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Frida Kahlo's Art

Richly detailed documentary draws on historical footage and interviews to illuminate the life of a painter ahead of her time. TELEVISION: PREVIEW

FRIDA KAHLO: PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST PBS, Monday 9-10 p.m. Narrator: Edward James Olmos. Producer: Louise Lo. Executive producer: Kim Thomas. A production of KQED in San Francisco. MEXICAN artists Diego Rivera (1886-1957) and Frida Kahlo (1910-1954) proved that opposites do indeed attract. He was famous, flamboyant, tall, overweight, and far from good-looking. She was unknown, lively, unaffected, slender, beautiful, and 20 years his junior.

Nevertheless, they married, not once, but twice - first in 1929, and then again in 1940, after a divorce of roughly one year.

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Each is the subject of a one-hour television program airing Monday on most PBS stations. ``Rivera in America,'' a repeat ``American Masters'' documentary, immediately precedes ``Frida Kahlo: Portrait of an Artist.''

Time has been good to both artists, but especially to Frida Kahlo. Her reputation has skyrocketed to the point where she is now considered not only one of Mexico's most important painters, but one of this century's outstanding women artists as well.

Her paintings, which were once largely ignored or collected as curiosities, are now very much in demand by both private collectors and museums. But best of all, she is no longer viewed primarily as Rivera's talented wife.

Things did not start out well for her, however. A serious bus accident when she was 18 caused her to be bedridden for long periods during her lifetime, and made it impossible for her to have children. In addition, her marriage to Rivera was not an easy one. Gregarious and fond of women, he frequently went astray - once even with Frida's sister - and in general, was not the sort of man to stay home with an invalid wife.

As the program makes clear, however, she refused to let her problems dominate her life. She remained cheerful, never complained, and tried to maintain as normal a life-style as possible. She began to paint during her first recuperation, and quickly realized that art was not only an outlet for her, but an excellent way of putting her life experiences into proper perspective. From the very beginning, Rivera was supportive and respectful of what she produced, and spoke highly of her work to anyone he thought might help her advance in the art world.

Although she exhibited with the Surrealists in Paris and sold a few paintings (actor Edward G. Robinson was one of her earliest collectors), her career never really took off - largely, one suspects, because her paintings were often too personal and idiosyncratic.

Indeed, some of the canvases in ``Frida Kahlo: Portrait of an Artist'' will surprise newcomers to her work (She depicted Luther Burbank, the great horticulturist, for instance, as half plant, half man). Since she painted exactly as she pleased, with no concern for anything but what she wanted to depict or communicate, her images often are as blunt and frank as a private confession. She held nothing back, thought everything that had ever happened to her was worth translating into paint, and produced, as a result, some of the most starkly autobiographical and revealing paintings of her time.

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A large number of these, together with several of her intriguing self-portraits, take star-billing in this generally fascinating and richly detailed account of her life and work.

Film footage of early revolutionary events, the Riveras' days with Leon Trotsky (Frida was as passionate a Communist as her husband), and other political and social events of the 1920s and '30s serve as an effective background to her more personal and creative activities.

And to round it all off, there are interviews with family, friends, and others who knew her in Mexico and San Francisco.

Most important, the producers have treated her art fairly and with respect, and without the hype or melodrama that so easily could have been applied to work as personal and occasionally as provocative as hers.

Even the comparison to Rivera's art (his work is best understood within its cultural context; hers is immediately accessible to everyone) makes sense, and, although the script fails to point out that he was undoubtedly a genius and she an unusually original talent, it succeeds, overall, in presenting the viewer with a balanced and illuminating overview of a remarkable artist's personal and creative life.

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