glen Ellyn and its neighbors to welcome the many visitors who might not be there otherwise. Walking around downtown, it is easy to see the many unique shops that include Frida themed merchandise, Frida murals, and even Frida themed flower pots. I would definitely recommend taking a stroll through town, eating at one of the really good restaurants that are there, and taking a peak at their cute shops. It’s clear that the Frida Kahlo: Timeless exhibition has been a big score for the Cleve Carney Museum of Art, the College of DuPage, the city of Glen Ellyn, and the region, in general. As a family we visited several art exhibitions this summer, include the immensely popular immersive Van Gogh exhibit which is currently running in Milwaukee. Although they all were beautiful, the Frida exhibition may have been our favorite, even for our kids, who aren’t easily impressed. I think they are at an age when they are beginning to appreciate their Mexican heritage – which they inherit through my wife, not me – and are looking for ways to connect to it.

Frida themed flower pot in downtown Glen Ellyn. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown
Frida themed mural in downtown Glen Ellyn. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown

It should be noted that there are Covid protocols in place for visitors. When we were there, masks were optional, but most people did wear them, at least in the more crowded areas. Now there is a mandated use of masks in indoor public areas across the state. People are encouraged – with lower prices as an incentive – to buy timed tickets so that visitors are spaced out throughout the day.

The exhibition runs through September 12. Don’t miss it!

As a bonus to today’s post, here’s a video of Justin Witte, curator of the Cleve Carney Museum of Art at the College of DuPage, talking about the Frida Kahlo: Timeless exhibition, uploaded to YouTube from the Wheaton Public Library:

Did you go to the Frida Kahlo: Timeless exhibition? Let us know what you thought about it in the comments below. And if you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it on your favorite social media. ¡Gracias!

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