The eccentric couple were Mexican modernism’s most famous artists. Now some of their astonishing works are on display in Sydney for the first time.

Diego Rivera said of his first meeting with Frida Kahlo, “I did not know it then, but Frida had already become the most important fact in my life. And she would continue to be, up to the moment she died.” The tempestuous relationship between the artists forms the basis for a new exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera: from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection considers the work of Kahlo and Rivera through the prism of their 25-year union.

The biographical exhibition explores the art and relationship of these two giants of Mexican modernism and includes paintings by both artists, photographs of the couple, short films and personal letters.

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The pair met when Kahlo was a 15-year-old student at the National Preparatory School in Mexico City. Rivera, then 36 and already a celebrated artist, was engaged to paint a mural on the walls of the school. When they met again several years later, Kahlo had already been involved in the bus accident that would mar her health for the rest of her life. They married when she was 22, a union that her father likened to that of “an elephant marrying a dove”.

Photographer unknown, Frida and Diego with Fulang Chung 1937, gelatin silver print, 10.2 x 12.7 cm, Courtesy of Throckmorton Fine Art, Inc

Indeed, Rivera, with his hulking physical presence, thinning hair and pants belted high on his large belly, and Kahlo, with her dark looks, elaborately braided and decorated hair and petit frame did make an odd couple, especially considering their 21-year age difference.

Their marriage was the beginning of an obsessive, co-dependent union that didn’t end, even with their 1939 divorce after Rivera had an affair with Kahlo’s younger sister Cristina. The couple remarried a year later in San Francisco on Rivero’s 54th birthday.

Their fierce artistic and emotional connection was the basis for much of Kahlo’s self-reflective work. Surprisingly, the Gelman Collection is one of few exhibitions that have sought to juxtapose Kahlo’s and Rivera’s works. This is due to the difference in their subject matter – she explored her own identity while his enormous murals were concerned with social and political issues (particularly communism). However, their shared life and the dialogue that passed between them means that their works reflected on common themes and events.

Frida Kahlo, The bride who becomes frightened when she sees life opened 1943, oil on canvas, 63 x 81.5 cm, The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of Mexican Art, © 2016 Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico DF

Natasha and Jacques Gelman met in Mexico City and married in 1941, both refugees from World War II in Europe. They settled happily into the vibrant Mexico City of the 1940s and were enthusiastic collectors of Mexican art. They became close friends and patrons of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, though as two portraits of Natasha Gelman in the exhibition indicate, it may initially have been somewhat fractious. In Rivera’s portrait, Gelman is depicted as a glamorous blonde reclining on a chaise surrounded by lilies with much leg on display. It’s possible Kahlo did not approve of this depiction. Her own painting of Natasha Gelman depicts her as decidedly frumpy and dour, with two well-placed curls on either side of her head that could, with a little imagination, resemble devil’s horns.

The exhibition contains 33 paintings by the couple, including 10 of Kahlo’s best-known works, as well as three short films and 57 photographs. The paintings hung in the Gelman’s house in Cuernavaca until Natasha Gelman passed away at 86 in 1998. Her husband had passed in 1986.

Frida Kahlo, Diego on my mind (Self-portrait as Tehuana) 1943, oil on masonite, 76 x 61 cm, The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of Mexican Art, © 2016 Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico DF

The collection of intimate photographs, taken by various photographers including Kahlo’s own father, has never been seen in Australia before.

The artists’ voices are heard throughout the exhibition, with quotes – often poetic and frequently funny – scattered among the artworks. One that seems to sum up the intensity of their relationship and their art is from Kahlo:

“I have suffered two grave accidents in my life, one in which a streetcar knocked me down… the other accident is Diego.”

Pictured at top: Frida Kahlo, Self-portrait with monkeys 1943 oil on canvas, 81.5 x 63 cm, The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of Mexican Art, © 2016 Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico DF

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