Published  12/08/2005

Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo

Tate Modern, London
9 June - 9 October 2005

The first major exhibition of Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo, showing this summer at Tate Modern, has been long awaited and is the subject of much speculation. This is the first exhibition of Kahlo's work in a major European museum and offers the world at large an artist who was 'discovered' by the feminist movement in the 1970s and 1980s. For feminists, Kahlo was an exemplary role model; she suffered marginalisation and tragedy, and was the wife of a more famous artist, Diego Rivera, 20 years her senior. Whereas the self-taught Kahlo painted mostly very small autobiographical canvases in an attempt to purge herself of pain and suffering, the consequence of an horrific accident and a tempestuous marriage and love affairs, Rivera created vast political murals, earning him international acclaim.

Frida Kahlo. Henry Ford Hospital or The Flying Bed, 1932 . Oil on metal panel. 305 x 350mm. Museo Dolores Olmedo Patino Mexico (Mexico City, Mexico) © Banco de México and INBAL, Mexico, 2004


This new exhibition at Tate Modern reveals Kahlo's political awareness through catalogue essays and the exhibition of her works that addressed neo-colonial culture and society. For all her political conviction, her work remains primarily the testament of a dramatic and tortured life. Frida Kahlo's painting confronted the previously taboo subjects of childbirth, female subjugation and the process of transformation from victim to survivor using revolutionary politics and sexual prowess. A stated intent of the curators of this exhibition is that Kahlo's paintings should be viewed independently, so as not to be consumed or overshadowed by the cult that has been created from her life. In this they are perhaps unrealistic, for her artistic career has been well and truly created by her biography, some of which is speculative and inaccurate. Jeanette Winterson, for one, is in no doubt as to the value and importance of Kahlo's career in artistic terms:

I love Kahlo's work because it puts the personal right where it should be - at the centre. She is always self-conscious, never self-indulgent. True to herself, never lost to herself. If you believe as I do, that art contains the whole world - its inside as well as its outside - then debates about autobiography, or documentary, or realism, soon become false. What matters is not autobiography, but authenticity. Not documentary but witness. Not realism, but reality.1

On first encounter, Kahlo's works are intensely personal, for she suffered great tragedy and loss, which she painted with a searing candour. She wrote, 'I've done my paintings well ... and they have a message of pain in them, but I think they'll interest a few people.'2 Yet, beyond the intensely personal images of herself as hideously injured and handicapped after an accident, Kahlo presents images that have contributed to the definition of Mexico's post-revolutionary identity. It is a mistake, however, to consider that her paintings are of the same calibre as the Mexican muralists, Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco. If one is expected to feel affinity for her psychiatric condition, her sometimes morbid obsession with medical procedures and admire her courageous struggle to assuage pain through painting, then the commercialism that accompanies her cult status should have been stripped bare.

Democracy in Mexico brought into question its cultural history and the country's role on the international political stage in the 1930s and 1940s. Kahlo inherited a duality in her mindset that paralleled Aztec culture itself, where multiple layers of meaning in numerous facets of cultural expression existed. There is a determination and certainty in Kahlo's imagery that reflects her intellect, her national pride and revolutionary fervour, factors that also drew her into a lifelong and, at times, self-destructive relationship with Rivera. Her work is also characterised by the juxtaposition of opposites in religion, politics and sexuality:

Among the myriad possible sources for this world view, one could put forward her personal and family history, her sexuality, political and national allegiances, her delicate understanding of herself as a female, postcolonial Mexican artist, or her use of Aztec modes of thought and philosophy, which allowed her to create a symbolic imagery from a simultaneity of apparent opposites: life and death, male and female, light and dark, ancient and modern.3

A theatrical use of costume played an important role in Kahlo's images of self, referring to issues beyond her own experience. In family photographs, at the age of 19, Kahlo dressed as a man to draw attention to issues of gender. She also wore costumes that conveyed cultural statements, 'The exaggerated frills and flounces of the Tehuana costume (the unique style of dress from the region of Tehuantepec where women were reputedly economically and socially dominant).'4 Kahlo wore men's trousers and flowers in her hair; she wore the crossed shawl creating an image of female fighters of the Mexican Revolution. She was both androgynous and a femme fatale. The circus, masquerading, and a sense of drama all appealed to her, as did the rich ornamental detail of headdresses and embroidery. Mexican folk art and Catholicism, European, Indian and Mexican Spanish parentage created a potent mix and a dissatisfaction or lack of resolve in terms of identity:

By dressing as a Tehuana in the heart of New York, Mexico City or Paris, Kahlo's dress was a sign of solidarity with the ordinary oppressed of Mexico, and it was also a sign of recognisable national tradition in the face of a changing world of social, political and economic modernisation.5

Kahlo's determination to involve herself in national and international politics began at a young age. Later, she changed her date of birth from 1907 to 1910 to share the date of the start of the Mexican Revolution. At the end of the 19th century, Mexico's infrastructure and social hierarchy were based on European models under the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. Poverty increased with the privatisation of common land and wealth and political power was concentrated in a small elite. Much ideological conflict in Mexico after the revolution related to the pressure to move from the loss of indigenous traditions and national identity to the modernised, technologically superior position of North America. Kahlo witnessed political instability and street fighting at a young age. She identified with the poor, in spite of her own family's relative prosperity. She was committed to Marxism, and later Stalinism, and opposed a European-oriented elite. Kahlo remained loyal to the Mexico that was in danger of being overwhelmed by social and political change.

Frida Kahlo was one of only 35 girls out of 2,000 students to enter the National Preparatory School in Mexico City:

[She] was part of an intellectual and politically radical elite, who embraced the concept of indigenism and looked to a pre-Columbian Mexican past for the roots of the new nation, and as a bulwark to European cultural imperialism and later on, the dominance of the United States. The cultural policies of the Mexican Revolution reflected a dual aspect of influence: looking simultaneously to Europe and the Western tradition as well as developing indigenous policies that drew on Mexico's past and folkloric present.6

Frida Kahlo was born Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo Calderón on 6 July 1907 in Mexico City. Her father, Wilhelm (later Guillermo) Kahlo, was born in Germany of Hungarian parents and moved to Mexico, where he married Maria Cardeña who died in childbirth, leaving him two daughters. His second marriage to Matilde Calderón y González of Spanish and Indian ancestry produced four daughters: Matilde, Adriana, Frida and Cristina. Frida's life was quite complicated in terms of family dynamics and she suffered polio at the age of six, spending nine months confined to bed. Her father chose for her the German College in Mexico City; he himself had a small library of philosophical books and a portrait of German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer. Where Frida's father was supportive and intellectual, her mother was a devout Catholic to the point of bigotry, which inevitably caused rifts given Frida's volatile nature and passion for politics and ideas.

Frida took an early interest in studying medicine, but later changed to literature and politics. Her generation enjoyed the liberated post-revolution Mexico - it also witnessed political instability, and violence. At the age of 15, she observed Diego Rivera painting a mural entitled 'Creation', in the amphitheatre of the Preparatory School she was attending. In 1925, when Kahlo was 18 years old, she suffered appalling injuries when the bus she was travelling on collided with a tram. She had a crushed pelvis and multiple spinal fractures, and was not expected to survive. Her mother was too traumatised to visit her and for nine months, she was immobilised in a plaster corset. The following year she wrote to her friend, Alejandro Gómez Arias:

Why do you study so hard? What secrets are you searching for? Life will reveal them to you, all at once. I know everything now, without reading or writing. Not long ago, just a few days ago, I was a child walking through a world of colours, of hard, tangible forms. Everything was a mystery of things concealed; deciphering and learning were an enjoyable game. If only you realised how terrible it is suddenly to know everything, as though the world were lit by a flash of lightening. Now I live on a painful planet, transparent as ice; nothing is concealed, it is as if I had learnt everything in a few seconds, all at once. My friends, the girls at school, have slowly become women; I aged in a moment, and today everything is flat and bright. I know that there is nothing beyond; if there were, I would see it.7

In spite of her enforced solitude and acute trauma, Kahlo began to read widely: Chinese poetry, philosophy, Marcel Proust, Emile Zola, articles on the Russian Revolution and art books on Lucas Cranach, Albrecht Dürer, Sandro Botticelli and Agnolo Bronzino. She returned home to a four-poster bed and the present of a box of paints from her father. A small mirror was hung above her bed and she began a remarkable series of self-portraits:

This permanent confrontation with her own identity gave rise to the problematics relating to the very essence of art: illusion, dissociation, our relationship with death. Much more than autobiography, her self-portraits would prove to be 'images of the inner self', of a being setting out on a quest, as existential as it was aesthetic, of a young woman still in the process of formation, of an awakening conscience.8

Economic necessity prompted Kahlo to consider how to survive as an artist; in this she sought advice from Diego Rivera, the year in which she joined the Mexican Communist Party. In 1929, Kahlo married Rivera. 'She married a monument, part of Mexican history, 20 years older than herself, 20 centimetres ... taller, and 100 kilos ... heavier.'9 Kahlo later referred to her marriage to Rivera as her 'second accident'.10

Dressing in Tehuana costume was intended to please Rivera, for they shared a commitment to Mexican identity. It also enabled her to define her self-image based on the independent women who 'made matriarchy the law of the land'. So dressed, Kahlo developed her painting in accordance with her new persona. In her marriage portrait of 1931, 'Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera', she depicts herself as tiny, wearing the elaborate costume, holding hands with her enormous husband. Two pregnancies in 1930 and 1931 failed and Kahlo suffered acute depression. Later, two further pregnancies were terminated. Her paintings bear witness to the physical and mental distress - both the loss itself and the inevitability of being childless - and also the fear of pregnancy in terms of the ramifications for her damaged body. To give greater poignancy and to universalise her distress, she used the Mexican folk art form, ex-voto or retablo with irony:

Ex-voto or retablo paintings were made as a gesture of gratitude for salvation, a granted prayer or a disaster averted, and left as offerings in churches or at a saint's shrines. They are generally painted on small-scale panels and depict both the incident ... and the Virgin or saint to which they are offered ... Kahlo and Rivera possessed a large collection of ex-voto paintings ranging in date over several centuries ... Many of Kahlo's paintings, from the early 1930s especially, relate in size, format, architectural setting or spatial arrangement and style to these votive, folk objects.11

Keen to distinguish between the ancient, dignified society of Mexico and the industrialised machine age of North America, Rivera became an avid collector of pre-Columbian art. Mexican sculptures of goddesses symbolised birth and death, destruction and creation. Kahlo confronts childbirth, for example, from a number of perspectives. 'My Birth' (1932), following her traumatic miscarriage in New York, was completed three months after her mother's death. The painting is a radical rejection of conventional images of motherhood and a confrontation with the obstetric reality of childbirth:

The shocking effect of the painting is enhanced by the fact that the artist covered the woman's head and positioned her exposed genitalia and uterine blood at the very centre of the composition. The startling image is immediately perceived as a forbidden sight: it explodes two deep-rooted taboos as it displays the 'unshowable' sexuality of the mother and her vaginal blood. In addition to this, Kahlo blasphemously links these 'impure' images with the holiest Christian icon, as she places a portrait of the immaculate Madonna directly above the taboo body ... it potently exposes the carnal, corporeal nature of Being that is repressed and hidden behind traditional cultural visualisations of the body.12

Kahlo's admiration for Dutch artist, Hieronymus Bosch, enabled her to create ambitious works on the themes of metamorphosis. Her visual depictions of injury, surgery and miscarriage are bloody and factual, with references to religious ritual, the Passion of Christ and Aztec customs and beliefs. She also painted numerous images of her family and origins in an attempt to embrace her identity. The ex-voto form enabled Kahlo to connect with other cultures simultaneously. She replaces figures (Christ or saint) with autobiographical or political references. Without knowledge of Mexican iconography, one might assume that Kahlo had adopted European Surrealism, which in fact she found too programmatic when experiencing it first hand in Paris: 'I really don't know whether my paintings are Surrealist or not, but I do know that they are the most honest expression of myself, taking no account of the opinions and prejudices of others. I have not painted much, and do not have the slightest ambition or desire for glory; I am determined first to please myself, and then to earn a living with my work.'13

Frida Kahlo's imagery is dramatic and personal, as Rivera observed in 1937, 'She is the first woman in the history of art to have adopted, with absolute and ruthless sincerity and, one could say, with impassive cruelty, the general and specific terms which concern women exclusively.'14

From 1933, the home of Kahlo and Rivera in Mexico was in San Angel, designed by Juan O'Gorman, a pupil of Le Corbusier. Intellectuals, artists, political activists and an array of monkeys, parrots and dogs, came and went. Both Kahlo and Rivera had numerous love affairs during their marriage, but when Rivera chose Kahlo's sister Cristina, Kahlo was devastated, and left Rivera for several months. She travelled, saw both friends and lovers, but eventually returned. The tenacity of her character, the drama and power of her persona and appearance and the events of her life, both tragic and accomplished, can easily seduce any viewer of her works, for they are a close documentation of her life and psyche. André Breton described her work as, 'A ribbon around a bomb', and proposed that she exhibit in Paris. She had a very successful exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York, in November 1938. In Paris, in March 1939, her exhibition was admired by Kandinsky and Duchamp and the Louvre bought her self-portrait 'The Frame' (c.1937-1938). In 1938, Pablo Picasso admitted to Rivera, 'Neither Derain nor myself, nor you, are capable of painting a head like those of Frida Kahlo.'15 In spite of the reception, Kahlo found the Paris art world unbearably intellectual.

In 1939, illness and divorce led to dramatic self-portraits: these are androgynous, grieving the lost femininity of previous works, distraught and suicidal images, littered with surgical paraphernalia. Are these paintings too close to the bone, too melodramatic or self-indulgent? Or by this stage of the chronologically organised exhibition, has the viewer simply seen too much? It has been suggested that Kahlo invented aspects of her medical condition, that a number of her operations were not in fact required, and that her death was as a result of suicide, rather than a complication of her poor health. Whatever one's personal reaction, and the crowds at Tate Modern were solemn indeed, the extent of Kahlo's outpouring of grotesque imagery is no more repugnant than that of Bosch, but the fact that they involve autobiography makes one feel like a voyeur in a psychiatric ward. Kahlo presents herself as a martyr representing the injustice and suffering of all women. After 18 months, she returned to Rivera and they remarried in 1940, but lived in their separate studios. They vowed to have a celibate relationship and Kahlo promised to be financially self-sufficient; they failed on both counts. Her relationship with Rivera fuelled her neurosis, yet she found it intolerable to be apart from him. Although her health deteriorated, she presented herself in paintings, such as 'The Love Embrace of the Universe' (1949), as Rivera's mother figure and mother earth. Here, she is depicted cradling her husband like a baby.

By mid-1946, Kahlo could no longer stand or sit, and agreed to bone-grafting surgery in New York. It was not successful. In 1950 she spent a further nine months in the English Hospital in Mexico. Her work 'Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick', in which she epitomises her political aspirations, was painted in 1954, the year of her death, when she spent most of her time in bed. Rivera described her paintings as, 'Among the best and greatest visual documents and the most intense human records of our times. For tomorrow's world its value will be inestimable'.16

Kahlo's paintings in response to her relationship with Diego Rivera show a woman at the point of suicidal despair. The iconic feminist was, in fact, emotionally battered by Diego Rivera's infidelity even though Kahlo herself had numerous passionate affairs, including a two-year affair with Leon Trotsky, when he and his wife sought political refuge in Mexico and lived with Kahlo and Rivera as their guests. The imagery is raw and confrontational in a way that no female painter had expressed before. In this, she made history and was a great inspiration to female artists later in the 20th century who sought to elevate personal experience to the status of high art. In reality, the experience of viewing the entire collection of paintings lacks the dignity with which one has customarily endowed Frida Kahlo. How the integrity of the artist is preserved historically is determined in large part by the visual language used. In the case of Kahlo, her juxtaposition of a form of social realism, Mexican folk art and repeated images of self give an uneven message in formal terms. Although political content assures references to the world beyond diaristic imagery, the vision is, nonetheless, more disturbingly negative than triumphant or universal. Winterson, however, maintains that Kahlo's greatness comes from the fact that, 'The work takes us nearer to ourselves, and further towards an understanding of life in all its complexity.'17

Dr Janet McKenzie

1. Winterson J. Live Through This: Frida Kahlo's transcendent paintings. In: Modern Painters, International Arts and Culture. London: 2005: 102.
2. Dexter E. The Universal Dialectics of Frida Kahlo. In: Dexter E, Barson T. Frida Kahlo. London: Tate Publishing, 2005: 11.
3. Ibid: 12.
4. Ibid: 12-13.
5. Ibid: 13.
6. Ibid: 14.
7. Tibol R. Pain-Love-Liberation: Frida Kahlo's Words. In: ibid: 186.
8. Burrus C. The Life of Frida Kahlo. ibid, p.201.
9. Ibid, p.201.
10. Ibid, p.201.
11. Barson T. All Art is at once Surface and Symbol: A Frida Kahlo Glossary. In: ibid: 65.
12. Ankori G. Frida Kahlo: The Fabric of Her Art. In: ibid: 31.
13. Dexter E. Op.cit.: 185.
14. Burrus C. Op.cit.: 203.
15. Ibid: 204.
16. Ibid: 205.
17. Winterson J. Op.cit.: 102.

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