Visit Frida Kahlo’s Recreated Garden to See the Plants That Influenced Her Art

The New York Botanical Garden is showing rare paintings and drawings alongside the types of flora Kahlo herself once cultivated

This iconic 1940 painting, Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, is on display at the New York Botanical Garden. Image courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden
A recreation of Kahlo's desk from her studio in Mexico, which overlooked her garden. Photo courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden
At the show, visitors can see this recreation of a colorful pyramid like the one in Kahlo's garden in Mexico. Image courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden
Kahlo married fellow artist Diego Rivera, known for his murals, in 1929. The couple divorced a decade later, then remarried in 1940. In the historical photo above, the couple is applying for a marriage license in San Francisco—the second time around. Corbis
Humberto Spíndola, an artist-in-residence at the New York Botanical Garden, created these traditional dress forms from delicate reeds and the costumes from fine tissue paper. Image courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden
A blue wall at Kahlo's recreated garden in the Bronx evokes La Casa Azul, or the Blue House, Kahlo's famous home in Mexico City. Image courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden
Two Nudes in a Forest, from 1939, one of the paintings on display in the Bronx. Kahlo painted it for Dolores del Río, an actor who played the role of the "other" in Hollywood films and who often played Indian women in Mexican films despite that she was not herself of indigenous descent, as Joanna L. Groarke writes in the book that accompanies the exhibition. Image courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden
In Still Life with Parrot and Fruit, from 1951, Kahlo paints a selection of tropical fruits. The oranges in the painting may be based on ones from Kahlo's own garden, Mia D'Avanza writes in the companion book to the show. Image courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden
Frida with Olmeca Figurine, a 1939 photo by Nickolas Muray. Image courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden
An accurate image of a seedling on the right side of The Dream, a pencil-on-paper drawing by Kahlo, tipped off staff at the New York Botanical Garden that the artist was serious about plant science in her work. Image courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden
Some of the cacti in the recreated garden. Image courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden
The path through the New York Botanical Garden's recreation of Kahlo's garden. Image courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden

Famed artist Frida Kahlo was also an exquisite gardener, with a deep understanding of plant science. At her home in Mexico City, known as La Casa Azul for its bright blue color and now the site of the Frida Kahlo Museum, Kahlo cultivated plants whose images made their way into her work. A sprawling exhibition at the New York Botanical GardenFrida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life, is “the first to examine Frida Kahlo’s keen appreciation for the beauty and variety of the natural world,” and explores the complexity of plant imagery in her artwork. 

Guest curator Adriana Zavala, a professor at Tufts University who specializes in Latin American art, points out that whereas many people have looked at Kahlo’s paintings in relation to her tumultuous biography, this exhibition considers her life and work from a less-expected angle. The focus here is Kahlo's interest in plant science, and the way her flora-based paintings reveal her awareness, as Zavala puts it, of Mexico’s long history as a cultural, culinary and botanical crossroads.

Some curators might be wary of doing a show about Kahlo devoted entirely to her use of plants—the connection might seem superficial—but when one of the garden's botanical experts made a discovery early on in the research process, Zavala knew the show was worth pursuing. Mia D’Avanza, reference librarian and exhibitions coordinator at the garden’s library, noticed that in Kahlo’s 1932 pencil-on-paper work The Dream, the artist includes an accurate drawing of one of the stages of seed germination. While Kahlo uses botanicals symbolically in many of the works on display (including a surreal painting in which the body of botanist Luther Burbank blends with that of a plant), D’Avanza was impressed by the way Kahlo drew the hook of a cotyledon, the embryonic first leaves of a seedling. For D’Avanza, this proved the artist “was not dabbling.”

The Dream is just one of more than a dozen works visitors can see at the exhibition. Zavala says she made a particular curatorial choice when bringing together the set of drawings and paintings included in the show—each depicts the complex ways Kahlo used plant imagery in her art. The works are on loan from across the U.S. as well as Mexico, an unusual feat for a botanical garden. The show also includes a recreation of Kahlo’s desk from her art studio, accurate right down to the color of the pigments she used. And the exhibition has live music, too: The Villalobos Brothers, known for blending indigenous music with jazz and classical music, will perform at several evening events throughout the next few months. (Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life runs until November 1).

On top of all that, garden-goers can see art based on Kahlo’s own work but created by the garden's artist-in-residence, Mexico’s Humberto Spíndola. Spíndola’s The Two Fridas transforms a famous double-self-portrait by Kahlo into a three-dimensional installation, which includes replicas of the iconic dresses Kahlo wears in her painting rendered in fine tissue paper and displayed on traditional mannequins crafted from delicate reeds.

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