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Explosive Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera Exhibit at the Portland Art Museum

Sandy Brown Jensen
An aspiring Diego Rivera sketches from Rivers’s famous “Two Girls with Callas.” Rivera did a whole series of calla paintings that collectively comment on the workforce necessary to bring flowers to the market.

I remember a student came to me once after a particularly intense class. He held his head and said, “Mrs. Jensen, my head is exploding!”

That’s how I feel after an extended visit to the Portland Art Museum’s big traveling exhibit, “Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican Modernism.” My eyes are pinwheels of explosive color, my brain is scrambling to organize new information about everyone’s favorite artist couple, my heart is trembling from intimate images of huge Diego tender with tiny Frida who stares out at the world with a ferociousness rooted in her unfathomable pain.

Sandy Brown Jensen
Visitors to the exhibit enjoy photo ops in front of huge images on the museum walls.

If you go, and I urge you to do so, think about what you want to see, and organize yourself accordingly because this show is sprawled across multiple galleries, hallways and floors of the museum. If, like me, your primary interest is in Frida, after entering the show, walk quickly all the way through and down the stairs because she is mostly in the final gallery. Then work your way backwards to Diego Rivera, then the first chamber is focused on their contemporaries. Or if your primary interest is in art history and social and cultural content for these two famous painters, start at the beginning. I only mention this because by the time I got to Frida, well, Mrs. Jensen, my brain was exploding!

My favorite exhibit was a raised dais with a dozen mannequins dressed in Frida’s fantastic wardrobe, part of her art form. She had a scarred and broken body that she dressed in elaborate Mexicanismo embroideries, hand made laces and tiny plenty’s. She wore gold and silver jewelry. Like many another woman or man, I wondered what it would be like to wear such sumptuousness. Then I wondered what kind of servant workforce she must have had to iron those pleats, press that lace and maintain such a wardrobe. That one thought and moment helped me place her in a world very different from mine.

Sandy Brown Jensen
The exhibit of Frida’s iconic wardrobe becomes even more impressive when you realize she designed, customized and sewed all her own clothing. These are her originals.

Another unusual exhibit reminded me of Eugene’s mural initiative. One wall was a mural in progress—drop cloth, ladders—no cherry picker in sight, again placing Diego Rivera’s remarkable mural-making in the time capsule of the early twentieth century.

All the iconic self-portraits are there, Frida’s monkey, Diego’s calla lilies. There’s just so much to see, think and feel. If you feel like your brain is exploding when you leave, you were warned!

Sandy Brown Jensen has an MFA in Poetry and is a retired writing instructor from Lane Community College. She is an artist and a photographer with a lifetime interest in looking at and talking about art. Sandy hosts KLCC's long-running arts review program Viz City.