(1907 - 1954)
In the United States it's the year of the skeletons. Teenagers carry them, dangling from their keychains. They wear them embossed on leather jackets and printed on sneakers, or mix them with pink Hello Kitty motifs on pocketbooks and socks. On the train from Philadelphia, two African-American girls headed for Newark were dressed in matching black hoodies, embroidered with red sequined roses and sporting huge skulls and crossbones. Across the skulls ran ribbon-like banners with the words "Love Kills Slowly" in gothic type.
In Mexico, of course, it is always the year of the skeletons. Although the Day of the Dead is celebrated in November, skulls hover in the dark corners of houses and psyches year-round, along with the ghosts of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, carbine belts crisscrossed over their chests. For Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, it was always the year of "Love Kills Slowly." Or so it seems when you know her story.
By now half of the Americas must have heard the tale of the girl from Coyocán who was injured in a horrendous trolley accident, miraculously survived to become a painter and married the famous Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera. Today the legends of her passion for Diego, his betrayals, her love affairs and her sufferings are repeated as if they were the Stations of the Cross.
I was returning by train from the Frida Kahlo show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art when I saw the two girls, their arms draped around each other, sitting in the seat across from mine. How very Frida, I thought. But the girls, dressed in a kind of Hells Angels Arty-meets-Ghetto Chic, were wearing duds inspired by tattoo artist Ed Hardy. They may have never heard of the diminutive painter from Coyocán. Hardy, who grew up in Southern California and studied at the San Francisco Art Institute, of course had.
Frida Kahlo iconography began years ago with books and postcards and now includes buttons, posters, tote bags, sequined patches, bejeweled altars and statuettes. They are part of a tidal wave of Mexican pop culture surging across the border. The land of the pilgrims, in its thirst for an endless supply of cheap labor, is awash in chrysanthemums and rancheras, papel picado, wrestling masks and chulo tatoos. The baroquely decorated sugar skulls of Mexico have floated north and mingled with our own dark, twenty-first century perspective to create a Pan-American idiom that's spreading from Oaxaca to L.A., from Tijuana to Newark.
But amidst the mariachis and the tin milagros charms, Frida and the legend of her suffering have taken on a power that sometimes seems to exceed everything else. In certain Mexican neighborhoods on both sides of the border, she has even begun to replace the Virgin of Guadalupe in people's hearts.
With the aura of martyrdom radiating from her beautiful head, Frida has her multitudes of worshippers, but she has detractors too. Just the mention of her name causes some folks to snort with contempt. They usually refer to Madonna's over-priced art acquisitions, the tote bags and other paraphanalia and Julie Taymor's 2002 movie starring Salma Hayek. They roll their eyes, then quickly change the subject. Almost everyone has an opinion about Frida, although, if you press them, it may turn out they have never actually seen her work--just the T-shirts and refrigerator magnets.
My own first encounter with Frida came by way of a misidentified postcard in the early 1980s, just as she was beginning to be rediscovered outside Mexico. While browsing in a small shop one day, I found a card that showed twin Mexican women holding hands. They were connected by a red vein that wrapped around their arms and necks and led from two hearts that, rather than being inside their bodies, were attached to the fronts of their chests. One woman held a pair of scissors and, where she had snipped the vein, blood spilled onto her white, Victorian dress. I snatched up the compelling postcard and flipped it over to see who the artist might be. "Diego Rivera" read the credit. Wow! I thought with amazement, he certainly is a painter with many faces!
I bought the unsettling 5" X 6" image and taped it to my kitchen cabinet, next to a picture of Zapata by Rivera and under an erotic Japanese print. There it stayed for a year until a friend who worked at the Museo del Barrio came to have coffee at my house. "Oh, you have a postcard of a Frida Kahlo work," she said with interest. And that's when I learned that my 5" X 6" "Diego Rivera painting" was actually produced by his better half.
Now, after years of seeing the reproductions and hearing the stories, I wanted to experience the real thing. So, in the middle of May, I headed to Philadelphia to see the Frida Kahlo exhibition, with my painter friend Judith and Fiona, her eleven-year-old daughter. Despite the onslaught of Frida stories and Frida tchachkas, would it be possible to really see her paintings with a clear eye? I wondered. I aimed to find out.
Inside the museum, we waited in line for about 40 minutes, snaking past two small Diego Rivera frescos--Liberation of the Peon and Sugar Cane--both painted in 1931. They were stunning works, but the crowd of Frida fans ignored them. Maybe they were boycotting Diego on account of his sexual infidelities. Or maybe they weren't in the habit of using their eyes.
Agrarian Leader Zapata. 1931. Diego Rivera
At last we found ourselves face-to-face with the 1943 oil on canvas, Self Portrait with Monkeys, placed at the front of the show as the signature Frida Kahlo work. Kahlo was 36 when she painted this canvas, in the middle of her career. She stares out at the viewer, head turned slightly to the side, looking at once self-possessed and wary. Behind her an orange and blue bird-of-paradise flower bristles against huge tropical leaves. She is surrounded by four black, capuchin monkeys--one on either shoulder, and two peeping through the foliage--like tiny, wizened shamans. The two on her shoulders curl their arms and tails around her, as if to pull her into their mysterious world.
Kahlo did have pet monkeys, but here, I think, biography leads us astray. These are not pets but spirits, come from another place. There is something of Gauguin's Tahiti and something of Roussou's Dream. Kahlo wears a red talisman at her neck like some sort of Indian healer. Her dark eyes stare out, as if from a Roman funerary portrait, ancient yet baldly modern. The garish colors and bold composition are arresting, but they are repellent too.
As we stood jockeying for a place in front of the painting, the crowds with their earphones and audio cassettes swarmed on all sides. In a fit of claustrophobia, we made a break for the next few rooms, past an assortment of photographs of Frida, to see an early self-portrait, painted when she was 23 and recently married to the already well-established Rivera.
The young woman who looks out from this canvas holds her head at the same angle as she does in the self portrait with monkeys, painted 12 years later. But here she wears a simple blue dress and sits in a traditional high-backed wooden chair, in front of a pink stucco wall.
Without the symbolism and tropical sheen of many of her later self-portraits to distract us, we can see the design strategies that will characterize Kahlo's work throughout her career--the static composition and flattening of space; the simple, bold treatment of the face that harkens back to early Renaissance and Roman painting via Modigliani. Most of all, we encounter the disconcertingly direct gaze that prefigures all her self portraits to come.
The following year, while in San Francisco with Rivera, Kahlo painted a double portrait of the two of them, as they had appeared in a wedding photo. A tall, plump Diego stands stiffly in a dark suit, holding his paint brush and pallet in one hand while grasping Frida's tiny hand with the other. Dwarfed by her husband, Frida looks like a small, folkloric doll, dressed in a long, ruffled skirt, a bright, red rebozo wrapped around her shoulders. A pink dove flies above her head. He holds a banner in his beak, dedicating the painting to their American friend, Albert Bender.
The stiff poses of the two figures, the flatness of the composition and the dove and banner all place the work within the folk tradition of religious exvoto paintings. In Mexico, even today, unschooled artists produce exvotos as offerings of thanks to saints for performing miracles. In this case, the "saint" seems to have been Bender, who managed to arrange a visa for the controversial Communist painter, Rivera.
Many of Kahlo's works are responses to Mexican folk art in one way or another. In 1933, at the age of 26, she painted the lovely Self Portrait with Necklace on sheet metal, a medium popular with exvoto artists. Other paintings on metal followed. The 1933 self portrait shows early Kahlo at her best. Her classical sense of line and her subtle use of color are the work of a fully accomplished artist. The serious young woman who gazes out at us offers neither attitude nor artifice. Except for the rustic, blue-grey beads that encircle her neck, this Frida might have been sitting for her portrait in a 19th century drawing room or in first century Pompeii.
Her 1937 portrait of Diego Rivera is another of the show's delights. Kahlo was 30 and had been married to Rivera for seven passionate but wrenching years when she painted this self-assured, 15" X 20" oil on masonite. Neither postcard nor computer screen can do it justice. When Judith and I spotted the painting across the room, it seemed to grab us by our collars and propel us toward it. "Wow," said Judith, after taking it in for a few moments. "She could really paint."
In the Rivera portrait, Kahlo performs a masterful tightrope act, balancing realism with inspired caricature. Fine detail work, down to the veins in his bloodshot eyes, recall photo realism. But the spirited line of the drawing suggests a modern take on Daumier or Goya. Rivera looks intelligent, composed and faintly shifty. His lopsided eyes don't focus on the painter but on something or someone beyond her left shoulder.
Knowing what we do about their relationship and his compulsive womanizing, it's easy to interpret this as the portrait of an inattentive lover. But, more than anything, the work seems to shout out its celebration of Rivera and his powerful personality.
When comparing Kahlo's and Rivera's work, most critics have emphasized their obvious differences. While Rivera favored murals and dealt with political subjects, Kahlo worked in small formats and mostly addressed her inner terrors. The differences are indisputable. But if we ignore their shared history and visual language--the Mexican folk culture and Aztec mythology, the bold, earthy line and vibrant sense of color--each loses an essential context.
Kahlo was barely more than a schoolgirl when she met and married the already acclaimed Rivera, who was twice her age. Long before meeting Kahlo, Rivera had served his artistic apprenticeship in Mexico City, then spent more than a decade in Europe, where he established himself as a cubist in the avant-garde circle that included Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Juan Gris. He was back in Mexico, working as a muralist and creating--with his friends--the artistic idiom and philosophy that came to be known as the Mexicanidad movement, when he became involved Kahlo.
As a developing artist, Kahlo learned from Rivera and, over time, became his equal partner. During the late 1920s and the 30s, both flourished in the cultural and political ferment that swirled in the decades following the 1910 Mexican Revolution. Along with painters David Alfaro Siquerios, José Clemente Orozco and Rufino Tamayo, they came to define Mexican art in the 20th century.
Angustia. David Alfaro Siqueiros
The Mexicanidad movement stressed their indigenous heritage, but Kahlo and Rivera were also internationalists who eagerly engaged with artists and intellectuals around the globe. Their relationships with figures ranging from French poet André Breton to Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky were expressions of their conviction that they were part of a worldwide artistic and political movement.
Semeadores. 1947. Diego Rivera
Kahlo and Rivera spent much of the early 1930s in the United States, where Rivera won commissions for murals in San Francisco, Detroit and finally New York. In 1933 John D. Rockefeller, Jr. hired him to paint the now legendary Man at the Crossroads mural for the RCA building in Rockefeller Center.
While Kahlo was an unknown artist at the time, Rivera was already a superstar. Years later, my mother described to me how, as an art student, she would stop at the RCA building to watch Rivera at work on the scaffold above and observe the mural's progress. It's lucky for her she saw it then. The famous mural was soon to be history.
Early in 1934 Rivera had just added a portrait of Lenin to a crowd scene when Rockefeller demanded the Communist leader be removed from the mural. Rivera refused. There were political protests and a standoff. And then, without warning, at midnight on February 10, 1934, a Rockerfeller work crew arrived and demolished the fresco with axes. Before long, Kahlo and Rivera were back in Mexico, embroiled in art and politics there. But the story of the Rockefeller Center mural lived on, adding scandal to their already dramatic careers.
Trovadore. 1945. Rufino Tamayo
Kahlo would later have her own drama over a commission. In 1939 her friend, the beautiful American socialite Dorothy Hale, was spurned in love and committed suicide by jumping from the Essex House in New York City. Shortly afterward, editor Claire Booth Luce, a friend of both women's, commissioned Kahlo to paint a commemorative portrait to give to Hale's mother.
The work Kahlo produced was based in the exvoto tradition and shows three images of Hale falling from the New York skyscraper. At the top of the painting, a tiny figure jumps from a window. In the center, a medium-sized figure falls head first through feathery white clouds. At the bottom, Hale lies like a broken mannequin, her blood spilling across the sidewalk and trickling down over the frame of the painting. Below the body is a white panel, where the details of the suicide are written in red, as if in blood.
Mexicans would have recognized the painting as a modern take on the exvoto, whether or not they approved of it. But the American Clare Booth Luce had little context and was simply appalled by the graphic treatment. She declined to present it to Hale's mother, removed her own name from the dedication, and had the work hidden away.
Today we are left to wonder to what degree this story is the tale of cultural misunderstanding and to what degree a tale of mutual provocation. Knowing Kahlo's work, could Luce have seriously expected a suitable gift for Hale's mother? From Kahlo's perspective, one has to wonder how much she really cared or understood about her American friends. And what, precisely, were her intentions in this painting?
Unlike most genuine folk art, The Suicide of Dorothy Hale comes off as intentionally kitsch and willfully shallow. By adopting the exvoto style, Kahlo objectifies Hale in a way that robs her of her humanity. Did she really consider herself a friend of Hale's, or merely an observer of an alien phenomenon?
This question opens the door to another question about Kahlo's painting--if she objectifies Hale, how does she treat her other subjects?
After walking through the Philadelphia show, I was intrigued to realize how many of Kahlo's works were not self portraits. There were dreamscape tableaus, such as My Dress Hangs There, and Henry Ford Hospital, filled with symbolic imagery. There were still lifes, landscapes and psychedelic, mystical pieces. But most interesting to me were the portraits of other people. Besides the stunning oil portrait of Diego Rivera, there were those of American horticulturist Luther Burbank, Kaho's physician Dr. Leon Eloesser, and the elderly and striking Doña Rosita Morillo.
This last, painted in 1944, is one of the finest works in the show. The formidable, white-haired Doña Rosita, sits knitting, in a high backed chair, while spikey cactus vines, sprouting pink, tropical blossoms, weave a dense wall behind her. Doña Rosita, cloaked in a heavy maroon shawl, has some of the solidity and gravitas of Picasso's Gertrude Stein. She stares into the middle distance with a stoic acceptance in her dark eyes. Her powerful brown hands, clasping the knitting needles, are a painter's triumph. Simple and sculptural, they seem to embody the creative impulse that is the essence of Mexico.
In the Philadelphia exhibition, a handful of paintings like this one make it clear that Kahlo was at times capable of paying tribute to other human beings. Yet the preponderance of symbolic dreamscapes and repetitious self portraits--especially those painted during the late 1930s and 1940s--suggest an artist so hemmed in by her obsessions that the actual world has almost disappeared from her vision.
Biography suggests that alcohol and drug addiction played a role in the narrowing of Kahlo's art. A memorable scene in the movie Frida captures the nightmare, through a hallucinogenic fantasy, more vividly than any scholarship has. As Frida sits at a bar nursing a glass of tequila, she hears a plaintive voice from a dark corner of the room. An ancient woman wrapped in a grey rebozo is singing the traditional Mexican folk song, La Llorona (The Weeping Woman). With the allusive imagery of a half-forgotten tale, the song tells of a mysterious dark man who begs La Llorona to wrap him in her rebozo and carry him to the river. He wants to die and asks La Llorona to take him to his death.
La Llorona is performed by Chavela Vargas, a Mexican ranchera singer now in her eighties, who knew Kahlo and is said to have been one of her lovers. Her voice seems to emanate from the tequila bottle and, by extension, that river which is the entrance to the underworld.
The image of Death, as a skull or skeleton, appears in Kahlo's work for the first time in the late 1930s. Most famous of these Death paintings is The Dream (1940) in which a sleeping Frida floats through the sky in her canopy bed, a giant skeleton, wired with firecrackers, lounging on top. The power of this piece is more in the conception than execution. Its uninspired composition and use of color, did not induce me to marvel at how the woman could paint. But it did make me ponder the role of the skeleton in Mexican culture and its meaning in Kahlo's art.
Americans tend to think of Mexicans as being death-obsessed. We take their Day of the Dead celebrations and their skeleton art as signs of unhealthy, morbid preoccupations. But the Mexican conversation with death can be understood as a creative one. Day of the Dead festivities allow families to connect with their ancestors, and the humorous skeletons made of papier maché or sugar are a way around Western taboos, a way to laugh at our common fate. It is the people north of the border, it could be argued, who are the unhealthy ones--we, who are obsessed with denying death.
Certainly Kahlo's skeletons come out of this humorous Mexican tradition. The set of bones riding on the canopy of her bed in The Dream looks like he's having a grand old time. Yet the fact that Death images begin to appear during the same years that her self portraits intensify, both in treatment and quantity, suggests Khalo was heading down a darkening path.
Day of the Dead. 1924. Diego Rivera
Self Portrait with Necklace of Thorns, a symbolic depiction of herself, featuring a monkey on one shoulder and a black cat on the other, seems emblematic of this period. Centered on the canvas, Frida stares straight ahead, as if for a passport photo. A necklace of thorns punctures her skin and droplets of blood glisten on her neck. Behind her, a wall of tropical leaves adds to a feeling of claustrophobia. With its obvious reference to the suffering of Christ, the work exudes grandiosity. In terms of design, color, texture and subject, the painting is--simply put--ugly. It is only one of more than a dozen self portraits Kahlo executed during the 1940s, each one seemingly stiffer than the one before.
Because of her numerous self portraits, Kahlo has sometimes been compared with Vincent van Gogh who, in four brief years near the end of his life, produced more than a dozen canvases depicting his own image. Like Kahlo, van Gogh was suffering from alcohol addiction. Perhaps, also like Kahlo, van Gogh realized his end was near. But while van Gogh's self portraits offer a thrilling variety of colors, textures and perspectives on himself, Kahlo's seem rigid, repetitious and--despite her elaborate symbology--unrevealing.
Who is this stony-faced woman who stares out at us intently in painting after painting? And what is she trying to say to us? Kahlo has a visual signature that is all her own and her images are arresting. Yet, her voice can be flat and curiously lacking in nuance. She puts us off, where other painters pull us in.
It's worth thinking about the fact that Kahlo is most known for the images she painted of herself. "I paint self portraits because I am so often alone," she famously explained.
Yet, surely that is only part of the story. As you trace her career, and the self portraits and carefully-posed photos of her pile up, you sense narcissism and obsession. At some point Kahlo seems to have started the long walk down the corridor to an inner prison cell, a place where all doors would finally lock behind her.
The Philadelphia show, with its large collection of rigidly-posed self portraits, hints at mental illness and artistic dead ends. But it is also a testament to the other Kahlo, the one who was able to engage with others and look deep into their eyes, at least at certain moments.
As we passed through the last rooms of the exhibit, where the mystical dreamscapes and still lifes of Kahlo's final years clearly betrayed her failing powers, I pondered the early promise. What happened to the intense young woman who, with little training, was able to paint up such a storm? Through her middle years there are some wonderful canvases and flashes of brilliance. The Two Fridas (1939) is an example. Yet, where an artist's work might be expected to blossom into maturity and greatness, hers seemed to harden into iconography.
The Flower Carrier. 1935. Diego Rivera
Was it the alcohol and the painkillers? The fact of being born a woman into a world of masculine giants? Was it Diego Rivera, with his prodigious talent and mural-sized ego, who, while offering her an artist's helping hand, simultaneously slapped her down with his infidelities? For anyone who loves painting and deplores the lack of major female figures, these questions are as relevant to the present and future as to the past. If only we could change one variable and rerun history. Since we can't, we're left with Kahlo's work, Frida's myth and a disquieting question.
In the twenty-first century, as Mexico and the United States slowly but inevitably merge into one hybrid nation, the art, the skeletons, the tattoos and the Frida icons may be with us for years to come. Beyond consuming the product, maybe it's time to understand the bigger picture.
Exodo. 1951. Guillermo Meza
After leaving the show, Judith, Fiona and I lingered in the crowded museum gift shop to examine the impressive spread of Frida memorabilia. Then, as we headed out the door, we noticed a small exhibition called "Frida Kahlo in Context."
A handful of works by Mexican painters--all men--including Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Rufino Tamayo, Julio Castellanos and Guillermo Meza were displayed in a room that was, at that moment, empty except for us. Most impressive was Meza's The White Shirt (1949), a powerful, abstracted painting of a figure--all you see are the shoulders--leaning over to pull on a white garment. Who was Guillermo Meza? I wondered. Where and when did he live and work? There was little information on the placards to help us out.
From my travels in Mexico, I know there are many fine 20th and 21st century Mexican artists. In fact an incredible array of artists, traditions, cultures and histories--most unknown in the United States--await us to the south. Riding the crest of a giant wave, they are headed this way. We have only to decide whether to dive in and swim or freeze and go under.
The Frida Kahlo show will be at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, June 14 - Sept. 28, 2008
Images: all rights are reserved by the Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust or the appropriate copyright holders.