In their desperation to be enticing, the banners out on the street are of course silly. So are the radio promotions. “He painted for the people,” one shrieked at me this morning while I was washing dishes. It was followed directly by another outburst, this one about Frida: “She painted to survive!” Which of the two descriptions would persuade you to buy a ticket? Long before you enter The Art Gallery of Ontario, the deck is stacked against poor old Diego.

But you can’t chide the curators for the exhibition’s publicity decisions and clearly the curatorial idea behind Frida & Diego was not to offer the couple up as inexplicable opposites, but rather to even the two of them up a bit.

Given Kahlo’s status, during the past twenty years or so, as a household word (and fridge magnet), and with Rivera’s reputation having plummeted from preeminent mural painter during the Golden Age of Mexican Art (the 1920s) to that of maker of historically irrelevant paintings, perpetrator of painted potboilers, and Kahlo’s obsessively philandering husband (“the delicate dove and the fat frog” is the rather indelicate title of the second chapter of Andrea Kettenmann’s 2003 book about Kahlo), a reconsideration of their twinned and, from 1928 on, inextricably intertwined lives is both instructive and refreshing.

The exhibition is a co-production of the Art Gallery of Ontario, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Museo Dolores Olmedo in Mexico City. As co-curator of the exhibition, OCADU Professor Dot Tuer notes, in her usefully comprehensive catalogue essay (“Of Passion and Painting: The Revolutionary Politics of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo”), “…Diego’s reputation as an artist declined with the onset of the Cold War and the rise of Abstract Expressionism. By the 1960s, muralism had become the domain of community activism rather than the avant-garde….” Rivera, she adds, “no longer looms larger-than-life in the public imagination….”

While this is undeniably true, he still looms larger-than-life in my imagination, probably because I fall in love with peoples’ minds and personalities and not just their artifacts. It was my reading, many years ago, of Bertram D. Wolfe’s The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera (1963) that elevated Diego to the prominent position within the landscape of my sensibility that he continues to hold to this day.

Yes, there is an abyss that yawns open frequently between Diego the man (Ilya Ehrenburg called him “the kind cannibal”) and his radically uneven works. But one is grateful indeed to find the full trajectory of his production now so handsomely laid out for perusal.

How absorbing it is to see the artist’s early work from Paris (where he went in 1907—the year Picasso was painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon—at age twenty-one!).

His Gris-like cubism from 1914-15 isn’t very good, but when he finally returns to what he is really good at—the high representationalism of portraiture, for example—he’s brilliant (see, for example, The Mathematician, 1919).

There has probably been enough said about Mexican revolutionary mural work (and there is some in the exhibition) to warrant covering it here. What is not often seen—for good reason, I’d say—is the lamentable late work, the work made after Frida’s death on July 13, 1954: paintings like the awful, cheesecake-society pieces (The Hammock, 1956), and the embarrassingly bad last landscapes.

All the great centripetal, unsparing, corrosive Kahlos seem to be here and that is a great gift: A Few Small Nips (1935), My Nurse and I (1937), Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940), her Self-Portrait as a Tehuana (Diego in my Thoughts) from 1943, Self-Portrait with Monkeys (1943), The Broken Column (1944)—everything you want to see.

The dreadful bus accident that befell her when she was eighteen (September 17, 1925) informed the rest of Kahlo’s life—and her art. And it’s as if the suffering she underwent then (and during a subsequent series of thirty-five hopeless operations) was conflated by both her pain at Diego’s womanizing and her anxieties about the progress of socialist art. But too much is made, sometimes, about her physical travail—which is frequently assigned both political and metaphysical status. For example, in the introduction to her published diary (The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait, 1995), Mexican novelist, Carlos Fuentes—who should know better—writes “As the people are cleft in twain by poverty, revolution, memory, and hope, so she, the individual, the irreplaceable, the unrepeatable woman called Frida Kahlo is broken, torn inside her own body much as Mexico is torn outside.” This sort of thing is more noble, more sonorous, than it is useful.

Infinitely better than rhetoric is the opportunity—here so handsomely afforded by the AGO—to explore Kahlo’s hallucinatingly precise visions of herself and her country up close and at length. Her paintings are usually small, retablo-scaled (indeed it is almost disturbing to encounter a “big” one, such as her Self-Portrait with Monkeys from 1943, which, at 32 by 25 inches, seems vast).

And because Kahlo’s pictures are so small, you have to peer into them. And when you peer into them, it’s like looking directly onto the mezzanine of her mind and, beyond that, directly down into the furnace room of her heart.

However many convictions they shared (many), and however fervent their love for one another (profound), they were so astonishingly different that their very shapes have become iconic (“the elephant and the dove,” writes Fuentes): the blind bull and the crushed butterfly.

But when the long arc of Diego’s centrifugal, public art and the shorter span of Frida’s interiorized, centripetal art (“a ribbon around a bombshell” is how Andre Breton described it) are overlayed, one atop the other—as in this generously arranged exhibition—you can see the extraordinary cultural moiré pattern set up by their juxtaposition. You can feel the sounding of their striving identities—twinned and yet always breaking apart. The two of them are always out of register. Which is the very reason their art seems so endlessly accessible, and why the two of them will always remain the towering protagonists of an endless, never–to-be completed novel.

The Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
October 20-January 20, 2013