When Madonna blew through Detroit on a rare visit last June, she put her concern for the city front and center, dropping in on worthy organizations from a charter elementary school to a startup that helps outfit the homeless for winter.
The superstar did not, however, stop by the Detroit Institute of Arts, despite the fact that curators had been trying for over a year to win her agreement to a loan of the seminal painting, Frida Kahlo's "My Birth," for the DIA's upcoming exhibition, "Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit." The exhibition opens March 15.
Hayden Herrera, who wrote the definitive biography of Kahlo, called the painting's absence from the show "a huge omission."
"My Birth" is one of five paintings Kahlo completed in Detroit, of which the DIA secured three. Like Kahlo's "Henry Ford Hospital," which will be in the show, "My Birth" represents a turning point in the young artist's career, when she began using her own body and experience as subject matter, often to shocking effect.
"We tried to get it," said Mark Rosenthal, DIA adjunct curator for contemporary art who organized the show. "You have no idea what we went through. But I can't describe all that."
Madonna's New York publicist Liz Rosenberg wrote in an email, "We will not be commenting on this."
A loan to a museum would not have been unprecedented. Madonna allowed London's Tate Modern to exhibit "My Birth," which shows a bloody, adult-looking Kahlo emerging from between her mother's legs, as part of their 2005 Kahlo show.
Nor is this apparently a case of indifference. Madonna is said to be deeply attached to the painting. In a 1990 essay in the New York Times, author Herrera said the one-time Detroiter uses the painting as a test.
"Those who do not like 'My Birth,' " she wrote, "are dismissed."
According to Herrera, the painting —finished shortly after Kahlo returned to Detroit after her mother's death — refers both to that loss and Kahlo's own miscarriage at Henry Ford Hospital on July 4, 1932.
Kahlo came to Detroit early in 1932 with Rivera, her husband, who'd been commissioned to paint the "Detroit Industry" murals at the DIA. While Kahlo painted before her arrival in the Motor City, it was here that her art shifted toward Surrealism.
"In Detroit, she had these powerful emotional upheavals," Rosenthal said, "which became the impetus to paint her interior life. Diego recognized it right away," he added, "as something unseen in art history — a woman painting her emotional life in such a vulnerable, unabashed way."
Bad enough to lose out on a critical work, even if the others in the DIA show are likely to wow visitors. But the museum's never gotten a firm answer one way or another from the superstar or her representatives.
"There are people at the museum who still hope," Rosenthal said, "but my wife calls that magical thinking."
Of Madonna, Vince Carducci, editor of the online Motown Review of Art and dean of undergraduate studies at the College for Creative Studies, said, "People are funny. You never can tell with collectors. My suspicion is that the request never bubbled up to her. Or," he added, "maybe she was going to have Kate Middleton to lunch and needed it as a litmus test."
Detroit News Staff Writer Louis Aguilar contributed.