Published: June 10, 2008
Arguably today the most famous artist in the world, Frida Kahlo (1907‱954) was a brilliant, idiosyncratic painter who uncompromisingly recorded the painful saga of her life in numerous compelling images. An intensely creative artist, who, in spite of crippling physical restrictions, made herself into a living work of art, she captivated all who met her, including a string of famous lovers.
In contrast to the great, sweeping murals by Diego Rivera and others, for which Mexican art is best known, Kahlo’s distinctive, jewel-like paintings are small and highly personal. Some 90 percent of her vividly detailed compositions draw on her personal life, in strange, often shocking self-portraits filled with symbolism and reflections on pivotal, often painful moments in her troubled life. Kahlo’s unusual and frequently painful likenesses †she painted herself being born and having a miscarriage, for example †are absolutely unforgettable.
Her work allowed her both to express and to fabricate her identity. “I paint my own reality,” she said. “I paint because I need to.”
Known for years †if at all †as Rivera’s long-suffering wife, Kahlo emerged on her own as a global celebrity in the wake of a groundbreaking 1983 biography by Hayden Herrera and a movie based on the book. (Herrera herself cites “feminism, the Chicano movement and multiculturalism” as factors in making Kahlo an “international cult figure.”) It is fitting, therefore, that marking the centennial of the artist’s birth, Herrera should curate (with Walker Art Center associate curator Elizabeth Carpenter) “Frida Kahlo,” a comprehensive survey of her work that opened at the Walker, traveled to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through September 16. It comprises more than 40 of the Mexican artist’s self-portraits, portraits, allegorical and symbolic paintings and still lifes, drawn from collections all over the world.
Born soon after the dawn of the Twentieth Century in Coyoacan, a suburb of Mexico City, Kahlo was the daughter of Guillermo Kahlo, a German Hungarian immigrant photographer, and Matilde Calderon, a devout Catholic of Mexican Indian and Spanish descent. Kahlo grew up in the Casa Azul (Blue House), maintained today virtually in its original state as the Museo Frida Kahlo, filled with artwork, painting utensils, books, clothing and furnishings.
A family portrait, taken when she was 18, shows Kahlo wearing her father’s three-piece suit, tie and shoes †a reflection of her unconventionality and perhaps her sexual ambiguity. “Kahlo’s interrogation and testing of Catholic, patriarchal and bourgeois mores was a primary motivation throughout her life, ultimately helping her define her identity as an artist and informing the art that she produced,” writes Carpenter in the catalog. Eccentric and talented, Kahlo’s life unfolded on a parallel course with the development of Mexico as a modern nation.
“My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree),” 1936, shows Kahlo as an infant, standing in the Blue House, framed by a portrait of her parents based on a wedding photograph, with a fetus overlaying her mother’s wedding dress and images of her grandparents above and to either side of the couple. It suggests her mixed European-Mexican Indian roots.
Kahlo and Rivera shared a passion for Mexican art and culture; their collection of pre-Columbian works numbered in the thousands. Her knowledge of such art is suggested by “My Nurse and I/My nana y yo,” 1937, in which a tiny, adult Frida is suckled in the arms of her large Indian wet nurse, who wears a Teotihuacán stone mask.
Kahlo began painting in 1926 while recuperating from injuries incurred in a bus collision when a metal pole pierced her abdomen and injured her spine, as well as badly damaging her right foot. These injuries, in addition to leg damage caused by a childhood bout with polio, plagued her throughout the remainder of her life.
In 1929, she married the notoriously philandering painter Diego Rivera (1886‱957), a larger-than-life figure 21 years her senior, who was already famous as a muralist. She recorded their turbulent, on-again/off-again relationship in paint. This exhibition suggests that Rivera was correct when he said that Kahlo was a better painter than he was.
Kahlo’s early works, heavily influenced by European styles, were largely conventional, such as “Self-Portrait/Autorretrato,” 1930. From the start, her self-likenesses emphasized her pronounced unibrow eyebrow.
Kahlo’s 1931 double portrait shows her tiny self wearing an indigenous Mexican costume and a ribbon over her head symbolizing her marriage, a feature borrowed from Spanish colonial painting, holding hands with a towering Rivera, brushes and palette in hand. At the outset, at least, she presented herself as the wife of the famous painter.
Kahlo began to reinvent herself as she and her husband moved in a cosmopolitan circle of artists and intellectuals in Mexico City bent on defying bourgeois traditions. Soon, she was asserting a distinctively adventuresome artistic, political and sexual identity. She became an ardent Mexican nationalist and fervent communist.
Between 1930 and 1933, while living primarily in the United States, Kahlo’s work shifted to a folkloric mode based on Nineteenth Century Mexican portraiture, infused with her own innate fantasies. This unique personal vocabulary is reflected in a small, surreal oil on metal, “Henry Ford Hospital,” 1932, inspired by her miscarriage in Detroit. She lies naked on bloodied sheets, surrounded by symbols such as a male fetus, with the industrial skyline of the city in the background. This is said to be the first work of art created specifically to depict the death of an unborn child and the suffering and isolation that ensue.
Tears stream down her cheeks in the chilling “The Broken Column/La columna rota,” 1944, in which her torso is split open, revealing a cracked Ionic column that replaces her deteriorating spine. It was painted during a period when she was forced to wear a steel orthopedic corset. The nails piercing her body represent arrows that in Christian iconography symbolize the spiritual ecstasy of martyrdom.
Not all her pain was physical. In 1934, after discovering that Rivera was having an affair with her younger sister, Cristina, Kahlo painted nothing for a year. She and Rivera eventually reconciled, but he continued to philander and she retaliated by having affairs of her own with, among others, sculptor Isamu Noguchi and Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who sought asylum in Mexico in 1937.
The trajectory of her ill-starred life can be traced through the series of remarkable self-portraits she created throughout her career. “Her devotion to her own image,” says former Walker Art Center director Kathy Halbreich, “was her way of better understanding where she stood in a universe of shifting emotions, politics and affections.” Many show her immobilized and alone, cut off from everything but her reflection in a mirror. Sometimes the theme of loneliness in her work is linked to her childlessness. “I lost three children,” she said. “Painting is a substitute for all of that.”
Her rage and feelings of isolation are reflected in “Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird,” 1940, in which she seems to compare her sufferings to those of Christ. “Frida Kahlo, Me and My Parrots/Yo y mis pericos,” 1941, offers a more tranquil, even regal image of the artist, here surrounded by birds with individual personalities.
After Surrealist writer and theoretician Andre Breton dubbed her in 1938 a self-invented Surrealist whose art was like “a ribbon around a bomb,” Kahlo had her first solo show at the Julian Levy Gallery in New York City. The following year, she participated in an exhibition in Paris organized by Breton and met Pablo Picasso and Juan Miró. She sold her tiny, intriguing “The Frame,” 1937″8, a colorful oil on aluminum self-portrait under painted glass surrounded by a painted wood frame, to the Louvre.
Kahlo’s health continued to decline in the 1940s, when a series of spinal surgeries led to self-portraits as heroic sufferer. The high protein diet that was prescribed for her is suggested in “Without Hope/Sin esperanza,” 1945, showing the bedridden artist being force-fed revolting foods through a funnel topped by a skull. “That which is intended to be nutritious and revitalizing becomes poisonous, a death sentence,” observe the exhibition curators.
“Her self-portraits,” says Herrera, “were painted in order to confirm her tenuous hold on life&[They are] invocations. But Frida Kahlo did not invoke supernatural powers; rather she summoned forces deep within herself.”
Her tumultuous marriage to Rivera ended temporarily in 1939 when they divorced, but they remarried in 1940, with the understanding that their relationship would be based on mutual independence. In the early 1950s, Kahlo spent a year in the hospital undergoing seven more operations on her spine. Upon returning home, she painted a series of still lifes that supplemented some that she had painted in the 1930s, like “Still Life: Pitahayas/Naturaleza muerta: Pitahayas,” 1938, a precise composition filled with Mexican and sexual references. One strange image, “Still Life with Parrot and Fruit/Naturaleza muerta con loro y frutas,” 1951, is a vividly colored display of fruits that carry sexual messages while reflecting Mexican market display practices †and perhaps the surgeries she endured.
Thereafter, increasingly dependent on pain medicines, her control of brushstrokes deteriorated and, therefore, the quality of her output. She was further depressed after a leg was amputated in 1953. That year, on the occasion of her first exhibition in Mexico, the ever-theatrical Kahlo defied her doctor’s orders and attended the opening, where she received guests while reclining on a four-poster bed. Shortly before her death a year later she wrote: “I hope the exit is joyful †and I hope never to come back&”
In addition to being one of the most-photographed artists of all time, Kahlo was a collector herself. More than 100 photographs from her personal collection, taken by her father and such prominent photographers as Tina Modotti and Carl Van Vechten, complement the paintings in the exhibition. These images, with Rivera, family, friends and in important locations, help round out the picture of a tempestuous but productive life.
More than a half-century after her death, Kahlo’s work lives on, conveying powerful messages of suffering and survival, pain and freedom, loss and hope. There is much in this fascinating exhibition to ponder and digest. Frida Kahlo continues to move all of us to a greater degree than she could ever have imagined.
While the current “Frida-mania” †her face graces T-shirts, coffee mugs and jewelry †is bound to abate, over the long run, her art and symbolism will endure. As Herrera writes, “In spite of having become an icon of popular culture, in spite of the commercialization of her image, Frida Kahlo’s importance will continue to grow as new generations discover both the magnetic power of her paintings and the extraordinary story those paintings tell.”
The 320-page, illustrated exhibition catalog features essays by Herrera (about Kahlo’s influence on contemporary artists, including Sarah McEneaney and Kiki Smith), Carpenter and art historian Victor Zamudio-Taylor, and other helpful material. Published by Walker Art Center and available through DAP/Distributed Art Publishers, it sells for $49.95, hardcover. Also highly recommended is Herrera’s Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo (Harper Colophon Books, 1983).
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