Frida’s country | Guillermo Kahlo’s photographs of Mexico

Guillermo Kahlo was the father of perhaps the world’s most photographed artist, Frida Kahlo. In Mexico he is revered as an iconic photographer, whose work is also highly rated in the international photographic art scene, although he is less well-known here in Hungary. This exhibition showcases a selection of his special images. We offer a journey back in time to the Mexico of a bygone age: The photographs taken in the first three decades of the 1900s are thrilling snapshots of the country’s rich, centuries-old architectural heritage, nourished by diverse cultures and traditions, as well as documenting the monumental Mexican construction projects that spanned the early part of the last century.

Carl Wilhelm Kahlo made his passage to the new world in 1890 as a youth of barely twenty years old, taking with him the traditions of a family of craftsman, merchants and goldsmiths from Germany. His life in his adopted country, Mexico – now as Guillermo Kahlo ‒ started out from the populous and economically influential German community to become woven into the everyday world of Mexico’s melting pot of Spanish and indigenous Indian cultures. He started a family; but lost his wife during the birth of their third child. He was captivated by the world of photography through the family of his second wife, as his father-in-law Antonio Calderón ran a photographic studio. His photographs of the construction of the steel-framed Casa Boker Department Store brought his first breakthrough success. This assignment – together with his photographs taken for the illustrated press ‒ led to an unbroken succession of new government and private commissions spanning a period of many decades. Guillermo Kahlo was the classic photographer of Mexico. His photographs reveal to us, with documentary authenticity, the churches and monasteries of the country’s historical past. The pictures he took of the modern public buildings and industrial facilities of Mexico City during its metamorphosis into a world city, on the other hand, were created in the spirit of the New Objectivity school of photography. And it was perhaps his camera that captured Frida’s face, her many faces, with the most sensitivity.

Frida, an emblematic painter of the 20th century, was also involved in the creation of countless photos, as the mysterious world of her father’s photographic studio, the secretive atmosphere of the darkroom, Guillermo’s composition technique, his practice of visual reduction and abstraction, the experience of a few shared trips around the country, and the two artists’ close, symbiotic relationship, all had a formative impact on her art. Frida’s country was not just Mexico, but also the multi-faceted legacy of her father.

Mihály MEDVE, curator of the exhibition

This exhibition draws on the unmatched wealth of Kahlo photographs in the formidable Ricardo B. Salinas Pliego Collection.


Guillermo Kahlo, Mexico’s Photographer

Very few people in Hungary are familiar with the renowned Mexican photographer Guillermo Kahlo, the father of the world-famous painter Frida Kahlo, who emigrated to Mexico as a merchant, under the name of Wilhelm, from Pforzheim near Karlsruhe in 1890. “My father, who was born the son of a Hungarian in 1871 in Baden-Baden and, after studying in Nuremberg in 1888, lost his mother at the age of 18 – and didn’t get on with his stepmother – so my grandfather, a goldsmith, gave him money for the journey to America”, Frida Kahlo is quoted as saying by her biographer, Raquel Tibol.

The photographer’s son-in-law Diego Rivera, an important twentieth-century painter, describes his father-in-law thus: “a German analytical constructor/destructor and sceptical dream dancer”. According to Alejandro Gomez – a suitor of Frida’s during her youth – he was a “survivor full of bitter memories. Tireless in his work, a brilliant technician who travelled the length and breadth of Mexico at the beginning of the century – he photographed churches and architectural relics as well as colonial and modern public buildings. Enough for a rich archive full of glass slides …”

The limited available written documentation bears witness to a close relationship between father and daughter, which is also evidenced by the funeral instructions enshrined in a letter sent from Moscow by Rivera in 1955: “Hang a pre-Columbian urn containing Frida’s ashes in the “Blue House” museum in Mexico City, alongside the portrait of Guillermo Kahlo”.

The portrait in question, painted in 1951 on the 10th anniversary of Frida’s father’s death, is also the source of speculation regarding the ethnicity of the Kahlo family. Here too, as on many of the painter’s pictures, a signature text written in brushstrokes is displayed in a wide strip below the picture: “I paint my father, Wilhelm Kahlo, an artist and photographer of Hungarian descent, a larger-than-like, noble creature who courageously battled epilepsy for 60 years, never gave up working and fighting against Hitler. In adoration: his daughter, Frida Kahlo”.

Gaby Franger and Rainer Huhle, the authors of the book and photo album entitled Fridas Vater – Der Fotograf Guillermo Kahlo, published by the Schirmer-Mosel Verlag in 2005, devote a whole chapter to the “legends surrounding Frida’s ethnicity”. The dedication on the painting of the father is in a red script, the German authors point out, and based on their research they regard this claim, judged to be a “wild speculation”, of Hungarian and Jewish origin on the paternal side, as being the propagation of a legend. They add that there are no signs of Guillermo having taken any action against Hitler. The volume contains two detailed family trees showing ancestors and descendants. The authors emphasise that all ancestors were German, and all – with the exception of one Catholic – were evangelists. According to them, on both sides of the family merchants and gingerbread makers can be found going back to the 17th century, but her 19th-century grandparents were jewellers. Among the possible causes underlying the suggestions of Hungarian origin, they mention Frida’s love for the Hungarian-born photographer Nickolas Muray (Miklós Mandl). The claim regarding Jewish ethnicity, meanwhile, is attributed to American girlfriends: namely the daughter of Ernst Bloch, and the photographer Bernice Kolko.

It is hard not to confront the bias of the authors’ claims with Frida Kahlo’s own sense of identity: thTe quoted text is clearly legible on the canvas, which has become an icon of the 20th century…

Guillermo married in 1893 and received Mexican citizenship in 1894. In 1897, his wife died giving birth to the third daughter. In 1898 he married Matilde Calderón y Gonzalest, daughter of the photographer Antonio Calderón. They had four daughters, the third being the future world-famous painter Frida, in 1907. It was in 1925 that the favourite daughter, Frida, suffered the bus accident that transformed her life, and which she elevated to the level of personal mythology in her works. In 1929 she married Diego Rivera. The father was widowed for the second time in 1932. There are no known surviving photographs of Guillermo from after 1936. He died in 1941, in the house of the eldest daughter from his second marriage.

In 1899 – presumably complying with his father-in-law’s expectations – he opened a photographic studio in Oaxaca. His first, defining assignment was a series of photos documenting the construction and opening of the Casa Boker department store. The building was a veritable palace, commissioned by the Böker family who had emigrated from Westphalia to Mexico in 1865. The photo series was so successful that it laid the foundation for Kahlo’s almost 40-year career as an architectural photographer. The massive steel structure of the palace itself was celebrated as a symbol of modernity. Upon completion, the metal frame disappeared under a cladding of stone. Many public buildings of the time were the product of Mexican heavy industry. The raw materials for the parliament building, the house of representatives, the main post office, the National Theatre (more about this building, today known the Palace of Fine Arts, later), Banca Mexico, the State Children’s Home, Tabacalera Mexicana tobacco factory, the Hotel Geneve and the steel Metlac bridge in Veracruz, among others, came from the factories of the La Fundidora Monterrey smelting works. Under a long-term contract with the smelting works, starting from 1909 Kahlo photographed the manufacturing process and the assembly of the various buildings, including in 1934 – as one of his last works – the construction of the Mexico City Children’s Hospital, a modern building built to international standards. This series is both documentation and visual abstraction at the same time, and it’s easy to trace the efforts by Kahlo to move away from the earlier shots of building workers composed like stills from a film scene, and even from the use of tone – and all other “confusing details” that could subvert photography, as an abstract “magic drawing”, the enigmatic picture of “modern knowledge”, from its essence. An exception was the (never finished) parliament building under construction, where there are workers on the steel structure; but the scale of the building almost turns them into ants.

The other longer assignment (1904–1908) came from minister of internal affairs José Limantour, who commissioned him to document Mexican church architecture and pre-Columbian national monuments. This was when the hundreds of visited and photographed fortified Catholic churches and monasteries of this country the size of Europe became cultural treasures of western civilisation. The exteriors depicted in Kahlo’s photos appear as part of the landscape. This new genre also appears to be Kahlo’s invention, so sensitively does he compose the buildings into the natural surroundings. For example, the Capilla Real in Cholula, or the former Jesuit college in Tepotzot are photographic artefacts of views that no longer exist as they had done since the 1500s when the shots were taken, as their surroundings have been changed beyond recognition by the development projects undertaken to celebrate victories in the various revolutions that have taken place since 1910. The matchless work entitled Churches of Mexico was finally published by Dr Atl in six hefty volumes between 1924 and 1927. Seeing the Kahlo photos makes it immediately obvious why the surrealists saw Mexico as the promised land: They thought that they could see the impossible, and this what makes Guillermo Kahlo’s nickname Nemo, after Verne’s mysterious captain, so apt – it suits a photographer who makes the invisible visible.

Finally, we should also mention Mexico City’s surge in development – similar to the transformation of Budapest into a world city at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries – which Kahlo photographed over a period of 40 years. In this regard, the National Theatre (Teatro Nacional) is of particular importance to us, primarily due to the participation of the Hungarian architect and artist Géza Maróti. The Italian architect Adamo Boari got to know Maróti as the designer of the globally acclaimed Hungarian Pavilion in Milan (1906); and invited him to design the theatre’s unique glass curtain and glass ceiling. Maróti also got Miksa Róth involved in the work, and in 1907 travelled via New York to Mexico City with nine cases full of plans. A part of the overall design for the ceiling composition – and Maróti et al themselves – were left out of the construction due to the sea blockade imposed during the First World War, and eventually both of these elements were manufactured by Tiffany. Nevertheless, Maróti remains the designer of the world-famous glass curtain and the colourful glass ceiling over the auditorium.

One topic for further research is how Géza Maróti, an intriguing personality who spoke seven languages, managed to escape Kahlo’s attention during his time in Mexico. And why didn’t Kahlo photograph the massive glass picture, the only one of its kind in the world? Or is the photo lying forgotten somewhere?

Nevertheless, the Kahlo photograph used as an illustration in the summary of the Teatro Nacional’s Hungarian connections at our exhibition does have a main character, who wears a straw hat like Géza Maróti in photographs from the past. On the brow of the triumphal arch of the Harmony group of façade statues carved by Leonardo Bistolfi, a tiny, sombrero-wearing figure is darkly visible stepping out from among the dancing marble figures, above the goddess evoking Botticelli’s Venus. Perhaps this is the “envoy of sculpture”, who stands guard over the boundaries between the old arts and the still unclad, massive steel cupola: a philosophical, passive observer of the changing times. He glances down from above at Guillermo Kahlo and his camera – and indirectly at us, the voyeurs looking back from a distance of one hundred years. He watches as the world forgets the classic genres, and sees how the artists themselves are struggling once more – sometimes seemingly in vain – for a truly credible identity, for contemporary and historic recognition of their work, for the creative-intellectual property rights that symbolically immortalise their personalities, for the name associated with their works.

György Szegő


 Curator: Mihály Medve


2019. June 21. - September 22.

Kunsthalle Chamber Hall

2019. May 15. - June 30.
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Principles | An exhibition by Sándor Bátai

2019. July 10. - September 22.
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Iván Máriási Masznyik | In cosmic scale