No tour groups. No coat check. No drinking fountains. No admission without a timed ticket arranged in advance. Limited attendance, no more than 25 percent of visitor capacity. And no one — staff or visitors — allowed in without a mask.
Such was the cautious way San Francisco’s de Young Museum has reopened with its special exhibit about Frida Kahlo — by contrast, one of the most dynamic, colorful and intensely celebrated artists of the 20th century.
After the months-long shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic, “Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving” is finally open, through Feb. 7, along with the rest of the de Young (certain areas, including the de Young Observation Level, de Youngsters Studio and Piazzoni Murals Room will remain closed). For everyone’s peace of mind, it helps that the museum is surrounded by 1,000 acres of Golden Gate Park.
The de Young was just the beginning as San Francisco museums return to some sense of normalcy. Also set to reopen are the Asian Art Museum, Oct. 3; S.F. Museum of Modern Art, Oct. 4; the Contemporary Jewish Museum, Oct. 17; the California Academy of Sciences, Oct. 13 to members and Oct. 23 to the general public. The Legion of Honor planned to open in mid-October, date to be announced.
For cautious visitors, the museums with the biggest galleries and the best air circulation will probably feel most comfortable. The Frida Kahlo exhibit, with a multitude of paintings, photographs, clothing and other personal items, is installed in a second-floor gallery at the de Young — not the cavernous temporary-exhibit space on the basement level.
At a recent preview, visitors moved about carefully, but clusters seemed inevitable among the smaller-scale displays and captions. Maybe museum workers, like courteous traffic cops, will need to start saying, “Move along, please.” It’s not easy when you’re engrossed in Kahlo’s childhood photographs (taken by her dad) or her book of Walt Whitman poems in Spanish.
Is it all worth it, here and at other museums as well? First, all the museums are stressing health and safety. Potential visitors will have to weigh their comfort level and their long-held desire for … what? Inspiration? Consolation? Emotional challenge? An artist’s take on this year’s political and social events? Maybe just the freedom to wander through museums again and see what you discover.
Take Frida Kahlo, the idolized Mexican painter (1907-1954), already the subject of a big retrospective at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art in 2008. “No woman in art history commands her popular acclaim,” crowed one commentator when “Appearances Can Be Deceiving” opened in New York at the beginning of 2019.
By now, she is “acclaimed” with Frida aprons and potholders, paper dolls and — for a time in 2018– Barbie dolls, Frida tequila and beer, and a little book titled “Frida Kahlo’s Pocket Wisdom.” Her image and “lifestyle” have overwhelmed her art.
When the de Young announced more than a year ago that the touring exhibit “Appearances Can Be Deceiving” would come here, the show seemed to be about her colorful Oaxacan-style clothes and her jewelry, which had been stored at her home until 2004, 50 years after her death.
But clichés can be misleading. This is a comprehensive, thoughtful exhibit, as much about her art as her costumes, and as full of photographs as it is of paintings.
The heart of the presentation is a section titled “Disability & Creativity,” and it helps reveal how Kahlo, and her art, triumphed over a life marked by illness (including polio) and injury (a near-fatal bus crash and years of complications.) Her right leg was eventually amputated; the prosthetic device and a shoe of leather and embroidered silk are on display, like relics in a shrine.
Kahlo’s marriage to Mexican artist Diego Rivera, 20 years her senior, is chronicled, as well as their life in San Francisco where he was creating murals in the early 1930s. Their divorce and their remarriage in San Francisco in 1940 is noted, when newspapers described both as “famous Mexican artists.” No longer was she simply Diego Rivera’s wife.
Curators Circe Henestrosa and Gannit Ankori have, fortunately, brought 33 Kahlo paintings and drawings into the mix.
Many self-portraits are familiar, but there are discoveries to be made.
In one, Kahlo is dressed as a nun, with a circle of thorns around her neck, drawing blood. In “Self-Portrait with Monkey” she and the monkey wear similar ribbons in their hair. In “Self Portrait with Medallion” she wears an elaborate Tehuana headdress — which, itself, is on display nearby.
In the exhibit’s last gallery, a kind of glassed-in promenade features 18 mannequins arrayed in the colorful Oaxaca-style tunics and skirts that Kahlo wore, in part as a political protest. They seem to be observing us as we inspect such personal items as the leather and metal braces she needed to walk and move freely, and plaster torso casts, one painted with a bright red hammer and sickle. (Kahlo was a lifelong Communist.)
Then there are the personal items she left behind, giving a more intimate look at an artist’s life than most museum exhibits. Among them: a bottle of Shalimar perfume, a container of Riboflavin vitamin tablets, an eyebrow pencil and a bottle of Revlon nail polish in a color called “Frosted Pink Lightning.”
The Kahlo exhibit does not “exit to the gift shop,” but into the vast and seldom-crowded American art and craft galleries of the de Young. They’re worth visiting, especially if you’ve paid the full $35 ticket price for entrance to the Kahlo show and the rest of the museum.
As other museums open, their websites will detail visiting protocols. Expect hours to be more limited, advance-ordered timed tickets required, and the number of visitor controlled. And masks, masks, masks.
The coming attractions (some are exhibits that are resuming), include “Awaken: A Tibetan Buddhist Journey Toward Enlightenment” at the Asian Art Museum (asianart.org); a retrospective for David Park, the influential Bay Area Figurative painter of the 1950s at the Museum of Modern Art (sfmoma.org) and, for an escape into the past, “Levi Strauss: A History of American Style” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (thecjm.org.)
‘FRIDA KAHLO: APPEARANCES CAN BE DECEIVING’
Through: Feb. 7; hours are 9:30 a.m.-5:15 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; open only to members and their guests on Wednesdays
Where: de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
Admission: $20-$35. 415-750-3600, deyoung.famsf.org