Inspiration, art museums, Frida Kahlo

Making sense of the sublime

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I’ve always loved art museums. I love wandering through the exhibits, surrounded by beautiful artwork, letting my imagination flit from canvas to canvas and admiring with awe the creative essence of the space. I haven’t been to the Louvre Museum or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, although I desperately hope to one day, but I have taken advantage of San Francisco’s exhibitions.

Almost a year ago, I bought tickets for “Monet: The Late Years” at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. It was a truly wonderful day, bursting with sapphire blues, dusty purples, romantic reds and gentle greens. I spent hours admiring Claude Monet’s embodiment of emotion until the chatter of the room faded away and I felt I was right there in Giverny, France, gazing over Monet’s garden with him.

Afterward, I went to the museum gift shop, where I bought two postcards that displayed my favorite paintings of the day — a bed of water lilies and a house of roses. It’s a tradition I’ve adhered to since I was a child, my own way of bringing the creativity of the artist’s home with me. 

As I completed my transaction, the cashier asked me if I wanted to enroll in a yearlong museum membership — which would only be $20, as I could put the money I had paid for the exhibit toward it. As he rattled off the list of membership benefits, I quickly agreed, already picturing all the serene, decadent days ahead of me. 

I made good use of that membership, thoroughly acquainting myself with Ed Hardy, James Tissot, Auguste Rodin and many others — that is, until COVID-19 completely obliterated my plans. I was particularly crushed as the de Young was gearing up for the “Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving” exhibit. 

I’ve always loved Frida: I know no other artist who has embraced, questioned and honored their identity the way Frida Kahlo did. Her paintings are beautifully raw, laying bare both her physical pain — caused by a trolley car accident that nearly killed her — and her emotional pain, caused by her husband, Diego Rivera, and his many affairs. 

But in juxtaposition to this pain, there is also so much pride and beauty in her art. Pride in her country, Mexico, and its rich history. Pride in herself and her strength. And beauty in, well, everything.

The de Young exhibition was to be the first in the United States to display not only Frida’s artwork, but also a collection of her clothing and personal possessions, which were rediscovered in 2004 after being locked away since her death. 

Frida took great care in her appearance and clothing. She wore traditional Tehuana dresses, flowers in her hair, a full face of makeup and layers of rings, necklaces, bracelets and earrings. Frida didn’t just paint art; she embodied it.

Thankfully, the de Young decided to host a webinar dedicated to Frida Kahlo, in which a docent from the museum talked about her and her artwork. I immediately booked a ticket. 

The webinar, however, was a drastically different experience from the tranquil wandering I had come to associate with art museums. As I sat in my room, iced tea in hand, I longed for the ability to physically experience Frida’s art: to stand in the room with all her creativity, passion and artistry, and to allow that atmosphere to inspire me. 

And yet, I actually learned more from the webinar, about both Frida and her art, than I normally do wandering around exhibitions. And not only did I learn more and feel more inspired, but I also realized how inaccessible art galleries are for so many people. Location, fees and cultural homogeneity can all discourage people from attending, particularly if they don’t have access to transportation or if they don’t identify with Eurocentric art. I realized it wasn’t the actual space that I had been craving, but rather the promise of imagination. 

For me, imagination is a necessity of creativity, but it’s been difficult to access when I’m stuck in at home. With the COVID-19 lockdown, I’ve been forced to imagine stories, paintings, possibilities and methods of communication without actually experiencing them. But, I realized, that is exactly what Frida Kahlo did all her life. 

Even when Frida was confined to bed due to illness or surgery, her paintings reflected a depth of imagination and creativity that was uninhibited by physical space. And when gender norms, fashion, politics or art failed to capture her identity and dreams, she imagined her own forms of expression and communication. 

I hope art galleries continue to hold webinars, even after in-person attendance is allowed, because it creates the access to art that everyone deserves. And hopefully, galleries continue to amplify the perspectives, experiences and artwork of artists who challenge our understanding of identity and expression, just as Frida Kahlo did.

Nathalie Grogan writes the Monday arts & entertainment column on art as a method of communication. Contact her at [email protected].