The kickoff in today's NFC Championship Game between the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants (go, Cheeseheads!) is not until 5:42 p.m. Which is perfect, because that gives you time to get to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and say goodbye to Frida.

She deserves a big send-off.

I usually try to keep football references out of stories about artists, but I am making an exception. If an art exhibit in the Twin Cities ever connected to average people, it is the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Walker.

By the time the curtain comes down tonight (the museum closes at 9), 110,000 people will have seen it. That makes it the most successful show the Walker has had in its new digs, which opened three years ago, and one of the Walker's largest attractions ever.

The popularity of the Kahlo exhibit (it opened in late October) reflects the appeal of the Mexican artist (she died at age 47 in 1954) whose unflinching paintings take painful looks at her life, her native country, and the country to its north that affected so much of her life with her husband, muralist Diego Rivera. But the crowds -- averaging 1,400 a day -- also show that Kahlo's paintings exploring the tensions between her Mexican and American experiences resonate here, north of the border, more than ever before.

Some who had never been inside a museum went to see Frida, and many left the Walker with tears in their eyes.

"She is a national treasure in Mexico," says Tina Tavera, a community activist and artist who wrote the Walker's Kahlo bibliography and also organized a visit by two groups of Mexican workers from the Lake Street area. "A lot of them wanted to spend the whole day at the museum because they knew they would be in tears after they saw it. They identify with a lot of the symbolism in Frida's work -- with her pride in where she came from, with the fact that living in Mexico is hard and that they have gone through so much to get here."

Kahlo's paintings had not had a major U.S. exhibition for 15 years, and the Walker's show (it moves to Philadelphia now, where it opens Feb. 20 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art), contains several paintings never before seen outside of Mexico, including the stunning and disturbing "The Two Fridas."

That large 1939 painting shows one Frida in native costume -- her exposed heart linked to a photo of Kahlo's philandering husband -- holding hands with a second Frida, in European dress, her heart torn open and blood dripping onto the hem. It's a tour de force, exhibit curator Betsy Carpenter says, one that reveals Kahlo's contending dual identities and her lifelong struggle to understand and explain herself.

Reflecting a harsh reality

When one critic said the work was surrealistic, Carpenter says, Kahlo objected. No, Frida responded, she was painting the reality of her life.

"Her work is deadly serious, but tinged with dark humor," Carpenter says. "I love that."

As an example of that dark humor, Carpenter points to a 1931 portrait by Kahlo (Frida was just 24 at the time) that depicts the great Rivera as the master painter while Kahlo, in traditional costume, stands demurely at his side, overwhelmed by her large and important husband. At the top of the painting -- where Mexican folk paintings tell horrible stories of tragedies and misfortunes -- Kahlo innocently inscribed the details of her wedding.

"Mrs. Rivera, she paints, too!" That's how Kahlo often was introduced. But her intensely powerful work, infused with suffering, defiance and longing, somehow connected with us.

That's a triumph in a state where it has been rare to find museum sensations not involving donated bodies or "Star Wars" toys. The success of Frida shows that we have a hunger for the spiritual, not just the spectacle, and for art that dissects life, not corpses.

Frida is not for the faint of heart. Her paintings are full of emblems of martyrdom and suffering that explore the losses of her life -- a miscarriage, her troubled love for Rivera, her many surgeries on a spine racked by accident and disease, her sense of isolation in the unforgiving United States and the broken landscapes of her beautiful but impoverished homeland.

Hard to look at, they are more difficult to ignore. And, somehow, they have cut through cultures and time to make a deep impact in lefse land.

For that, we can thank the Walker. Bringing art to the public, and helping us see the world through another's eyes? That's bigger than football.

Goodbye, Frida.

Vaya con Dios.

Nick Coleman • ncoleman@startribune.com