Frida Kahlo’s Polish Connections
#photography & visual arts
default, 'Untitled' by Bernice Kolko, photo: courtesy of Fundación Zúñiga Laborde A.C. (Mexico), Bernice Kolko, "Bez tytułu", fot. dzięki uprzejmości Fundación Zúñiga Laborde A.C. (Mexico)/Courtesy Fundación Zúñiga Laborde A.C. (Mexico)
The lives of two artists born in Poland interwove with that of with Mexico’s most famous female painter. Both Bernice Kolko and Fanny Rabel became part of the artistic circles close to Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera – the former welded to her Rolleiflex camera, while the latter deftly wielding her paintbrush. Culture.pl examines the little-known story of how these three creative women crossed paths and came to influence each other.
Frida Kahlo once noted in her journal:
1 January 1953, winter time. Bernice Kolko. I think she is a great artist. She photographs reality admirably.
Kolko had similarly heartfelt words for Kahlo and the painter's husband, with whom she became close friends. Kolko was born on 5th November 1905 in Grajewo. That same year, Diego Rivera graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts and holds his first exhibition. Two years later, in Mexico City’s outskirts, Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderón was born. Kolko was Kahlo's companion in her last years. She, too, was a strong, independent, unhappily married woman – and a driven artist.
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We don’t know much about the photographer’s private life. She was the youngest of four siblings. Her father passed away prematurely. The worsening situation of the Jewish community had made the family decide to emigrate to the United States. As of 1920, Kolko lived in Chicago, where she attended a local high school. At that time, Frida was a student of the prestigious Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, where Diego Rivera was painting his Act of Creation.
In 1925, Kahlo was involved in a grave accident, one that would result in her famous limp. A year later, she painted her first self-portrait, one of a few inspired by the Italian Renaissance. While Frida was working on her Self-Portrait in a Velvet Dress, Kolko got married. Her marriage fell apart shortly thereafter, and she moved to New York.
For both women, 1929 was a pivotal year. Frida married Diego Rivera (whom she described as the second grave accident she had suffered), while Kolko became a mother and was granted American citizenship. Meanwhile another Poland-born Mexican artist was about to experience the vicissitudes of an émigré life.
Fanny Rabel was born in Lublin Fanny Rabinovich Duval on 27th August 1922 – at least officially, as she liked to lie about her age, much like Kahlo, who would say she was three years younger. The Mexican artist herself said about Fanny that she was either 600 or 2,000 years old, thus honouring her Jewish background.
Fanny grew up on the move, as her parents were actors in a popular Yiddish theatre. As the dust of the Great War settled, the Rabinowicz family decided to leave the country. Initially, in the late 1920s, Paris became their haven. Then, in 1938, when Mexico opened its borders to European refugees, the family moved there.
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Diego Rivera, with whom Fanny collaborated in painting murals, wrote about how her art echoed the fleeing of repression:
Those painful experiences have honed her perceptiveness, radically sharpened her senses. They permitted deep self-exploration, fundamental to art creation. […] It was bitterness, indeed, both inherited and present as well as the certainty of inevitability that stand out in Fanny’s work. Work that actively contributes to the young Mexican painting.
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'Self-portrait with Monkeys' by Frida Kahlo, 1943, The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of Mexican Art, the Vergel Foundation and the Tarpon Trust, photo: © 2017 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Frida Kahlo, "Autoportret z małpami", 1943, The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of Mexican Art, the Vergel Foundation and the Tarpon Trust © 2017 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights S…
Meanwhile, Kolko was off to Europe. At Vienna University, she attended Rudolf Koppitz’s class. Initially driven by pictorialism, Koppitz leant towards documentalism in his later works, an approach much shared by his talented student.
Acquired knowledge quickly translated into art. Shortly after she came back to the States, Kolko started an independent project inspired by kids living in New York’s Harlem. It was completed in 1938, the same year Frida opened first individual exhibition in Julien Levy Gallery in New York, showcasing 25 paintings.
A year later, Kolko showcased her series Faces, under the framework of a government-subsidised project aimed at supporting visual arts. During World War II, she worked in a gun factory, later joining the ranks of the Women’s Army Corps, which earned her veteran status. After the conflict, armed with her beloved Rolleiflex, she experimented with photography with her friend Man Ray. At the time, she was also friends with Edward Weston and Ruth Bernhard. She even took a few photographs of Dorothea Lange. Both famous artists and nameless people were the subjects of her work.
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In the early 1950s, Kolko travelled to Mexico where she carried out her flagship project on women. It was then that she met Kahlo, probably through Diego Rivera, whom she had met in the States when he was commissioned to paint murals.
How did Frida and Fanny’s paths cross? Rabel was 16 when she arrived in Mexico, with its culture so markedly different to her own. Occupied by side jobs during the day, she spent her evenings taking drawing lessons. She soon joined a group of muralists led by David Alfaro Siqueiros and enrolls in La Esmeralda, the National School of Painting and Sculpture.
In 1942, it is Frida herself who becomes one of Rabel's professors. Since she had little teaching experience initially, Kahlo looked to her student for teaching guidance. But she quickly made up for it with her personality, conducive to establishing authority. As Rabel reminisced:
I had barely met her and instantly became fascinated with her; she had a knack for charming other people. She was truly unique. She exuded humour and joy of life. She had created her own language, even own style of speaking Spanish. She had a vivid way of expression, accompanied by sweeping gestures, acting, laughter, witty observations, and superior irony skills.
Under the tutelage of Frida, the novice artist blossomed and defined her individual style. Frida instilled in her a love for folk and painting symbolical portraits.
Due to her medical condition, Kahlo would teach outdoors or at home. Four of her most ardent disciples called themselves los Fridos. Among them, Rabel was the oldest and the only woman. Both exhibited vivid personalities and social sensitivity (key features of Kolko’s photographs as well). In Self-Portrait with Monkeys, Kahlo depicted her students, deeply ironically, as brainless children monkeys aping their master.
While the war kept Kolko’s career on hold, Rabel was gradually gathering critical acclaim. She held her first exhibition in 1945 at Liga Popular Israelita. It was the very same year that Kolko got married. In a text written for the exhibition, Kahlo wrote:
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Fanny Rabel paints as she lives, with great courage, immense sensitivity and intelligence; there’s all the love and cheerfulness you have at the age of twenty. [...] She focuses mostly on class divisions. The characters and traits of her models are studied with exceptional maturity, and always endowed with vivid emotions. She does all that with great modesty, immense tenderness and femininity which make her so perfect.
A year after the exhibition, Rabel obtained Mexican citizenship and went on to practice graphic art.
Frida and Bernice went on to become close friends, despite strong differences in their political beliefs. Kahlo was in fact keen on displaying communist leanings in her art. Kolko managed to capture Kahlo’s concentration at work and her smile when among friends (her camera photographed Diego Rivera painting as well). ‘Frida simply loved this joyful ado surrounding her,’ Kolko once said whilst reminiscing about their shared evenings. Kolko’s shots are highly natural, if not intimate, yet filled with reverence – which shows the level of mutual trust the artists developed for one another.
The photographer accompanied Frida in pain as well. It was she who took Kahlo's posthumous portrait in the Mexican artist’s beloved Blue House (currently Kahlo & Rivera’s museum). The poignant photograph, taken in 1954, is entitled The Last Dream.
Frida and Bernice were both concerned about Mexican women (and women in general). While Kahlo’s art echoed her own emotions and experiences, Kolko’s photographs provided an outer perspective. She expressed her opposition to the patriarchal rule in the subtle Women of Mexico series, where she portrays women either at work, occupied by everyday tasks, or in their free time. The series was started in the early 1950s and then showcased at the Palace of Fine Arts in 1955. Kolko is most probably the first woman to have her photographs showcased there. It’s worth mentioning that women in Mexico were granted the right to vote as late as 1953 – the same year that Kahlo’s first individual exhibition was held.
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Kolko might have settled in Mexico, but, as a photographer, she worked in Europe, Africa and Asia. Whether it was street stallholders, newlyweds, kids or local Mexican people, they all caught her interest. As Ariel Zúñiga, who considered Kolko his grandmother and now takes care of her oeuvre, once wrote:
I remember her fondness for surface, texture, black and white. For Bernice, both blackness and whiteness were always pure, intense, sharp. She was always wary of greyness.
Kolko liked to say that first impressions were essential for her. She died on 15th December 1970 while planning a trip to South America. She was 65 years old.
Fanny Rabel’s works – that is, her murals, oil paintings and lithography – can be seen as a manifesto as well. She condemned indifference to suffering, hypocrisy, violence and prejudice. In 1949, she joined Taller de Gráfica Popular, a collective of young artists that pleaded for universal access to art, aimed at serving society. She created book and press illustrations, designed diaries, posters, postcards and invitations to social and political events. She actively advocated for women’s rights and environmental protection.
Twenty seven of Rabel's prints were featured in an album entitled Niños de México (Kids of Mexico), published on the tenth anniversary of her membership in the group. It was acclaimed by critics, who particularly appreciated her simplicity and sensitivity in depicting human suffering. Aside from deeply touching images of childhood (a theme recurrent in Frida’s works as well), Rabel took on poverty and exploitation. She also depicted the folk rituals of the Mexican peoples. For her, even a landscape had a human touch to it. Rabel died on 25th November 2008, aged 86.
The missing painting
Photographs by Bernice Kolko and works by Fanny Rabel were displayed in Poznań’s Centrum Kultury Zamek during the 2018 exhibition Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera: The Polish Context. It was the first exhibition of the Mexican avant-garde artists shown within a Polish context.
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Before that, the most famous time Mexican art had been showcased in Poland was in Warsaw in 1955. Frida Kahlo’s largest painting – a gift to the nation of the Soviet Union titled The Wounded Table – was on tour and made available to the Polish public. It made a big impression, but it was also when it was last seen. Mysteriously, it went missing shortly afterwards. The work has still never been found.
Sources: 'Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera: The Polish Context' exhibition catalogue, Poznań 2017; Tygodnik Powszechny; bernicekolko.org.
Originally written in Polish by Agnieszka Warnke, Dec 2017; translated by MS, Jun 2018