“Largest Exhibition of the Life and Art of Frida Kahlo Makes U.S. Premiere in San Diego,” the press release announces. On its website, the show bills itself as “the only exhibition worldwide where Frida Kahlo’s paintings can be seen in one place.” But in reality, The Complete Frida Kahlo: Her Paintings. Her Life. Her Story is comprised almost entirely of copies — replicas of all 123 of Kahlo’s paintings made by four unnamed Chinese artists, plus 500 pieces of jewelry, dresses, and accessories “identical to those with which Kahlo surrounded herself.” The only authentic objects on view, it seems, are the photographs.
This bizarre — or bizarro —exhibition was organized Dr. Mariella Remund, a former top executive at Dow Chemical, and her partner, Hans-Jürgen Gehrke. According to KBPS, “Neither of them has an arts background but together they’ve put 30 years into this project.” By way of explanation, Remund told the news organization:
“We are crazy about Mexico and the Mexican culture. We are crazy about Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. And there was a point five years ago when we decided we were ready to share our passion with anyone who is interested.”
Because yes, when you have a passion for something, the logical way to manifest it is to do what Remund and Gehrke have done: create a private museum (in this case, the Kuntsmuseum Gehrke-Remund in Baden-Baden, Germany), commission Chinese artists and artisans to re-create an artist’s entire body of work and clothing, partner with a company (in this case, Global Entertainment Properties 1, LLC) that makes blockbuster exhibitions based on movies (in this case, Star Trek and Titanic), and mount a show of the re-creations. Rather than, I don’t know, spend your money advancing scholarship on said artist or donate to existing museums already focused on the artist’s work. The latter, of course, would be less personally gratifying.
What’s more, in her report on The Complete Frida Kahlo, Angela Carone for KBPS questions whether visitors are even aware that the show is comprised of fakes. The language on the exhibition website is somewhat obfuscatory (“Some paintings, especially from Kahlo’s early years, have never before been seen”) but does state definitively that the works on view are copies — er, sorry, “exact replicas of her known paintings in original size and original materials, and hand-painted in the same style in which Kahlo painted them.”
But according to Carone, the banners, advertisements, and wall text for the exhibition, which is currently on view at the Naval Training Center at Liberty Station in San Diego, bear no trace of the word “replica.” Instead, “There is an 8.5-by-11-inch sheet of paper taped to the ticket counter and the door of the exhibit. In two sentences it explains that the paintings are replicas. People walked by without reading it.” To top it all off, the catalogue for the show fails to mention the kind of essential fact that the paintings are fakes.
Don’t worry, though. Remund explained to KBPS that there’s no way visitors can leave without knowing what they’ve just seen, because they must leave through the gift shop, where an employee “always asks” how they enjoyed the exhibiton. And then, according to Remund, “There is the chance for anybody to ask, ‘How did you put together all these originals?’ And then we say it. That these are not originals, of course, they are replicas.”