The Art and Artifice of Frida Kahlo

9 Jul

“Frida’s favorite subject was herself,” Meir Ronnen wrote in a review of Fridas Vater. Roughly one third (fifty-five) of Frida Kahlo’s paintings are self-portraits. The sheer number and preponderance of self-portraiture in her body of work is unmatched except perhaps by Munch, Rembrandt, and van Gogh. Comparing her output of self-portraits to other artists however does little to shed light on the particularities of her self-portraiture, which is celebrity like, romantic (if tragically), directly asking for viewer’s sympathy in ways that drain the viewer, and sprinkled with artifice (the conjoined brow, the carefully painted hair over the lip, the Tehuana dress).


Frida Kahlo was born to a wealthy German father and a Spanish-American mother in 1907. (It is apt that Salma Hayek, a rich dilettante of mixed ancestry with little trace of native blood—Hayek is the daughter of a rich Lebanese father and Spanish mother—played her in the popular movie biopic on Kahlo.) The point about non-native bourgeoisie ancestry is important because Kahlo so self-consciously and unceasingly peddled her non-existent native roots in her dress and her art.

For years rumors swirled, no doubt sustained by her, that her father was Jewish. Carl Wilhelm Kahlo, instead, was a born in 1871 in Pforzheim, Germany to Lutheran parents, whose Lutheran antecedents have been traced back to the 16th century by Gaby Franger and Rainer Huhle in their book, Fridas Vater: Der Fotograf Guillermo Kahlo.

Kahlo grew up in a gorgeous colonial house, one she returned to during the last years of her life, with access to all the contemporary amenities, the only dark stain being her contracting polio at the age of five. Polio, however, didn’t leave her handicapped, or her legs disfigured as it does in countless cases.

Coursing through her bourgeoisie life, at 15, Kahlo entered the premedical program at the National Preparatory School in Mexico City. At 18, she had a streetcar accident in which she suffered multiple fractures including damage to the spine, a damaged uterus, and a punctured pelvis. Kahlo never recovered from her injuries even after going through as many as 35 operations.

Three years after her accident, during which she had started to paint, she met Diego Riviera and soon after began a romance with the 42-year-old artist. A year later, the two were married. The major (and minor) events of the dramatic relationship between Kahlo and Riviera with its numerous infidelities, including Diego’s affair with Frida’s sister Christina, and Frida’s relationship with Trotsky, are well known. Riviera had a significant impact on her art and politics and politics in art. The crisp outlines of her figures are much in the style of Diego Rivera. Similarly, the way she colors some her paintings echoes the flat coloring in Rivera murals.

The other significant aspect of her life was the political environment that she grew up in. Kahlo grew up at a time when Mexico was in turmoil. Mexican Revolution had begun in 1910 and continued to fester far after 1920. Influenced partly by the politically charged communist learning environment and her association with Riviera, a painter of heroic murals with folk art echoes, her paintings incorporated techniques from native Mexican art, and used it to offer none particularly incisive political commentary.

Echoes of Kahlo
“Frida Kahlo has been the right artist at the right time,” said Gregorio Luke, director of the Museum of Latin American Art (MoLAA) in California in his 2002 interview with Stephanie Mencimer of the Washington Monthly.

For an era so dearly in search of unimpeachable arty exotic celebrity progressive symbols, Kahlo is indeed perfect. Her bisexuality makes her progressive,’ her clothes, jewelry and her looks make her lusciously exotic, her connections and flirtations with communism and communists make her yet more appealing, and her being an artist does nearly everything else.

Kahlo excels as the embodiment of symbolically political hippy chic enmeshed with the exotic romanticism of a Mediterranean country. The fact that her art is transparent is an additional perk. What is left for denouement and understanding, then, is the artist herself, and there the store is rich and endless. But that is saying things somewhat incorrectly- it isn’t due to the absence of complexity that people yearn for biography, people yearn for biography when faced with images of celebrity. Her recognizable self-portraits with the motifs of the conjoined brow, hair over the lip, the native dress, the hairstyle, and traditional jewelry, work well in an era of celebrity.

After disappearing from the mainstream art world, Kahlo was rediscovered by the feminists in the late 1970s. Soon after, Kahlo got a more popular audience through Hayden Herrera’s famous 1983 biography. Since then, an explosion of Kahlo-inspired films, plays, clothing, and jewelry have transformed the artist into a ‘veritable cult figure.’ (National Museum of Women in the Arts)

Exhibitions of her art, including one at SF MoMA, continue to propagate the part celebrity, part artist understanding of hers by blurring lines blurring lines between her personal life and her art. They do so by simultaneously exhibiting family photos, and details of her life. This all means that Kahlo today is more of a (pop) cultural statement than an artistic one.

Kahlo’s Art

Kahlo is a reasonably good painter. That is if you accept that her paintings will always carry marks of self-absorption, melodrama, and celebrity. In fact, her paintings are seen best with those afflictions. She is best when she captures the pathos and melodrama as she does in ‘The suicide of Dorothy Hale.’ The painting, drawn on commission from the dead girl’s dad, shows the girl falling from the building but always looking at the viewer, accusing. It is only occasionally that Kahlo is capable of moving beyond that limited oeuvre as she does with ‘Portrait of Dona Rosita Morillo’ where she presents an old matriarch with solemn respectability though with a strangely distracted expression.