Picturing Frida

San Diego's museums display Kahlo photos, Degas bronzes, earth art and more.

Behind the scenes in a Tucson gallery that shall remain nameless hangs a sign out of step with the Frida zeitgeist.

Framing a color image of Kahlo, the printed words read "One Day Without Frida." Crossing out her face--just like in the no-smoking signs--is a circle with a violent diagonal slash.

Aside from this gallery, colorful Frida is everywhere nowadays, on magnets and aprons, on earrings and on tape in the video store, in the form of the Oscar-nominated movie Frida. Now she's shown up, in black and white, in San Diego at the Museum of Photographic Arts. Frida Kahlo: Portrait of an Icon opened June 15 at the all-photography museum, located in the Balboa Park complex of museums and theaters just south of the San Diego Zoo.

Traveling Tucsonans weary of San Diego's balmy beaches just might want to stop in the city proper for a look at the Fridas and other doses of big-city culture. The Spanish Colonial Mission-style buildings in Balboa Park, which house at least three art museums, should look familiar to Tucsonans. All curving domes and terra-cotta tile, most of them date back to the Panama-California Exposition of 1915-1916. Leading architects in early 20th-century Tucson flocked to the Exposition, and the Spanish buildings, faux though they were, inspired some of the Old Pueblo's most cherished architecture, including Annie Graham Rockfellow's 1918 Safford School. Roy Place's 1929 Pima County Courthouse shares quite a few traits with the San Diego Museum of Art, built in 1924.

What makes the Museum of Photographic Arts' Frida show different from all other Frida shows is that the painter herself is responsible for none of its more than 100 works. She's in all of them, of course, always with her iconic dark-browed face and often with her indigenous clothing, but some of the photos picture Frida before she was THE Frida. Her father, the German Jewish immigrant Guillermo Kahlo, so warmly portrayed in the recent movie, was a professional photographer; he snapped his daughter as a pudgy 4-year-old and as an adolescent schoolgirl in polka dots. The teenager's staring eyes foreshadow the Frida gaze that would be the signature of all her painted self-portraits.

The photos of the later, famous Frida Kahlo are by photojournalists, lovers and friends--and what friends she had! Among them are such photographic eminences as Edward Weston, Tina Modotti, Imogen Cunningham and the Alvarez Bravos, both Lola and Manuel. They picture her as political activist, as indigenously dressed proponent of mexicanismo, and as painter. "Two Fridas," by a lover, Nickolas Murray, actually pictures three. The real-life Frida, equipped with paints and palettes, poses before her large painting of two Fridas holding hands.

Culled from the Throkmorton Fine Art Gallery, the exhibition photos do more than document an already much-examined life. By bringing together so many works by so many artists of the period, they tell a story in pictures of the intense artistic community of Mexico City in the 1930s, a time and place as fevered and fertile artistically as 1950s New York or late 19th-century Paris.

The City of Light gets a nostalgic examination at the San Diego Museum of Art across the plaza. Paris: A Century as Europe's Art Capital is a small but handsome show that draws on the museum's own collection to chronicle the march of French isms, from Impressionism to Fauvism to Cubism to Expressionism to Surrealism. It's a bit of a greatest-hits show, with works by some of the most famous French artists of the period. Daumier, Ingres and Corot, pre-dating the Impressionist revolution, are followed by Impressionists themselves, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, and finally by post-Impressionists Dufy, Vlaminck and Matisse.

Monet's "Haystack at Chailly," from 1865, is splendid and luminous, of course, but in a world as saturated with Impressionists as it is with Fridas, it's fun to see some of the fine painters that preceded these famous folks. Corot's "Man Fording a Stream," from 1872, is a fine example of his loose, evocative landscapes. And Eugène Boudin, a personal favorite, offers up one of his lovely seaside scenes, "Entretat," from 1870. No one else quite captures the light of the shore the way Boudin does.

The museum's more blockbuster French show, Degas in Bronze: The Complete Sculptures, offers up every single one of the 73 bronze sculptures by an artist better known for his pastels and oils. Following on the heels of the well-received show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art this spring, this exhibition comes from the Museum of Art of São Paulo, Brazil. The tactile sculptures evoke racehorses, bathers and ballerinas, the most famous being "Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen" from 1881. This mixed-media work, shocking in its day, adds to the bronze body a cloth bodice and tutu skirt and real human hair.

For a look at today's shocking sculpture, head down to the sea to the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego at La Jolla. This indoor-outdoor museum has stunning views of the Pacific through its glass windows and a garden laden with art. The museum's curator, Toby Kamps, put together this summer's Arizona Biennial at the Tucson Museum of Art, and Tucsonans intrigued by his handiwork here won't be disappointed with what's on his home turf, literally.

Andy Goldsworthy: Three Cairns offers up photography and drawing by this British earth artist, but its most interesting component is his gigantic limestone sculpture in the garden. Based on cairns, the prehistoric rock piles found all over the British isles, Goldsworthy's meticulous "Cairn" layers finely cut stone stones in a monumental cone-shape. It's one-third of a three-part project that has caused cairns to alight in a trio of permanent locations around the United States--in La Jolla, at the Des Moines Art Center and at the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, N.Y. It's hard to imagine a finer place for these sand-colored stones inspired by Old World art: in verdant California, just above and beyond the beach.

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