Frida Kahlo was her­self a work of art

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - EL­LIS WIDNER

“I am my own muse. I am the sub­ject I know best. The sub­ject I want to know bet­ter.” — Frida Kahlo

Pop cul­ture icon and famed sur­re­al­ist painter Frida Kahlo is hardly a stranger to us.

She has more than 800,000 In­sta­gram fol­low­ers; peo­ple can wear a T-shirt or a pin with her face, though many can­not iden­tify a sin­gle paint­ing.

Her face, her life, her fash­ion and her art have sparked an avalanche of mer­chan­dise over the years, in­clud­ing books, T-shirts, pen­dants, dolls, cof­fee mugs, re­frig­er­a­tor mag­nets and a gazil­lion In­ter­net memes. Kahlo’s life speaks to a con­tem­po­rary iden­tity; her fierce in­de­pen­dent na­ture made her a touch­stone of the mod­ern fem­i­nist move­ment. She also is a muse for the fash­ion in­dus­try, as shown most re­cently in the Vik­tor & Rolf col­lec­tion at Paris Fash­ion Week in Septem­ber.

But why does this Mex­i­can-born artist, who died at age 47 in 1954 af­ter cre­at­ing barely 200 works of art, com­mand such de­vo­tion? How did she be­come, in the words of fash­ion his­to­rian Raissa Bre­tana, a pow­er­ful fig­ure of iconog­ra­phy ri­val­ing Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe?

Now, thanks to a new ex­hi­bi­tion at the Arkansas Arts Cen­ter, we can see why for our­selves.

Or, at least what she wants us to know — what she com­mu­ni­cates to the viewer in the 65 pho­to­graphs by some 23 pho­tog­ra­phers that make up “Pho­tograph­ing Frida: Por­traits of Frida Kahlo/Fo­tografiando Frida: Re­tratos de Frida Kahlo.” The ex­hi­bi­tion hangs through April 14; ad­mis­sion is free.

“We were al­ways look­ing for an

ex­hi­bi­tion that would com­ple­ment the most im­por­tant work in the arts cen­ter’s col­lec­tion, Diego Rivera’s Dos Mu­jeres,” says Brian Lang, the mu­seum’s chief cu­ra­tor. Lang, who wrote his mas­ter’s the­sis on the pre-Columbian im­agery in Kahlo’s work, says this ex­hi­bi­tion “was right for us.” The ex­hi­bi­tion was or­ga­nized by the Arkansas Arts Cen­ter in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Throck­mor­ton Fine Art, New York.

Rivera, the famed Mex­i­can mu­ral­ist, mar­ried Kahlo — twice. Dos Mu­jeres hangs in the ex­hibit’s fi­nal al­cove, in an area where view­ers can write about their re­sponses to the ex­hi­bi­tion in di­aries. Kahlo kept a di­ary and re­pro­duc­tions of pages are dis­played in the ex­hi­bi­tion.

“Com­bined, they were an in­cred­i­ble duo who caused a me­dia flurry ev­ery­where they went,” Lang says.

What emerges in the ex­hi­bi­tion is just how skill­ful Kahlo was at self-cre­ation. She cu­rated her pub­lic image in metic­u­lous de­tail.

So ef­fec­tive was she, Bre­tana said dur­ing an in­ter­view prior to her lec­ture at the arts cen­ter at the ex­hi­bi­tion open­ing Jan. 31, that Kahlo’s pop­u­lar­ity has not only en­dured, but grown.

“Her own image has eclipsed her art­work,” Bre­tana says. “[Kahlo] was an ex­pert in image mak­ing; putting paint to can­vas and cre­at­ing her image or pos­ing for pic­tures, the over-arc­ing essence of her is that she prac­ticed the art of be­ing. She was her own art; her image was her great­est art­work.”

Kahlo’s iden­tity was dis­tin­guished by her na­tional pride, choos­ing to wear the pre-His­panic cos­tumes of the Te­huana peo­ple of Mex­ico’s Oax­aca re­gion. The Te­huana was a ma­tri­ar­chal so­ci­ety and Kahlo chose their cloth­ing be­cause “it sym­bol­izes pow­er­ful women,” Bre­tana says. Kahlo also was known for wear­ing chunky neck­laces that in­cluded pre-Columbian beads she strung to­gether.

“She would dress to the nines in her tra­di­tional Mex­i­can dress; she was proud of her her­itage and she knew it would draw at­ten­tion,” Lang says. “It also hid her braces, her pros­thet­ics.”

Kahlo over­came a lot in her life, Lang says. She was born with spina bifeda, con­tracted po­lio as a child, which re­sulted in one leg be­ing shorter than the other, and was nearly killed in a bus crash that left her body shat­tered. She would en­dure some 30 surg­eries and was of­ten bed-rid­den.

“Be­cause of the many op­er­a­tions, she was of­ten con­fined to bed,” he says. “She was al­ways look­ing in­ward.”

Kahlo chal­lenged con­ven­tional senses of beauty and gen­der iden­tity — she cul­ti­vated her uni­brow with an eye­brow pen­cil and wore a light mous­tache. She donned a man’s suit on oc­ca­sion and, af­ter her di­vorce from Rivera in 1939, cut her hair short. (The cou­ple re­mar­ried af­ter a year.)

“Her stark, fierce in­de­pen­dence and be­ing a com­mu­nist added to her aura,” Lang says. “She smoked and drank in pub­lic. Just as much as Diego had af­fairs, she kept right up there with him.”


The ex­hi­bi­tion opens with Lang’s fa­vorite work — an 18-year-old Kahlo pos­ing for her fa­ther, Guillermo Kahlo, who was a pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­pher.

“In that image, you see a very con­fi­dent young woman who, through her pos­ture, ex­udes con­fi­dence and some vul­ner­a­bil­ity, too. She grew up in front of a cam­era, she knew how to work the cam­era.”

In a mostly chrono­log­i­cal

pro­gres­sion, view­ers can ex­pe­ri­ence Kahlo as she passes through her life and get closer to her, thanks to the in­ti­macy of the images and the smaller spa­ces within the gallery that dis­play the pho­to­graphs.

“It’s a dense ex­hi­bi­tion be­cause the pho­tos are small in scale,” Lang says. “We want to en­cour­age vis­i­tors to look closely. So the in­ti­mate scale forces vis­i­tors to look closely and they ex­pe­ri­ence the artist more in­ti­mately. There are care­fully com­posed stu­dio shots, very ca­sual pho­tos that Kahlo may not have know were be­ing taken.”

The pho­tog­ra­phers in­clude Kahlo’s fa­ther; Nick­o­las Mu­ray, whose com­pelling color images are richly vi­brant; the famed Ed­ward We­ston and Lola Al­varez Bravo, who could, Lang noted, coax a smile from Kahlo.

In one of Mu­ray’s color images, Kahlo is mag­netic, wrapped in a re­bozo (shawl) of ma­genta with an al­most Mona Lisa-like smile. An­other Mu­ray image in­spired the arts cen­ter to set up a photo wall in the atrium that em­u­lates the pho­tog­ra­pher’s stun­ningly beau­ti­ful Frida Kahlo on White Bench, New York (2nd Edi­tion), invit­ing peo­ple to sit and have their pho­tos taken.

See­ing a light­hearted Kahlo with a photo lamp on her head in Lu­ci­enne Bloch’s 1933 photo should draw a chuckle or two. In some pro­file shots, Kahlo bears a re­sem­blance to opera singer Maria Cal­las. There is a pal­pa­ble ten­der­ness and ro­mance in some of her pho­tos with Rivera.

But even in tra­di­tional dress, Bre­tana says Kahlo was very mod­ern. “She brings an aware­ness of her time’s fash­ion with a se­lect par­tic­i­pa­tion in it. She and Diego were the first cou­ple of the art world.”

Bre­tana, who sees the artist’s pro­file to­day as a sort of Frida-ma­nia, is pleased to see “a re­nais­sance of schol­ar­ship by mu­se­ums and cu­ra­tors div­ing into her life. But, I think Frida would hate how much her image is be­ing used in the com­mer­cial world.”

An ex­hi­bi­tion in Brook­lyn, N.Y., fo­cuses on Kahlo’s cloth­ing, jew­elry and the art she col­lected, all of which had been locked away un­til 2004. “Frida Kahlo: Ap­pear­ances Can Be De­ceiv­ing” is at the Brook­lyn Mu­seum through May 12. It is an ex­panded ver­sion of the ex­hibit at Lon­don’s Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum in 2018.

“I saw that show,” Bre­tana says. “It was very pop­u­lar — you had to buy tick­ets months in ad­vance. Kahlo’s clothes are dis­tinc­tive; you could see im­prints of her body in the cloth­ing. Her mes­sages were very clear. She com­mu­ni­cated na­tion­al­ism, pol­i­tics, fem­i­nin­ity, an un­apolo­getic in­di­vid­u­al­ity in her cloth­ing choices. She used it to mask her bro­ken body. She also painted and dec­o­rated her shoes, her body braces.”

Lang hopes to “stim­u­late a di­a­logue about who we are per­son­ally, col­lec­tively as Amer­i­cans. I hope to see the di­ver­sity of Arkansas re­flected in the ex­hi­bi­tion’s at­ten­dance.” Will Kahlo’s star ever dim? “She is such an in­ter­est­ing artist and per­son,” Lang says “I don’t know that we will ever ex­haust the pos­si­bil­i­ties of ex­plor­ing her art, her life, her work. She was the sub­ject she knew best.”

Cour­tesy Throck­mor­ton Fine Art, New York

Frida Kahlo wears a re­bozo (shawl) in Nick­o­las Mu­ray’s 1939 color car­bon print of Kahlo at the Arkansas Arts Cen­ter. Frida with Ma­genta Re­bozo“Clas­sic.” It is part of an ex­hi­bi­tion of pho­to­graphs

Cour­tesy Throck­mor­ton Fine Art, New York

Ed­ward We­ston took this se­le­nium-toned gelatin sil­ver print of Frida Kahlo in 1930.

Cour­tesy Throck­mor­ton Fine Art, New York

Vic­tor Reyes’ Diego and His Bride Frida was taken in 1929. It is a vin­tage gelatin sil­ver print.

Cour­tesy Throck­mor­ton Fine Art, New York

Frida Wear­ing Te­huana Dress was taken by Bernard G. Sil­ber­stein in 1940.

Cour­tesy Throck­mor­ton Fine Art, New York

Frida Kahlo on White Bench, New York (2nd Edi­tion), was taken in 1939 by Nick­o­las Mu­ray.

Cour­tesy Throck­mor­ton Fine Art, New York

Frida Kahlo poses for Nick­o­las Mu­ray in 1941. The photo is ti­tled Frida with Cig­a­rette.

Cour­tesy Throck­mor­ton Fine Art, New York

Nick­o­las Mu­ray’s Frida Paint­ing The Two Fri­das, circa 1939, is one of the images shot in Kahlo’s stu­dio.

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