Frida Kahlo, et al., at El Museo del Barrio

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There are at least three versions of the first encounter between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. In the one Kahlo biographers refer to most, Kahlo and Rivera met at a party at the home of the photographer Tina Modotti. Displeased with the music and eager to call attention to himself, Rivera drew a pistol and shot the phonograph dead. Kahlo, impressed with his music criticism, fell for Diego on the spot.

From this explosive encounter grew a tempestuous relationship that decanted into marriage, divorce, remarriage and a string of affairs too tawdry and numerous to mention (together they're said to have managed some 200 infidelities, but apart from anything else, the number seems suspiciously round). The art they made, always separately (Diego built a famous house for them, which in fact turned out to be two houses linked by a bridge), though complementary in many ways, turned out to be a study in opposites. Rivera, the founder of muralism, fought to portray all of Mexico in his painting. Kahlo, a revolutionary of the first-person-singular subject, explored the female condition in self-portraits that acted as a mirror of her own troubled and chronically infirm life.

The legend created by these two titans of Mexican modernism has long threatened to eclipse all other stories about this incredibly fertile period in Mexican history. But bolstered by the reappraisals of feminist art historians, record auction prices, a number of swooning biographies and two recent Hollywood screenplays, the story of Frida and Diego has undergone an important elision that establishes Frida's singular story as Mexico's preeminent creative tale. Driven as much by the painter's artistic genius (and her genius for self-promotion) as by a marketing blitz that churns out products like Frida dorm-room posters, Frida t-shirts and Frida museum tote bags, Kahlo's story has since transcended the confines of art history to become, like the life and death of Princess Di, a cult phenomenon.

Take El Museo del Barrio's current exhibition. Titled "Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Twentieth Century Mexican Art: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection," the exhibition gives top billing to the one major artist of the era whose artistic influence?when compared to that of other painters like Jose Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Rufino Tamayo?was negligible. This would have been unthinkable two decades ago. The idea remains a stretch in Mexico, for reasons having less to do with patriarchy and sexual politics than with the power exerted by muralism as a popular political and social force. Throughout her life, Frida spent much of her time playing the colorful appendage to Rivera's recognized genius. In death, the tables seem to have turned?at least outside her beloved Mexico.

Of course, the crush around the 10 Kahlo works on view at El Museo del Barrio signals more than a passing fad for things sensitive and female. They also confirm the force of a painter whose canvases paradoxically set a new standard for allusive mystery and autobiographical directness. The batwing eyebrows, the stern rose-like mouth, the secretive sidelong glance, the torturously clinical details referencing her crippling accident (she was impaled on the handrail of a public bus)?all these became iconic features of Kahlo's unsettling paintings. Utterly unconventional by the standards of the day, exotic in their use of Mexican colors and motifs and as psychologically complex as anything that has come before or after, Kahlo's paintings found their most lasting description in the words of one important admirer, the surrealist poet and ideologue Andre Breton. "The art of Frida Kahlo," he said with rare succinctness, "is a ribbon around a bomb."

In many ways Frida Kahlo was the world's first confessional painter, a visual precursor and analogue to the poetry of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Her relationship with Rivera gave her plenty of grist for the disclosure mill, as evidenced in the painting The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Diego, Me and Señor Xolotl, a mythopoetic work that depicts a literally bleeding-heart Frida cradling a naked baby Diego (read Jesus). Another work, the stunning Diego on My Mind, finds Kahlo in a witchier mood. A portrait of the artist swathed in a lavender and cream wedding headdress, Frida's impassive face is enveloped in a weblike tangle of lines and Rivera's likeness is emblazoned on her forehead like a third eye. Obsessive and spiritually troubling, the picture crackles with raw incantatory power. Its penchant for self-exposure is matched only by its voodoo-inspired aperçu.

Rivera said of Kahlo that she was "the first woman in the history of art to treat, with absolute and uncompromising honesty, one might even say with impassive cruelty, those general and specific themes which exclusively affect women." A piece of artistic insight with a scorpion's tail attached, Rivera's backhanded compliment speaks both to the muralist's keen sense of competition and to Kahlo's rare gift for putting sharks' teeth on her recurring subject matter. A rare still-life on view at El Museo, The Bride Who Became Frightened When She Saw Life Opened, demonstrates Kahlo's take on the conventional genre picture. A riot of finely painted botanical details, the artist's tilting mustard-colored table disgorges a menacing collection of fruits: Juicy slices of watermelon protrude like chefs' knives, prickly coconut fur hides sentry-like eyes, a cluster of overripe bananas pitch forward like blackened udders. Lurking behind a piece of melon is the bride, a kewpie doll Kahlo inserts with a clear view of making her a victim of the jagged fecundity of nature.

Another note in Kahlo's high-pitched repertoire is sounded in her portrait of Natasha Gelman, the patroness who would eventually make this exhibition possible. Represented elsewhere in the show in portraits by David Alfaro Siqueiros (a hieratic view of an imposing and bejeweled neckline), Rufino Tamayo (an earth-toned sphinx drawn in ruled lines), Gunther Gerszo (a lively abstract arrangement of straight and sinuous curves) and Diego Rivera (a slinky Tinseltown number flanked by an efflorescence of calla lilies), Kahlo's pedestrian take on the dyed-blonde Hungarian wife of a Russian film producer brings to mind the mollish, hard-luck heroines of Jean Rhys novels. Kahlo portrays her sitter with none of the portraitist's flattering guff: sullen and self-absorbed, handsome without being distinguished. Neither Rita Hayworth nor Pallas Athena, Gelman's portrait in Kahlo's hands becomes something else entirely: a bust-length view of a perfectly ordinary everywoman caught in deep midthought; a shopgirl covered in rabbit fur, perhaps, being pushed unimportantly along the boulevard by the impersonal crowd.

Kahlo, Rivera said of his wife on another occasion, "is the only example in the history of art of an artist who tore open her chest and heart to reveal the biological truth of her feelings." This exhibition, though it features another 90 works by artists as wonderful as José Clemente Orozco, María Izquierdo, Carlos Mérida, Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Francisco Toledo, is really the Frida Kahlo show. The crowds, Oprah feminists and product pitchmen call out for her above all others. Ultimately, and wholly independently of fashion and the pendulum swing of cultural politics, we have only her penetratingly subjective vision and bristling talent to thank for responding.

"Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Twentieth-Century Mexican Art: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection," through September at El Museo del Barrio, 1230 5th Ave. (104th St.), 831-7272.

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