Frida Kahlo Comes Alive at The New York Botanical Garden

Mexican artist Frida Kahlo cherished the garden at her home, the Casa Azul, in Coyoacán, Mexico. With its vivid blue exterior and native plants, Kahlo’s garden was both an inspiration and a private haven during her personal battles with chronic illnesses and disabilities. Her painting studio directly overlooked the garden, which was a constant source of intrigue for both her and her husband Diego Rivera.

The first exhibition to “re-imagine” Kahlo’s garden and to explore her appreciation of nature—including the many plants, insects, and animal imagery in her paintings– will open May 16 in a limited six-month engagement at The New York Botanical Garden.

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“Most exhibitions on Kahlo focus primarily on her biography and the dramatic events in her life,” says Tufts University art historian, Dr. Adriana Zavala, who curated the exhibition. “Often scholars interpret her paintings as if they plot a course through her life events and in doing so, they undermine her extraordinary intellect, her imagination and her exuberance and love of life. This exhibition shows the scientific basis of her understanding of the natural world, as well as her interest in the dualism of life’s forces.”

Kahlo studied and was well aware of the symbolic and historical meanings of Mexico’s native plants, as well as their chemical and therapeutic properties. Certain plants in her still life paintings are clearly identifiable– exotics like dragon fruit, prickly pear, cherimoya, sapodilla, and mamey sapote all make appearances.

05. Kahlo Still Life with Parrot and Fruit

“These fruits have emblematic meaning in some works,” Dr. Zavala explains, “or they are suggestive of witty puns. In other paintings they appear simply to offer the eye a feast of color and texture.”

According to Dr. Zavala, Kahlo’s earlier works are more surrealistic and feature red angel’s trumpet, prickly pear, fuchsia, poinsettia, philodendron, and marigold. Angel’s trumpet has narcotic properties; prickly pear is part of the Mexican national emblem, originating in the Aztec glyph for their capital city Tenochtitlan. Marigolds are associated with Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday celebrated on Nov. 1 (the day the exhibit closes).

Fourteen of Kahlo’s paintings and works on paper– many of which were borrowed from private collections— will be on view during the exhibition. The NYCB gardens that will host these works will also be planted with a variety of species that are native (and symbolically important) to Mexico. A scale version of the artist’s pyramid– created to display pre-Hispanic art that her husband, muralist Diego Rivera, collected— features traditional terra-cotta pots filled with Mexican cacti and succulents.

One of her more surprising sketches and paintings is the early Portrait of Luther Burbank (1931) that depicts the American horticulturist Luther Burbank, known for his experiments in grafting and hybridization, often with native Mexican plants. Burbank’s work seems to have impressed Kahlo, who presents him as a man/tree with wonderful spreading roots, his arms holding a vine and his body flanked by fruit trees. Burbank’s ideas resonated with Kahlo and the unique pride she felt in her “hybrid” Mexican heritage.

From the 1940’s until her death in 1954, Kahlo’s garden was a famous gathering place for artists and intellectuals who celebrated the Mexican nation amidst its wonderful native plants. Now, the Haupt Conservatory at the New York Botanical Garden will bring this vision of an era back to life.

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