Nearly 50 photographic portraits taken of Kahlo comprise this exhibition. The photographs, dating from 1937 to 1941, explore Muray's unique perspective; in the 1930-40s he was Kahlo’s friend, lover and confidant.
“The standout images are Muray's more formal portraits of his lover. The photographic techniques available to Muray in the late '30s and early '40s created layered colors that have an almost painted effect, and are delicious to look at now.” – Publishers Weekly
The exhibit includes many pioneering, early color images, which have a luminous quality. The photographs depict Kahlo in a fashion similar to her own self-portraits. The lush, saturated colors do full justice to the elaborate costumes that were an intrinsic part of Kahlo’s self-image. She is shown in many of the photographs in this exhibition wearing traditional dresses – heavily patterned or embroidered garments from Oaxaca, which reflected her love of her Mexican heritage.
Muray had never publicly displayed the pictures, and they were completely unknown until 1993, when Muray's daughter, Mimi Muray Levitt, found the negatives while going through a trunk full of her father's work and decided to have the negatives developed.
Hungarian-born American Nickolas Muray photographed many famous people from the political, artistic, and social arenas, including Marilyn Monroe, Dwight Eisenhower and Babe Ruth, and his work was regularly featured in Harper's Bazaar, Vanity Fair, McCall's and Ladies Home Journal. He was also a two-time U.S. Olympic fencer (1928, 1932).
Between 1920 and 1940, Muray took over 10,000 portraits, however, his print, Frida Kahlo, c. 1939, became his best known and loved portrait. Many world-class photographers took pictures of Kahlo, including her father, Guillermo. But Muray’s photography has stood out over the decades as some of the very best and most famous images taken of Kahlo.
Born in Szeged, Hungary, in 1892, Nickolas Muray was apprenticed to an artist’s studio at the age of 12. He later entered the Budapest Graphic Arts School where he learned lithography, photoengraving, and photography. At 17, reaching a stage where he felt he had learned all that was available to him in Hungary, he moved to Munich, Germany, to study color photography for a year. He then studied photochemistry, color photoengraving and color filter making at the National Technical School in Berlin. Having earned the International Engravers Certificate, he was then able to work anywhere in the world. He was hired by the publishing firm, Ullstein, to do photogravure and began to visit museums in France and England.
“In August of 1913, armed with $25, a fifty-word English vocabulary, an Esperanto dictionary, and an unrelenting determination, twenty-one year-old Miklós Murai arrived at Ellis Island where he became Nickolas Muray.” I Will Never Forget You..., Salomon Grimberg, Schirmer/ Mosel, 2004, p.11
Muray soon found work doing engraving and color separation for Stockinger Printing Co. in Brooklyn. He would also find work in Chicago doing half-tone printing and color photoengraving while fulfilling his long held ambition to become a champion fencer. By 1920 Muray was back in New York where he opened a photographic portrait studio in his Greenwich Village home at 129 MacDougal Street. He was an integral member of the Bohemian art scene of Greenwich Village, known for his parties. It was in this studio that he was to photograph presidents, theater, dance and film artists as well as other celebrities. In 1921, after Henry Sell the editor saw his photographs in the New York Tribune, Harper’s Bazaar became the first magazine to publish his work regularly. His work was soon appearing on a regular basis in Vanity Fair, McCall’s and Ladies’ Home Journal. In addition to his work as a portrait photographer, Muray started doing commercial photography, both portraits and still-lifes for various companies, such as Kraft Foods, General Electric, and Camel Cigarettes. Muray made thousands of portraits between 1920, when he opened his Greenwich Village studio, and 1965 when he died. His subjects included some of the most important and popular individuals of the time, including dancers, film and stage actors, writers, and artists. In 1926 Vanity Fair sent him to London, Paris, and Berlin to photograph, and in 1929 the magazine sent him to Hollywood to photograph movie stars. By this time his work had also appeared in The New York Times, Vogue, and Dance Magazine (for which he also wrote articles). By the mid-1930s he had become one of the most important portrait photographers of the time.
Frida Kahlo was little known outside of the art world until about 10 years ago. Since then, she has become a cultural icon. Similar to Munch’s The Scream and Michelangelo’s David, an entire industry has grown up around her—one can now find her face with its penetrating gaze and distinctive unibrow on coffee mugs, tee shirts, playing cards, key chains, computer mousepads, magnets, post cards and posters. What is particularly interesting is that, unlike the other examples mentioned, it is the artist herself rather than one of her paintings that is the central image.
Frida Kahlo was born in 1907, in the small town of Coyoacán, located on the outskirts of Mexico City. She was the third of four daughters born to Matilde Calderon and Guillermo Kahlo. As a student at the National Preparatory School in San Idelfonso, Frida met her future husband Diego Rivera (1886-1957). Rivera, 21 years her senior, was considered the most powerful artist in Mexico.
It was during her convalescence from a terrible bus accident that Kahlo began to paint with oils. Her pictures, mostly self-portraits and still-lifes, were deliberately naive, filled with the bright colors and the flattened forms of the Mexican folk art she loved. Unlike her contemporaries, the Mexican Muralists, of whom Diego was one, her paintings told of her life. Although publicly Frida pretended her work was of no importance, Diego consistently supported and praised her work.
The style Frida evolved was entirely unlike that of her husband, being based on Mexican folk art and in particular on the small votive pictures known as retablos, which devout Catholics dedicated in churches. Her paintings presently command the highest prices of any artist, living or dead, in this hemisphere—the last major sale of one of her works was in 2006 when her 1943 painting, Roots sold at Sotheby’s for $5.6 million.
Frida has been linked to the Surrealists since, like those artists, her paintings are filled with objects that have deep symbolic meaning. She was later to deny such a connection by saying “They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.” However in January 1940 she was a participant (with Rivera) in the International Exhibition of Surrealism held in Mexico City.
While her paintings are greeted with adoration, her life is equally or even more the reason for her status as an icon. Her flamboyance in dress, her honesty concerning her love affairs with both men and women, and the mysticism in her paintings are all factors that combined to make her a figure of interest to the general public. Certainly she was the first woman artist whose self-portraits so graphically depict her suffering.
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