As this self portrait makes startlingly clear, the life and art of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo are inextricably intertwined with that of Diego Rivera, her mentor, husband and largest artistic influence.
It’s also difficult to separate her from her times and the other strong-willed and influential people she encountered in her life, from political figures like Leon Trotsky (she and Rivera were supporters of Communism when it seemed more like a social revolution than an excuse for another bunch of totalitarian governments), to the avant garde artists in Paris who were ripping up the fabric of art and making some bizarre new material out of its remnants.
Kahlo is often referred to as a Surrealist. You will occasionally hear me rant about the casual misuse of that term, and Kahlo, who associated with the original Surrealists and knew exactly what was and wasn’t Surrealism, did not consider herself a Surrealist; saying: “They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”
She later came to despise the intellectual snobbery and coldness of Breton and the other Paris Surrealists, saying of them, “They are so damn ‘intellectual’ and rotten that I can’t stand them anymore….I [would] rather sit on the floor in the market of Toluca and sell tortillas, than have anything to do with those ‘artistic’ bitches of Paris.”
Kahlo was, to say the least, outspoken, both verbally and in the confrontational, in-your-face directness of her paintings. Many of her works are self portraits and, in essence, all of her work is autobiographical. In a time when her contemporaries in Mexico, like Rivera, were painting large, bold murals depicting the noble struggles of the poor and downtrodden workers, and Mexico’s 1910 revolution, Kahlo chose a much more intimate, though no less bold, path for her art.
Her self portraits look at first, in spite of their imaginative overtones of symbolism and visionary art, to be very direct and honest appraisals. After comparing them to some photographs, however, I think they were actually intentionally (perhaps subconsciously) harsh, almost always emphasizing her mustache and “unibrow” effect which, while visible in photographs, seem much more pronounced in her paintings. I see her work as self-critical; it is hard edged and at times is obviously an expression of pain, disappointment and emotional turmoil.
She paints her images with an undeniable force of personality and a painting style that borrows some of its power from traditional Mexican art forms, as well as the image juxtapositions employed by the Surrealists, the melodramatic murals of her husband and his comtemporaries, and the bold primitivism of artists like Rousseau.
The personal and self-confessional nature of her work, her feminist and communist beliefs, and the turmoil of her life, have made her something of a hero to many, and she is sometimes exemplified as a victimized woman; though I find it hard to see someone of such obvious strength of will and force of character as a timid victim.
She did have great difficulties to overcome, however. Her life with, and two marriages to Rivera were filled with infidelity and difficulties from the outset. Her painting career began in convalescence from a trolley accident as a teenager, that crushed many bones and broke her back in three places. In her later years she said: “I have had two accidents in my life – the streetcar crash and Diego Rivera”. She also had polio as a child and was in physical pain much of her life and unable to have children. Lest we get all misty-eyed, there is also indication that she was not the kindest or nicest individual herself, and was often not spoken well of by artists and others who encountered her.
I’ll point out here that I have not seen Frida, the popular movie about her which starred Salma Hayek, nor have I seen the documentaries on PBS or A&E. I have also not seen her originals in person, so my knowledge of her life and work comes from images in print or online.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of her birth, and the Museum of the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City, her birthplace, has mounted the largest ever exhibition of her work, Frida Kahlo 1907 — 2007 National Homage, which runs from now through August 19, 2007. The museum does not have images online, but I’ve gathered some other resources for you below.
Exhibition links via Art Knowledge News