In the late 1930s Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera spent time in San Francisco and became friendly with a doctor at the San Francisco General Hospital. Dr. Eloesser became a lifelong friend of the two artists and over the course of several decades corresponded with Frida through written letters. She turned to him for advice about aliments, surgeries and her dream to have a baby.
The Museo Frida Kahlo exhibition “Leo Eloesser: la medicina y el dolor en la obra de Frida Kahlo. Una relacion epistolary” which ran from August 26 through November 19, 2005 focused on this relationship. Featured in the signage and publications for the exhibition is a painting called Portrait of Dr. Eloesser by Kahlo. Given to the doctor by Frida, while painted on an extended visit to San Francisco, the painting still hangs in the SFGH today. I had the extreme pleasure of working with the University of California San Francisco Dean’s office of the School of Medicine, which owns the paintings via to facilitate the loan of this and Diego Rivera’s Tortilla Maker, also owned by the University, to the Frida Kahlo Museum. The San Francisco General Hospital Foundation underwrote my work.
This was the first exhibition of any outside objects to come into the museum. Upon Frida’s death Diego signed a proclamation stating that no possessions shall ever leave Frida’s Blue House. This house is now the museum that features her possessions and paintings. Coordinator Hilda Trillo has begun envisioning and curating exhibitions that allow the museum to rotate through objects from the museum’s extensive storage. She couples them with artifacts and paintings of Frida’s from other parts of Mexico and the world.
It was serendipitous that I was contracting with the San Francisco General Hospital Foundation as the Artist Liaison when the Mexican Consulate of San Francisco began their search for the Doctor Eloesser painting. They had heard that it was owned by some institution in San Francisco but had little clue about its location. Having just been asked to raise funds for the restoration of these paintings I thought it would be appropriate to notify that Mexican Consulate of their existence as a possible funding source and to establish relations with Frida’s home country. When I called and spoke with their Cultural Attache, Jonathan Chait, he nearly fell out of his seat. He couldn’t believe that I was calling about the Frida painting that he was assigned to locate. After visiting the paintings the Consul General and his wife Virginia Clausing, who is a former museum administrator, determined that both the Frida and Diego paintings must be in the exhibition, after all it was about the three friends.
From there began months of facilitating negotiations between the Frida Kahlo Museum and UCSF. The timeline was short and the University was very excited to loan the paintings. It was the bureaucracy; paperwork and funding that were at issue. After countless phone calls, emails and collaboration with UCSF School of Medicine Dean’s office staff we were able to confirm the loan of the works. At this point I had already moved to Houston so I was making extended trips back to San Francisco on a regular basis, for this and other consulting projects.
The Frida Kahlo Museum, as a thank you and as an opportunity to view the exhibition and witness the removal of the paintings, brought me down to Mexico City. The remarkable exhibition featured several letters between Frida and the Doctor, six of her medical corsets (which I had seen on a previous visit in May 2005 when the museum took me into her private collection of clothing and corsets) and her fake leg adorned with one of her beautiful boots. The two paintings from San Francisco were featured alongside signage about the Doctor and his work at SFGH. Like Frida and Diego, upon his death he lived in Mexico and was a Communist - giving some insight into how deeply connected these three friends were in many ways.
I was able to take the banner of the exhibition that hung outside the Frida Kahlo Museum back with me to Houston and I will send it to UCSF. Hopefully it will be displayed at SFGH to commemorate the loan of these special works to the museum. Seeing the two paintings removed from the walls of Frida’s house after the exhibition was very emotional. They symbolized the two artists and we thought of them as we watched the historic exhibition disappear into storage as if it never happened. Thankfully the museum is publishing both a Spanish and English version of the letters from Frida to Dr. Eloesser for publication in 2006.