Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo photos depict the frail human beings behind the myth

"If Frida was alive," Bernal said, "she'd be on our side - against the war."

Bernal was probably right. It is easy to imagine a modern-day Kahlo marching in protest against the Iraqi war, carrying placards, and getting arrested for acts of civil disobedience.

The interesting part about Bernal's reference, though, is that he considered the point pertinent at all. Kahlo, first

Instituto de México's exhibit of Frida & Diego photographs continues through May 10.
and foremost, was an artist, not a political philosopher. And when was the last time you heard the names of artists Jackson Pollock, Roy Lichtenstein, or Rene Magritte invoked to charge up a peace rally? Probably never. Bernal's suggestion - shared by many of Kahlo's most devoted acolytes - was that Frida always sided with justice, that she was not a fallible, flawed, and sometimes misguided human being, but a saint- like figure.

While Kahlo and her husband, muralist Diego Rivera, were zealous crusaders, their political radar could hardly be considered flawless. Like many of their artistic comrades, Kahlo and Rivera enthusiastically supported Joseph Stalin's repressive Soviet regime for years, and after the death of anti-Stalin exile Leon Trotsky, they occasionally bragged to friends that they invited Trotsky to Mexico just to get him killed.

Kahlo's ascension to the status of pop-culture martyr-icon has been problematic, because as with all such deifications, it obliterates the memory of the real person behind it. That's what makes the Insituto de Mexico's current exhibit, "Diego and Frida: A Smile Halfway Down the Road," so revealing. A collection of 96 photographs spanning the lives of these two legendary artists, taken from Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, it achieves its true force through the sheer accumulation of images, exposing the vulnerable human beings beneath the mythology.

Appropriately enough, the exhibit begins with childhood photos of Rivera and Kahlo. In one, we see a chubby young Frida with a bob haircut, sitting on a stool and holding a bouquet of flowers.

The early shots of the couple together are solemn, as Kahlo and Rivera seem to maintain a formal, professional distance from each other. The most gripping early shots - of the couple

9am-5pm Monday-Friday
Through May 10
Instituto de Mexico
600 Hemisfair Park
marching at political demonstrations - convey their political commitment, but little sense of their personal chemistry.

Interestingly, as they get older (and deeper into a famously dysfunctional relationship), we begin to see the warmth that bonded them through two separate marriages over a period of 25 years.

In one photo, while Diego is at work, Frida gently puts her arm on his left shoulder. In another, we see them kissing, with arms intertwined. A subtly moving image shows an uncharacteristically gleeful Rivera busting out a wide, bucktoothed grin while Kahlo holds his hand and looks down, with a wry trace of a smile forming across her mouth.

Their physical frailties become evident as the exhibit unfolds. We see Rivera leaning down to kiss an ailing, bedridden Kahlo, and in one of the few color photos in the collection, Kahlo paints from her bed, while Rivera, by this point looking every bit the broken-down old man, sadly watches.

The exhibit also contains plenty of material for fans of the Rivera-Kahlo political union. We see Rivera with Trotsky, bantering with fellow revolutionary muralist David Siqueros, and delivering a speech before the Communist Party of Mexico. One photo shows Kahlo and Rivera, in a group shot, walking by Trotsky's flag-draped casket.

Some of their political preoccupations now appear dated. But, all these years later, what really makes this couple intriguing is the way their mutual love endured the most destructive behavior, and how it enriched their art. This exhibit reduces them to human scale, and they both emerge more appealing for it. •