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When Diego Rivera and his young wife arrived in Detroit in 1932, he was one of the most famous artists in the world.

The Mexican muralist was just coming off a one-man show at New York's Museum of Modern Art and had been courted by millionaires Nelson Rockefeller and Edsel B. Ford, each desperate to have one of his great historical murals in their town.

But the petite woman with the smouldering gaze at his side — Frida Kahlo — was a nobody and treated as such by the Detroit press. A 1933 profile in The Detroit News noted she "dabbles" in art.

How times have changed.

Kahlo, the subject of the hit 2002 movie "Frida," has morphed into a pop-culture superstar and feminist icon, her fame today easily swamping Rivera's. To explain this, curators and art historians point to changing fashions and the compelling nature of Kahlo's personal narrative, which resonates with our self-obsessed age.

For Rivera, one-half of the current Detroit Institute of Arts blockbuster, "Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo in Detroit," it's been quite a fall from grace. (The show closes July 12.)

"Kahlo is an international superstar," says DIA director Graham Beal, "but you often have to explain to people — particularly anyone under 40 — just who Rivera was and why we should care.

"When I first visited here in the early 1970s," he adds, "Rivera looked hopelessly old-fashioned and wrong-headed — realistic, political, and in a way, propagandistic. Her art is much more in keeping with today — highly personal and intimate, full of pain and uncertainty."

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Those qualities are on full view in Kahlo's 1932 masterpiece, "Henry Ford Hospital," a mythic work included in the DIA show that features a naked Kahlo in a pool of blood after her miscarriage.

Nor is the DIA the only American museum spotlighting Kahlo this spring. The New York Botanical Garden will open "Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life" in mid-May, while Kahlo gets top billing at Florida's Nova Southeastern University Museum in "Kahlo, Rivera & Mexican Modern Art," up through May 31.

Beal isn't surprised. "Frida seems to pull people in wherever she goes," he says. "The Tate Modern (in London) had record crowds with their show, and think she did the same in Vienna with a recent exhibition there."

Mark Rosenthal, the adjunct curator who organized the DIA exhibition, agrees. "Put up a banner of Frida Kahlo," he says, "and people start lining up."

Part of this, argues Margaret A. Lindauer, author of "Devouring Frida: The Art History and Popular Celebrity of Frida Kahlo," boils down to Kahlo's remarkable narrative of triumph over adversity and suffering.

"It's just a much more seductive story," Lindauer says.

It can hardly help but captivate. Badly injured in a bus accident as a teenager, Kahlo would undergo 35 surgeries over the course of her life, suffer a devastating miscarriage, and endure her husband's philandering.

"The whole reason her story is suitable as a bio-pic," says Vince Carducci, founder and editor of the online Motown Review of Art, "has to do with that underdog aspect we always root for. Of course," he adds, "it doesn't hurt to have Salma Hayek as the film's star."

Yet as Lindauer notes, Kahlo gave as good as she got. She had her own scandalous affairs (reportedly Georgia O'Keeffe and Leon Trotsky), defied convention, and produced an impressive body of work distinctly and uniquely her own.

Rosenthal says he'd had it with the Kahlo cult before starting on the DIA exhibition. But once immersed, he had a change of heart.

How could you not admire the woman who once turned to Henry Ford, the notorious anti-Semite, to ask if he was Jewish?

Rosenthal laughs. "She was a pistol, as they say."

At the University of Michigan, Women's Studies professor Maria Cotera suggests Kahlo's greater fame is largely an American phenomenon.

"In Mexico," she says, "Rivera is still one of the 'Tres Grandes,' the three famous muralists who pretty much created the myth of Mexican identity."

Rivera's work is key to the society's understanding of itself, Cotera explains, in a way Kahlo's is not. "His work is on all the architecture of supreme importance in Mexico City," she says, whether museums or government buildings.

Still, she admits the Frida-mania north of the Rio Grande is breathtaking.

"She's like Mexico's great national export," Cotera says. "At least among the educated class in Mexico, I think there's a fair amount of amusement in the way her fame has taken off."

mhodges@detroitnews.com

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'Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo in Detroit'

Through July 12

Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit

Hours: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday & Wednesday; 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Thursday & Friday; 10 a.m .-5 p.m. Saturday & Sunday.

Exhibit tickets: $14, Tuesday-Friday; $19, Saturday & Sunday; $9, children age 6-17; free for children 5 and younger, and DIA members

Call (313) 833-4005 for reservations, or visit dia.org.

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