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Photographing Frida Kahlo

The famed Mexican artist is the subject of a new exhibition

When her father died in November 1965, Mimi Muray was 22 and had just come to Utah to work at the Alta Lodge. She returned right away to New York City.

Her father, Nickolas Muray, had been a photographer. He was an early virtuoso with color film. His work appeared in all the big magazines. He photographed Fred Astaire, Martha Graham, Douglas Fairbanks, Greta Garbo and dozens more.

Muray took photos of Diego Rivera, the famed Mexican artist. And he took photos of Rivera's wife, Frida Kahlo, who was also an artist.

At the time Kahlo was probably one of the least famous of Muray's subjects. But her surrealistic self-portraits have become more widely known in the 50 years since her death. A major motion picture and a spate of documentaries have explored her tortured relationship with Rivera. (He had affairs, including with her sister. She had affairs, including with Leon Trotsky.) Her pain is evident in her work.

Muray took dozens of portraits of Kahlo. He took portraits of her in his studio when she came to New York. He went to Mexico often, where he photographed her in her own studio, or sitting outside, next to the wall of her bright blue home.

Muray used a timer once in awhile, so that he could be in the same photo with Kahlo. It is in one of these portraits that her hand can be seen lingering on his cheek. Here is proof, in case anyone needed proof, that for 10 years, before he married the woman who would become Mimi's mother, Nickolas Muray and Frida Kahlo were lovers.

Mimi Muray only stayed a few months in New York after her father died. Eventually, her mother thanked her for her help in the midst of their mutual grief, but also told her she could go back to Alta, if the job was still available.

As it turned out, the job was still open and Mimi Muray has made her home in Utah ever since. In time, she married Bill Levitt, who became mayor of Alta.

Over the years, Mimi Levitt made lots of friends in Utah. It was through her friends — who had seen her father's photos of Frida Kahlo — that photos of Kahlo came to be on display at the Utah Museum of Fine Art beginning Oct. 8. Some of the photos will also be for sale, for one night only on Saturday, as part of a fiesta fund-raiser for the Sharing Place.

The Sharing Place is a grief support center for children and their parents. Levitt hadn't heard much about the Sharing Place until her friends came to to ask for her help. She consented at once, she says, because she thought the party they were planning sounded fun and she found the fiesta to be fitting, somehow, as a memorial for her father.

The idea of a fiesta is not a new idea for the Sharing Place, explained volunteer coordinator Cecilie Mattison. The grief support center has traditionally held a fiesta in October and invited the families who have lost a loved one, as well as the community. But this year's fiesta is a step up. It's a more major fund-raising effort for this nonprofit organization, which depends on donations and grants.

Mattison said 170 children (from the ages of 3 1/2 through teens) come twice a month to the Sharing Place, where they meet and play with others their age. Paid therapists supervise and volunteers play with them. By sharing their feelings, the children begin to heal from the loss of a parent or sibling. Sharing Place counselors say statistics show that without such healing, children are at greater risk for depression, truancy and, eventually, substance abuse.

There are currently 111 families on a waiting list for Sharing Place services, said Mattison. Families can stay in the program for as long as they wish once they are in it, and they usually stay for about two years.

As Mimi Levitt was growing up, her father knew many celebrities. The fact that Kahlo's paintings hung in their home did not strike her as particularly significant. At some point, perhaps when she was a teen, her mother showed her letters written by famous people to her father. Kahlo's letters, along with her father's previous marriages, made Levitt realize that her mother was not the first woman Nickolas Muray had loved.

She asked him about it, she recalls. "I said, 'You've had many loves and many women,' and my dad said, 'Yes. But I have never loved more than one woman at a time, and I always wanted to marry every one of them.' . . . And he never had any other loves after he married my mom."

According to Muray's biographer, Muray's relationship with Kahlo had cooled by the time he met Peggy Schwab. Schwab became the mother of Muray's two surviving children, Levitt and her brother Chris.

Levitt says the biographer, Salomon Grimberg, actually knows more about her father's relationship with Frida than she and her brother do. Recently Grimberg collaborated with Levitt to publish a collection of Kahlo and Muray's letters, and his photos of her. The book, "I Will Never Forget You . . . Frida Kahlo to Nickolas Muray," came out last year.

At the Sharing Place fiesta, Grimberg and Levitt will meet for the first time, face to face. They'll sign books together.

The book's title, "I Will Never Forget You," is a quote from one of Kahlo's letters to Muray. Grimberg believes Muray read more into Frida's passion for him than there really was. In 1939, when Kahlo and Rivera divorced, Grimberg believes Muray was quite disappointed. He had hoped she'd marry him — but in fact Kahlo was not over Rivera and would never be over Rivera. Kahlo and Rivera fought bitterly but eventually remarried.

Grimberg wrote, "In the back of his mind, Nick might have held out hope that sooner or later she would tire of his (Rivera's) gratuitous cruelty to her and then be free to come to him. What he did not consider was Frida's masochism."

Muray was not so masochistic. He gave up loving Kahlo and remained her friend, and Rivera's friend as well. The latter friendship fascinates Levitt, now. She hopes Grimberg can someday tell her more about her father's relationship with Rivera.

Kahlo had been in a terrible bus accident when she was a young woman. Her spine and her leg pained her for the rest of her life. In her paintings, one can see physical pain as well as emotional pain. Hearts bleed and tears fall and spines are encased in clamps.

Kahlo had many operations. She couldn't carry a pregnancy to term, though she longed for a child. Years after the accident, she got gangrene and her damaged leg had to be amputated.

She painted through it all, even when lying flat on her back or sitting in a wheelchair. She died at 41. At the last of her life, however, she worked these words into one of her paintings, "Viva La Vida." Long Live Life.

"Viva la vida," quotes Mattison. When they heard those words, the Sharing Place staff knew what to call their fiesta. It's what the families learn when they come to the Sharing Place, says Mattison. "The people who died live on through us. They will always be part of us."

And this year, along with the silent auction and the tours of the museum and the food and the music ("Latin Experience" and "The Royal Heritage Ensemble") there will be an altar, much like an altar you would see in Mexico this time of year. It is in October that Mexicans celebrate The Day of the Dead. It is in October that they feel especially close to those who have gone before — and they celebrate those lives.

You don't have to write a message for the altar, Mattison said. But if you want to take part in the interactive exhibit, it is there. "People can write a memory or a thought about the person who died. They can say something they wished they'd said, or take back something they wish they hadn't said." People will also be able to have their photos taken, putting their faces above colorful Mexican costumes.

As for Levitt, she says her father's photography has been underappreciated. There's been a retrospective here and there. His photos are part of the permanent collection at the George Eastman House Museum of International Photography and Film in Rochester, N.Y. And his photos of Kahlo are on display right now at the Tate Modern in London — accompanying Kahlo's paintings.

"But he has been very under-recognized and we are trying to change that," she says. So Levitt is understandably glad for this opportunity. Yet it is more than that. She is touched, she says, by what the Sharing Place volunteers and staff do for families. It pleases her that their party, this year, also honors her father.

If you go

What: Viva La Vida dinner, music, art, book signing, auction

Where: Utah Museum of Fine Art, University of Utah

When: October 8, 6:30 p.m.

How much: $75 (museum members, $65)

Phone: Taking reservations through Oct. 3, 466-6730


Also: The photo exhibit runs through May 14, 2006