Frida Kahlo was herself a work of art
“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.”
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
Edward Weston took this selenium-toned gelatin silver print of Frida Kahlo in 1930.
Victor Reyes’ Diego and His Bride Frida was taken in 1929. It is a vintage gelatin silver print.
Frida Wearing Tehuana Dress was taken by Bernard G. Silberstein in 1940.
Frida Kahlo on White Bench, New York (2nd Edition), was taken in 1939 by Nickolas Muray.
Frida Kahlo poses for Nickolas Muray in 1941. The photo is titled Frida with Cigarette.
Nickolas Muray’s Frida Painting The Two Fridas, circa 1939, is one of the images shot in Kahlo’s studio.