Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait in Tehuana Dress (Thinking of Diego), 1943
Frida Kahlo photographed in 1931 by Imogen Cunningham
My students love Frida Kahlo. I get many papers about her every year, some of them very good, and a few are excellent. I frequently can’t tell if they love her work or if they love her. Usually, they get so caught up in the drama of her stormy life that they forget to write about her paintings. Whichever the case, Frida Kahlo seems to have struck a nerve with so many people these days, and not just women. She’s just as popular a topic with my male students. Frida Kahlo is now the object of an entire industry built on her story from calendars to a feature length movie. Her fame now eclipses that of her once very famous husband, Diego Rivera, the most well known of the great Mexican muralists of the early 20th century. Indeed, one of my male students referred to him as Frida Kahlo’s husband. Probably more than any other early 20th century figure in art or in literature, Frida Kahlo really speaks to people these days. But, how great an artist was she really?
For a long time, I never thought much of her art. I considered it to be formally slight and solipsistic, and there are still a lot of critics who feel that way. Recently, I’ve begun to take another look at her work and to rethink my former opinions. So have the critics. Not long ago, the consensus of critics saw her work as appealing to exclusively feminist tastes. Now, a new critical consensus is emerging saying that Frida Kahlo, and not her husband, was the greatest Mexican painter of that generation of artists inspired by the wave of nationalism in the wake of the Mexican Revolution of about 1910 to 1920. A lot of critics today would say that she belongs to Mexico as much as to feminism, and that her ties to specifically Mexican art and heritage are more authentic and subtle than those of Diego Rivera’s art for all its vast size and national ambition.
What a change from Frida’s own lifetime.
When she was alive, people always thought of her as Diego Rivera’s eccentric wife who just happened to paint too. Whereas her husband painted frescoes on a vast scale, Frida Kahlo always painted small easel pictures. Her work appeared dwarfed just by the sheer scale of her husband’s work, just as Diego’s immense physical size dwarfed her small and slight frame.
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera
Frida Kahlo, Frida and Diego Rivera, 1931
Most people thought of her as a peculiar amateur, certainly not the equal of her husband. There were some notable exceptions. Andre Breton, the leader of the Surrealists, enthusiastically admired her work. Diego himself also admired it, and took Frida’s paintings quite seriously. There was no shortage of admiring collectors who bought her work. There was a strong current of rivalry that played a large role in their conflicted and stormy marriage.
Diego Rivera, Panorama of Mexican History in the Palacio Nacional, Mexico City
Diego Rivera gave up a brilliant career as one of the best and most poetic Cubist painters in Paris, apart from Picasso and Braque themselves, to return to Mexico to help his fellow citizens rediscover their national identity through vast walls of color. He completely rejected the poetic Cubism that made him famous in Paris for a much more directly communicative art of the human figure, an art that he concocted from memories of the great Italian fresco painters of the Renaissance, and from native Mexican sources. To my eye, what Rivera came up with in the end looks more like Art Deco than like any ancient Meso-American frescoes from Bonampak or Teotihuacan. He painted vast crowded panoramas of the whole history of Mexico on the walls of the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City.
W.H. Auden once wrote that “Mad Ireland” hurt WB Yeats into poetry. Frida Kahlo was quite literally hurt into painting. She took up painting to fill the time during a long recovery confined to a body cast and to bed after a horrific accident. A bus she was riding collided with a tram in 1925 breaking her spine and pelvis in several places, shattering her left leg, and impaling her through the abdomen with a guard rail. Doctors thought she might not live. Her injuries caused her pain all of her life. She went through 35 surgeries in the course of her life to fix the damage and to relieve the pain. The damage to her pelvis and from the impalement left her unable to carry a child. Her injuries forced her to terminate 3 pregnancies. Even before the accident, she was not in the best of health. She survived a childhood bout of polio that left her right leg crooked and stunted. Her lifelong pain and ill health caused her to feel profoundly isolated, as indeed she was.
Frida Kahlo’s art is primarily about her own suffering and her life. Her greatness lies in her ability to universalize upon very personal catastrophes, to cause them to resonate with people who’ve never experienced such disaster and suffering.
She chose to record the events of her life, and other events, in the form of a retablo.
A retablo from 1885 showing a father praying to the Virgin Mary to cure his daughter's madness
Retablo ex votos are a peculiarly Mexican variation on a Latin American art form, a kind of devotional picture made in thanksgiving for prayers answered, or in expectation of some kind of divine intervention. Anonymous artists with little training in large workshops made retablos. The Mexican retablo ex voto usually showed the miracle or divine intervention with an inscription recording it on the bottom. Frida Kahlo would use this format repeatedly over the course of her life.
Some of her most striking retablos are not about her, but about the misfortunes of other women. One of her most striking pictures was made on a commission from Clare Boothe Luce (of all people; I’d never imagine Frida Kahlo and Clare Boothe Luce in the same room, but apparently they were friends). Luce commissioned a memorial for her friend Dorothy Hale who died the previous year by suicide.
Frida Kahlo, The Suicide of Dorothy Hale, 1938
Dorothy Hale married a successful society portraitist named Gardiner Hale. His death in an auto accident left her in great debt. She unsuccessfully tried her hand at acting and modeling. Finally, in despair with foreclosures and bankruptcy on the near horizon, she threw herself out of a window of the Richmond Hotel in New York.
Clare Boothe Luce was horrified when she received this picture, and had to be talked out of destroying it. She expected a kind of portrait, but got instead a retablo of her friend’s violent death. Hale appears 3 times in the picture jumping out of the hotel window and falling toward us through the clouds and haze. She lies bloodied on the bottom wearing the very same black dress and corsage that she wore when she killed herself. The inscription below, in blood red paint, records the circumstances of her death. Clare Boothe Luce obliterated the part of the inscription that noted that she commissioned the painting.
Another painting in the form of a retablo is this one, A Few Little Pricks. It is based on a lurid murder that appeared in the local newspapers.
Frida Kahlo, A Few Little Pricks, 1935
A man stabbed his wife repeatedly in a frenzy of jealous rage. He defended his act in court with the words, “But it was just a few little pricks!” Kahlo shows the murderer standing calmly in the center of the picture above the corpse of his murdered wife. The painting seems filled with blood, on the bed, on the floor, on the murderer’s cloths, even on the frame of the painting. Black and white doves hold up a banderole with the murderer’s excuse. The pathetic quality of the excuse stands in stark contrast to the cold violence of the murder scene before us.
Kahlo painted this during a very turbulent period in her marriage to Diego Rivera. Neither of them were models of faithful spouses. Both Diego and Frida had affairs and they both knew about it. Frida had affairs with men and women. Diego tolerated her affairs with women, but exploded into rage when he found out about her affairs with men. She suffered his affairs mostly in silence. Frida ended that stoic silence when she found out that Diego was involved with her younger sister Cristina. Kahlo moved out, and by 1939, the two artists were divorced.
Frida Kahlo painted one of her most famous pictures shortly after Rivera divorced her. It is a painting about her profound isolation and her conflicted sense of herself.
Frida Kahlo, Two Fridas, 1939
She portrays herself twice in the same picture sitting in a completely empty landscape. She sits on the right taking the hand of herself on the left to console herself. Both Fridas have exposed hearts connected by a thin artery. The Frida on the left holds another artery with a surgical clamp that continues to bleed conspicuously upon her white dress. The different dresses play a large role in this painting. They refer to Frida Kahlo’s dual ethnic heritage. She claimed that her Father, Guillermo Kahlo, was originally a Hungarian Jew. In fact, he was a German Protestant. Her mother was Amerindian with some Spanish ancestry, and was a devout Catholic. The Frida on the left wears a white very European dress. The Frida on the right wears the traditional dress of a Tehuana.
Her divorce seems to be creating a crisis of identity. The Tehuana Frida, while holding a small portrait of Diego, consoles the European Frida who slowly bleeds to death. Perhaps she feels that the intensely nationalistic Diego is rejecting that European part of her as insufficiently Mexican, and that is the part that suffers the isolation most acutely. Such a rejection must have been a very bitter blow for Frida Kahlo who identified so closely with the Mexican Revolution claiming for years that she was born with the Revolution in 1910. In fact, she was born in 1907.
The pain of her injuries only grew worse as she grew older. She went through more surgeries to try to relieve it. Her deteriorating spine forced her to wear a metal corset in order to stand up straight. She commemorated that suffering in the painting, The Broken Column.
Frida Kahlo, The Broken Column, 1944
She appears again in a barren landscape to show her isolation. She rises before us baring her upper torso. The skin of the torso opens for us to reveal a classical column broken in several places. The scaffold of the metal corset appears to compensate for the crumbling column only at the cost of great pain. That pain appears in the form of nails that pierce her all over calling to mind famous religious images of suffering from the crucified Christ to St. Sebastian. The oblique religious reference may be mocking, a rejection of the facile consolations of conventional religious doctrine.
While she rejected religious belief, in the last year of her life she turned to Marxism with a religious fervor, using the language of religion in her work.
Frida Kahlo, Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick, 1954
She throws down her crutches like a pilgrim healed at Lourdes. Karl Marx appears in the role of God the Father strangling the Great Satan of the USA while sending his large hands of dialectical materialist compassion, complete with a watchful Eye of God (i.e. Almighty Dialectic) in the palm. The Dove of Peace plays the role of inspiring Paraclete. She devoutly hopes that what religion failed to deliver will come through political ideology. The painting is both deeply moving and profoundly sad.
Frida Kahlo died in 1954 soon after this painting was completed. Her husband Diego Rivera was devastated. He died soon after in 1957.
No other artist of the 20th century so clearly foretold the insight that is a commonplace in our century, that the personal is political and the political is personal. In our time, that once clear line between the public and private has become very blurred. As Communist ideologues of the previous century wanted to swallow up the Private in the Public, so in our day, Libertarian ideologues would see the Public annihilated by the Private. Both proposed solutions to our dilemma are abstractions that are no solutions at all. Neither of them speaks to actual experience as we all live it between the home fire and the public forum. Frida Kahlo testified so eloquently to that frequently painful place we all dwell in now where our private affairs resonate in the public realm.