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.