Victim or Victrix: The Freight of Frida Kahlo

The COVID-19 lockdown has forced art galleries to close and important exhibitions to be cancelled. It’s made Sue Harper, Emeritus Professor of Film History at the University of Portsmouth, think a lot about curatorship and about the concepts which structure the exhibitions she’s been to see in the last year or so. A memorable one was related to the iconic Mexican artist and political activist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954).

I think there have been some selective, sentimental and wrong-headed shows which give a very biased interpretation of major artists. The one which most stuck in my mind was Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It was not a straightforward collection of artworks by Kahlo. Rather, it attempted to forge a link between her physical appearance, the persona she constructed and her paintings.

The event was a major success. It sold out early, and the museum prolonged it by two weeks in an attempt to satisfy public demand. On my (admittedly flimsy) evidence of two visits, the clientele appeared to be almost entirely female. This is, perhaps, because the type of femininity espoused by Kahlo – florid, feisty, assertive, wounded – has become deeply attractive, in that it presents gender as a masquerade. And also because the title of the exhibition suggested that Kahlo (and perhaps all women) have a creative agency that can be ushered in by their persona of choice.

Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up was accompanied by a sumptuous official publication edited by Claire Wilcox and Circe Henestrosa: not a catalogue exactly, but a series of academic articles filling in some of the information gaps for the objects on display. The exit was through the gift shop, which was more like a changing room than anything, since it sold facsimiles of Frida’s clothes and jewellery. I’m not sneering at this in any way, since I myself came away laden with bags, earrings and shawls which (I realised later) did not suit me at all. This is because I, like almost every other attendee, was in the grip of a full-blown personality cult. The implications of this cult were admirably laid out by Jenny Valentish in a 2018 Guardian article, where she traced the commodification of Kahlo and speculated about the consequences of this for art history.

The materials for the exhibition were the contents immured in Kahlo’s room in her Blue House in Mexico City, which were brought to light in 2004. Kahlo died in 1954, and the room had been shut up for 50 years. Imagine how it must have seemed to those who opened the door: like piercing a Pharaoh’s tomb, and seeing the ‘wonderful things’ through the crack in the door. Every material thing which Kahlo used to create her own image was there: her cosmetics, her painkilling drugs, her painted corsets, her prosthetic leg. And her clothes.

It is hard to underemphasise the impact of the huge glass case containing her wardrobe. The rest of the exhibition had dimmed lights: but in this last room, in dazzling focus, her clothes were worn by pallid Frida models, and the outfits glowed like jewels. The ensembles challenged the laws of fashion and ‘good taste’. Their wearer chose them in order to display her own admiration for Tehuana culture: the loose overblouses, the embroidery, the dramatic shawls, the swirling skirts. Kahlo cared nothing for the rules of muted and complementary shades, and indeed each ensemble seemed to try to pack in as many clashing colours as possible. The vibrant femininity in the outfits was used (so the curators tell us) for concealment as well as for display. The loose tops were easy to slide on top of the surgical corsets: the broad skirts could hide a withered or amputated leg. The whole experience was intensified by the electronic music of Ben and Max’s Soundscapes, which create a keening counterpoise to the lush visual texture.

Kahlo had a German father and Mexican mother, and until her young adulthood, lived a fairly unexceptional middle-class life in Mexico City. Intellectual and political ferment in Mexico influenced her politics – she was a communist – and also her racial attitudes. It was her deliberate choice to adopt Tehuana dress and also vernacular visual culture. So her work and her persona can be seen as a kind of battleground between European and other cultures.

The objects found in the secret room in the Blue House were surrounded by explanatory notices at the V & A. The focus of the exhibition was on Kahlo’s painstaking creation of her public persona, and her whole life was presented as performance art of the highest order. Some 15 of her self-portraits were selected, and a strong focus given to her disabilities, which were profound, extensive and ultimately fatal. The tears, the wounds, the bloody foetus and the suppurating leg were presented as the artist’s scourge and also her apotheosis. The curators made Kahlo seem more morbid than she probably was, and they tried to adduce her into modern culture’s habits of self-obsession. In the foreword to the exhibition book, the sponsor (Grosvenor) argued that: ‘politically charged, strikingly original, and unafraid to celebrate herself, Kahlo has been dubbed the original selfie queen.’

So far so good. The exhibition summoned our pity and admiration. And yet… and yet… there were aspects of the whole event that made me profoundly uneasy. Surely it is not through their shell, or their detritus, that artists can best be understood, but by their brushstrokes or their words? It does them a disservice to reduce them to their things. And would a male artist’s suffering, or the trappings of his disability, be focused on as the sole explanation for his work? I think not. We don’t have a whole exhibition featuring Van Gogh’s madness or Alexander Pope’s hunched back or Gaugin’s syphilis or Dr Johnson’s OCD: we don’t have vitrines displaying a severed ear or a broken walking stick. And this is because it is still convenient to focus on women artists as victims: valiant ones, but victims nonetheless.

Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait with Monkeys. Credit: Mudec Milano, via Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license.

It strikes me that, fascinating though this exhibition was, it did a disservice to Kahlo, in that it oversimplified her work. She was an artist of the highest calibre, and her work demands a much more rigorous level of engagement than it received here. The level of commentary on the paintings in this exhibition was often jejeune. Self-Portrait with Monkeys (1943) is, we were told, showing the monkeys as ‘surrogate children’. This was just lazy. Rather, the painting is engaging with the natural world in a complex manner, and is holding together, in a nuanced way, the contradictions between the artist’s attraction and repulsion. Another example of such sloppiness was the comment on the sublime The Love-Embrace of the Universe (1949): ‘Kahlo appears like a Madonna with Rivera as her child.’ What was not noticed is the mythic third eye in Diego’s forehead, and the determining structure of the whole painting, with the embracing arms of the female Earth. It is she who is the Ur-Mother, not Frida.

Frida Kahlo, The Love Embrace of the Universe. Credit: Mudec Milano, via Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license.

The real problem with Making Herself Up was that it was constrained by the biographical impulse. It was based upon a specific body of found evidence, and the richness of the cache inhibited any radical interpretative risks about the whole trajectory of the artistic career itself. So we had an exclusive focus on Frida the victim, the suffering female body, the brave warrior. But not much about the texture of the works, their debts or influences. I felt, when I came out of the exhibition, that I had learned a lot about the indomitable human spirit. But not enough about why Kahlo painted as she did, and what exactly encouraged the emergence of her type of innovation.

Hayden Herrera’s masterly biography Frida, which was first published in 1983, gives some useful information about Kahlo’s intellectual background and artistic progenitors. Much can be learned from Herrera. She scotches the notion that Diego Rivera (Kahlo’s husband) was her sole inspiration and mentor. Rather, Rivera fed on her energies, as Kahlo herself remarked: ‘I suffered two grave accidents in my life. One in which a streetcar knocked me down … The other accident is Diego’. (Herrera, p. 107) Herrera also lays out, in admirable detail, the complexity of Kahlo’s response to the Mexican votive painting tradition. This was touched on briefly in the exhibition, but what is clear from Herrera’s work is that, for post-revolutionary Mexican artists, it was politically expedient to quote from the ‘native’ (rather than European) tradition. The flatness and linearity – and, to some degree, literalness – of the vernacular tradition were a crucial part of the painterly rhetoric for artists of the period. Kahlo shared that with Rivera and others: but she surpassed and transcended it through her technique.

And here’s the rub. There is much more afoot in Kahlo’s work than the V & A told us. Technically she offers a very high level of achievement. There is a dissonance between the mood her paintings evoke and the representational techniques they deploy. Without exception, all her paintings evoke an extreme emotional turbulence which is masked by an unusually smooth surface. She mainly uses oils, but seems to have made a lot of effort to avoid impasto – that roughness of visual texture which comes from laying the paint on so thickly that you can see the effort of creation. Rather, the surface of her paintings seem not burnished, but matt, almost as though they had been sandpapered down to a silky smoothness. In The Bride Frightened at Seeing Life (1943), for example, the opulent, juicy and frankly sexual fruits have been painted with a dry precision. It looks almost like a gouache or tempera, although it is just oil on canvas. And this extremely matt quality has the effect of making all the objects equidistant from the viewer in her paintings. She refuses the comforts of perspective and makes the act of viewing democratic. She shows the boot, the parrot, the hair-plait: ‘here we are: make of us what you will.’

Thematically too Kahlo is more complex that the V & A’s ‘victim’ reading allowed. It seems to me that she is an artist who carries an unusual amount of freight: poised uneasily between European traditions of iconography, and those of Mexico. A close examination of Self-Portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States (1932) shows that she is never sentimental about Mexico (though many of her fans are). It is this very concentration on conflict – on differing planes and textures – which provides the creative tension in her work. She is a boundary walker par excellence between the rough and the smooth, the populist and the Marxist, the decorated and the plain, the male and the female. And to think about her just in terms of an empty womb or a missing foot, or to see her as a ‘selfie artist’, does not offer a real understanding of her greatness.

In a comprehensive exhibition of Kahlo’s work at the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest from July to November 2018, the final room was given over to photographs of women’s outfits inspired by her style. There were the clothes: vibrant, layered, risk-taking. There were the women wearing them: laughing or scowling at the camera. They cared nothing for fashion, not they. They were not victims, and they were unfettered. And that’s how I’d rather conceive of Kahlo: both the artist and her works at home everywhere, not just in the Blue House. And the object of no-one’s pity.


Main image via Wikimedia Commons: ‘Frida Kahlo, seated next to an agave plant, from a 1937 photo shoot for Vogue entitled “Señoras of Mexico”‘ by Toni Frissell’, from the Toni Frissell collection at the Library of Congress.

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