Into the Wild: Artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Painted and Celebrated Nature

A recent High Museum of Art exhibition highlights the beauty of flora and fauna in Mexican art.
botanist luther burbank

Famed Botanist Luther Burbank

Horticulturalist Luther Burbank developed more than 800 strains of plants during his lifetime, among them the Idaho potato, the Shasta daisy and elephant garlic. He was honored in this 1931 painting by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

Photo by: Image courtesy of the Museo Dolores Olmedo, Xochimilco, México

Image courtesy of the Museo Dolores Olmedo, Xochimilco, México

Horticulturalist Luther Burbank developed more than 800 strains of plants during his lifetime, among them the Idaho potato, the Shasta daisy and elephant garlic. He was honored in this 1931 painting by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

Long before Jay-Z and Beyonce, Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera were the rock stars of creative coupledom. Famous for their enduring and also difficult love affair, their artwork reflected the highs and lows of their lives together and proclaimed their political allegiances.

But the paintings created by Rivera and Kahlo from the 1900s to the Fifties also illustrated a shared love of the natural world. Both artists’ work, recently on view at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, shares an affinity for all manner of foliage, fauna and flowers. Enormous clusters of calla lilies are hawked by Mexican peasants in Rivera’s colorful paintings of village life or frame a beautiful patron of his art in one sensual portrait. Kahlo frames her portraits of grandmothers against backdrops of lush foliage and she never met a monkey she didn’t like: they drape her neck like jewelry against a background of lush green foliage in a famous self-portrait. 

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But what could be the consummate celebration of the natural world is Kahlo’s thoroughly zany portrait of famed botanist Luther Burbank (1849-1926), a man Kahlo never met but whose plant legacy she celebrated in Portrait of Luther Burbank (1931). The highly prolific Burbank developed more than 800 strains of plants during his lifetime, among them the Idaho potato, the Shasta daisy and elephant garlic. Kahlo’s painting celebrates Burbank’s belief in the beauty and productivity of plants and flowers. In the painting Burbank holds a philodendron in his grip and literally sprouts from the earth, with his lower  body rendered as a tree trunk. Kahlo's strangely mesmerizing portrait celebrates Burbank's place in the circle of life in a way any gardener or plant fiend can appreciate.

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