Christo­pher Allen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) is some­thing of a phe­nom­e­non of modern art, a rel­a­tively mi­nor artist with a nar­row range whose sub­ject mat­ter is al­most en­tirely lim­ited to images of her­self, who has none­the­less achieved con­sid­er­able fame and a kind of cult fol­low­ing even among peo­ple with lit­tle in­ter­est in art or art his­tory.

The ex­pla­na­tion for this pe­cu­liar sta­tus is partly that she is a woman dur­ing a pe­riod in modern art when al­most all the lead­ing artists were men, but also a woman who is strik­ing in ap­pear­ance — es­sen­tial since her work is largely about turn­ing her­self into a kind of icon — and whose per­sonal story is un­de­ni­ably in­ter­est­ing as well as ul­ti­mately tragic.

Th­ese fac­tors com­bine with the ex­oti­cism of Mex­ico, one of the wilder fron­tiers of the new world, where Western civil­i­sa­tion had a long his­tory since the bru­tal con­quest by the Span­ish in the 16th cen­tury, and yet where rel­a­tively re­cent mod­erni­sa­tion had failed to im­prove the lot of a largely il­lit­er­ate peas­antry; the Mex­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion, mean­while, had killed about two mil­lion peo­ple, or 10 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion, be­tween about 1910 and 1920.

This ex­hi­bi­tion is based on photographs that be­longed to the artist, so not sur­pris­ingly they are mostly images of her, her fam­ily and her lovers and friends. With the ex­cep­tion of a few images that are blown up to many times their orig­i­nal size for dis­play on the walls, the images are orig­i­nal prints of the pe­riod, which means they are very small.

They re­mind us, as all early photographs of this pe­riod do, of the in­ti­macy of mem­ory and at the same time of the im­por­tance of the photograph as phys­i­cal me­mento. Photographs were few, they were small in scale and they were kept in al­bums or even in boxes. They were por­ta­ble but also ma­te­rial ob­jects that could be car­ried around or lost in ac­ci­dents and fires. Fam­ily photographs of this time are at once more con­crete, more touch­ing and more vul­ner­a­ble than to­day’s dig­i­tal snaps.

The ear­li­est images are of Frida’s ma­ter­nal grand­mother, who was Span­ish, and who we first see pre­tend­ing to sleep in an el­e­gant stu­dio photograph with her sis­ter (1910). She mar­ried a man of in­dige­nous back­ground, so Frida’s mother was a mes­tiza, a mem­ber of the eth­ni­cally mixed group that was pro­moted dur­ing and af­ter the rev­o­lu­tion as epit­o­mis­ing the true Mex­i­can peo­ple.

Frida’s fa­ther was a Ger­man, Carl Wil­helm Kahlo, who mi­grated to Mex­ico in 1891, took Mex­i­can cit­i­zen­ship and changed his first name to its Span­ish equiv­a­lent, Guillermo.

Frida claimed he was of Jewish Hun­gar­ian de­scent and, al­though re­cent re­search has cast doubt on her ver­sion, she was fas­ci­nated by her com­plex her­itage, which she il­lus­trated in the paint­ing My Grand­par­ents, my Par­ents and I (1936, New York, MoMA). Frida Kahlo, her pho­tos Bendigo Art Gallery, un­til Fe­bru­ary 10.

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