FILM REVIEW: Exhibition On Screen: Frida Kahlo

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Writers: Phil Grabsky and Ali Ray

Director: Ali Ray

A documentary series with a huge fan-base, Exhibition On Screen strikes a balance between erudition and accessibility. Looking at blockbuster exhibitions (Goya, Rembrandt) or individual artists (Van Gogh, Monet), Exhibition On Screen draws the art world closer, and the artist, closer still.

With its latest release focusing on Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, fans of the series will know what to expect: Great, close-up footage of the artworks (no staring at the back of heads here) and interviews with experts. Gallery directors, academics – the wealth of content on offer immerses the viewer into Kahlo’s world.

Born in Mexico City, Frida Kahlo was on track to become a doctor when she was involved in a serious bus crash in 1925. The crash killed several passengers, and left Kahlo with debilitating injuries. To aid her recovery, Frida’s father gave her a small box of paints. Rediscovering her childhood love for art, Kahlo began to create the first of a series of portraits. At first leaning on the Western tradition (her early portraits refer to Renaissance tropes, such as Botticelli’s Venus), Kahlo began to find her own voice when she became involved in politics. Joining the Communist Party in 1928, she met Diego Rivera. Rivera was the older, more experienced artist, and their affair was tempestuous. The documentary makes the decision to give less screen time to Kahlo and Rivera’s relationship, instead looking at Frida’s cultural development. She began to explore pre-Hispanic culture, adopting Mexican dress – choosing costumes from areas with a strong, matriarchal presence.

Exhibition On Screen charts Kahlo’s artistic progress, which goes hand in hand with her political leanings. Her self-portrait, Henry Ford Hospital, takes aim at the traditional female nude. Articulating the experience of her miscarriage, Kahlo is not only the subject of her own story, but she pulls apart the role played by women in art. Featuring experts on Kahlo’s work, the film details how Kahlo not only rejects the Western tradition, but how her diverse scope of influence results in artwork that defies categorisation. Kahlo’s vision is unsettling with a bold, feminist slant.

The documentary, in its forensic look at Kahlo’s paintings, including Portrait of Luther Burbank and The Two Fridas, unpacks the artist’s densely-loaded iconography. Shifting from Kahlo’s interest in pre-history through to her artistic innovation, Exhibition On Screen makes good use of its experts, settling misconceptions about Frida’s work. She is, they infer, more than a surrealist. Putting elements we recognise together in strange, new situations, Kahlo’s art hinges on magic realism. Kahlo is painting her own reality.

In the last few minutes of the documentary, we touch upon Frida as a Media Sensation. Kahlo’s image – so much a merging of the personal and political – has become, like Van Gogh’s sunflowers, an industry in itself. Kahlo’s style is big business. As well as the usual mugs and tea towels, a Frida Kahlo dress can be yours thanks to eBay. For a documentary so meticulous in exploring Kahlo’s influences, the idea of the artist becoming an influencer isn’t given much room to develop. Kahlo’s transition from gallery to Instagram, while a natural stopping point, also asks questions about how her art will be consumed by future generations. Whether our obsession with that face – the braids, the eyebrows – will encourage or obscure our desire to learn more. The documentary seems reluctant to imagine what our engagement with the artist will look like.

Despite this, Exhibition On Screen fulfils its brief in giving not just an overview of Frida Kahlo, but offering fresh artistic insight. Highlighting Kahlo’s technical and conceptual prowess, Exhibition On Screen ensures that we are left in no doubt of Frida’s place in art history. Kahlo not only makes herself artist and muse, her visual vocabulary – pain, suffering and love – goes to the heart of the human condition. We are shown Kahlo in her truest form and her own image: emotionally complex and fiercely radical.

Released on 20 October 2020

The Reviews Hub Score

Engaging and informative

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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