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“If somebody doesn’t like this painting… then I know they can’t be my friend.” — Madonna, to Vanity Fair in 1991, on Frida Kahlo’s painting My Birth.
Jayne accidentally underwent a Frida Kahlo immersion experience. On the Friday night she attended La Casa Azul at Circa Theatre, and the following Saturday she drove to Palmerston North to see the Te Manawa exhibition Frida Kahlo — Her Photos. The two, so close together, compounded the cult of Kahlo.
I know her story. I’ve read it, I’ve seen it, I’ve heard it. Polio at six, a debilitating traffic accident at 18, married to Diego Rivera, sordid affairs, a separation from Rivera, and a reconciliation with Rivera. Dotted throughout her life was her dedication to the communist revolution, her mexican heritage, her animals, and her husband. Running, like a stream, throughout her life was her suffering: 30 surgeries, years of pain, several miscarriages, heartbreaks.
The play and the photo exhibition work to tell this same story. The play brings it to life with energy and drama. The actors manage to pull off Mexican accents without too much awkward racism. The set was simple and essential: a wheelchair, a painting table, a dresser (full of bright clothing), a bed, and a bath—each a significant aspect of her life. While the photo exhibition added the details, bringing together vignettes: her trip to detroit, her private affairs with both men and women, portraits of her father, and portraits taken of her by others.
As we drove to Palmerston North, it was just moments of motorway before the who knows more about Frida discussion got going. “Have you read the biography?” / “Or the novel based on her life?” / “Oh I saw the play last night.” I asserted my stake and joined in. Each one of us were gesturing towards a deeper understanding, claiming the cult for ourselves. It felt like when that kid who thought they were alternative said, “hey, have you heard of this old band called The Beatles.” So much of Frida gets dispersed through various mediums of pop-culture you can know her before you know about her. I remembered, as a child, looking at the poster for the 2002 biopic Frida with Salma Hayek, featuring the legendary monobrow and being captivated by the colour and thinking how beautiful the poster was despite the monobrow.
She is a cult classic: the aesthetic power of her imagery (which was largely herself) has burnt her into the neurons of the cultural brain. Kahlo has become a secular Guadalupe for Mexico. The story of her life is revisited time and time again because of its potency. From her passionate and revolutionary political views that lead her to alter the date of her birth to coincide with the Mexican revolution (shaving a neat three years off her age), to her fluid view of sexuality and relationships. She rejected many female beauty norms; Frida relished her monobrow; grooming it and filling it in and took to wearing traditional Mexicanidad outfits, donning long skirts and bright coloured shawls.
She, like many artistic greats, exists in the low and high realms of the art world. I spent $50 on a plush Frida toy; Madonna spent a million dollars on My Birth in 1991. Her work would now sell for around ten million dollars, putting her into the same ranks as Picasso, Pollock, and Warhol. The difference is that her central image, her core artistic identifier, was herself as the artist. It is an entirely reproducible image, and entirely sell-able. The level of exposure and saturation of the image is threatening to build a legacy of tchotchkes that may already, or will one day, rival the legacy of her art.
After Frida died of pneumonia, or perhaps suicide, her art and fame spent several years dormant. Frida was somewhat ‘rediscovered’ in the 1970s. After the publication of Hayden Herrera’s 1983 biography Frida her star began to shine even brighter, some 30 years after she had died. In a 2002 article, Stephanie Mencimer suggests that Kahlo’s entrance into the the cannon proper was dependant on her possession of tragedy, and tragedy she had. In fact many of her works are based around her struggle and suffering—she often represented herself central to this pain, quietly enduring the with strength and elegance.
Mencimer goes further and suggests that her suffering became rather a designed part of Frida’s life. She underwent around 30 surgeries during her 47 years and Mencimer suspects motives of manipulation and attention were part and parcel with her pain and surgeries. Whether true or not, the story works to create a victim: victim to the accident, victim to a cheating husband, and victim to the patriarchy. Kahlo spent many years living in the shadow of her husband’s work. He was 20 years her senior and an internationally renown muralist. Kahlo had yet to make a name for herself when they first met. Channelling this suffering through art, Kahlo must have sensed the potency and universality of this pain. She must have known that humans are addicted to the dualities of pleasure and pain; a sore tooth that you can’t stop running your tongue over, a scab you can’t stop picking.
In 2002 Salma Hayek fought Jennifer Lopez and Madonna to play Frida in her biopic, which was largely based on Herrera’s biography. There was no turning back at this point. She was viral, at least for 2002.
Frida’s fame has reached a height where people may not even know her art as much as they know her, or her life’s story. The fusion between life and art is an oft-disputed aspect of art and literature, purists maintain that art should be the primary force and artists’ lives should simply inform it. For Frida, the two are interwoven and fused. She is her art.
This same convalescence of art and life was fully realised in Kahlo’s only Mexican solo show. It was the year before she died, and her health was deteriorating at a rapid rate. It seemed, to many, unlikely she would even be able to attend. She was delivered by ambulance and spent the night sprawled across a four-poster bed in the middle of the gallery. The bed had been adorned with papier-mâché skeletons, and photos of family and friends. She, her very existence, became dramatised and captivating during this gallery show—she stole her own thunder (or her life cast a shadow over her art that night, eclipsing it eternally).
Perhaps the cult like following Kahlo has garnered is down to the centrality of the self. She had always been her best subject. In the foreground, at the bottom of Self Portrait with Loose Hair (1947) the inscription reads:
“Here I painted myself, Frida Kahlo, with my reflection in the mirror. I am 37 years old and this is July, 1947. In Coyoacan, Mexico, the place where I was born.”
Kahlo was 18, attending an elite school in Mexico, travelling in a bus on her way home, when a tram crashed into the bus, changing the course of her life forever. The accident was fatal for many people, and saw a handrail enter her abdomen and exit out her vagina. Her injuries were so severe that doctors didn’t think she would survive. She spent the next few months lying in her bed recovering. It was during this time that Kahlo first began to paint. Her mother set up an easel, somewhat suspended over her prostrate body, which had a mirror attached—and she began, from very early, to create self-portraits.
“I paint myself because I am so often alone, because I am the subject I know best.”
Kahlo painted around 200 paintings during her abbreviated lifetime, and self-portraits make up a large portion of her oeuvre. Frida’s gaze is penetrating, often facing the viewer directly—enigmatic and unflinching.
So often female representation is in the hands of men, but Kahlo presents herself—her own sense of self, her own self-expression. Kahlo displays for her audience the variety of pain, pleasure, sorrow, fear, hope that built her. Kahlo expressed or perhaps captured more than just herself. She displays culture, she displays strength and vulnerability, things that transcend the individual, while being simultaneously based in her. In a world where women spend so much time as the object, Frida subverts this system by being simultaneously the creator and object, challenging the viewer with her piercing gaze.
Her own biographer notes, “she was, in fact, one of the creators of her own legendary stature, and because she was so complex and so intricately self-aware, her myth is full of tangents, ambiguities, and contradictions.”
Why are we so drawn to her? Is it her fascination with herself that draws us in? Are we drawn to those who explore themselves? Self-portraiture was a staple for most artists throughout history, and has only increased. However it has recently been taken under the gun by feminists such as Suzie Orbach for falsifying empowerment, who is that photo really for she asks, assessing the underpinning and the motives of the image. For Kahlo though, there is a sense that each of her portraits are for herself.
A monograph of Kahlo’s portraits bares an alarming similarity to Kim Kardashian’s best selling collection Selfish. Both Kim and Frida are their best, most interesting subjects. And in the same way that Kim Kardashian sells all that she touches, Kahlo gives art galleries and museums sales. Art galleries need her; Kahlo brings the people, brings the crowds (or hoards), and ensures that the gift shop is decked out with flower crowns and papel picado.
And it’s at this heightened place of fame that artists and their work grow artificial; layers of plastic begin to grow like scar tissue, clouding the essence of the art.