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Fresno Art Museum Displays Nickolas Muray’s Photographic Portraits of Frida Kahlo

Jan 27, 2016 01:00PM ● By Jordan Venema

photos courtesy

Through His Lens

February 2016

By Jordan Venema

There is no artist more intrinsically connected with her work than Frida Kahlo. In Kahlo’s case, some might say the artist is more iconic than the art, and the painter more recognizable than the paintings. Pick whichever piece of hers you prefer, and chance you’ll find Kahlo staring back from the canvas with that mysterious grin, those brooding eyes: a Mexican Mona Lisa.

Before Kim Kardashian, there was Frida, mastering the selfie. She made herself the subject of more than a third of her 143 paintings, portraying herself through a distinctly Latin American lens, an elemental welding of magical realism and rebellion. She wasn’t just an artist, but a diva, flamboyant and subversive, despite chronic illness and a famously tragic marriage. Natural, then, that her paintings often depict the fantastic, but they are also painfully familiar.

Whether drawn by the hypnotism of her iconic gaze or the allure of her international celebrity, people see in Kahlo something of themselves. She, as folks regularly do on social media, projected a stable, albeit surreal image of herself onto an otherwise uncertain and unstable reality.

But Kahlo’s celebrity (and talent) suggests that audacity transcends vanity, though a poignant vulnerability still underlies her paintings. When asked why she painted so many self-portraits, Kahlo responded: “Because I am so often alone… because I am the subject I know best.” Still, the glimpses we get of Frida are the glimpses Frida wanted to give. 

But in 1931, not long after marrying the famous muralist Diego Rivera, Kahlo met Hungarian-born American photographer Nickolas Muray, with whom she carried an on-again off-again affair for 10 years. Even after their romance, the two remained close friends until Kahlo’s death in 1954.

During and following their affair, Muray, a pioneer in color photography, captured personal photographs of Kahlo, some candid, others staged, but all through a lens distinctly his own. They remain, other than Kahlo’s self-portraits, the most intimate visual glimpses into the artist’s life.

Through May 1, as part of a traveling international exhibition, the Fresno Art Museum will display 46 of Muray’s photographic portraits of Frida Kahlo. 

Curator Kristina Hornback says the exhibition, Frida Kahlo: Through the Lens of Nickolas Muray, includes “very iconic images. These photographs capture the essence of Frida, and allow the community to see something they wouldn’t necessarily be able to see elsewhere.

“People seem to connect with Kahlo in ways that they don’t necessarily do with other artists,” continues Hornback. “I don’t know if it was her flamboyant lifestyle, or her for-the-people attitude, or just simply the very deep and poignant art that she created.”  

For those who attend Through the Lens, it will likely be for the subject in the photographs, rather than the photographer himself. But any subject of a photo, and yes, even Frida, is still the photographer’s subject, and framed by his eye. These portraits speak so powerfully because through Muray’s lens, we see Kahlo in a slightly new light, though it shifts as subtly as a shade.

Each photo of Through the Lens is an instance where Kahlo gave up control and creative license of her image by entrusting it to another. We see Kahlo, in these little framed moments, not as she saw herself, not as she chose to paint herself, but through the eyes of somebody who loved her. Intentionally or not, because of that vulnerability, Muray’s photographs achieve an intimacy and humanity that even Frida could not capture in her self-portraits. 

Frida Kahlo: Through the Lens of Nickolas Muray

Fresno Art Museum 

2233 N. First St., Fresno • (559) 441-4211

Thursday through Sunday: 11am – 5pm

Exhibit opens on January 22