It must have been no small feat for the pretty young Mexican bride to be seen doing portraits next to her famous husband Diego Rivera who was working on his socialist-realist murals in San Francisco. This was in 1930; they had just got married. As she was such a delicate, exotic flower next to the gigantic, big-bellied Diego, the fact that Frida was "painting too" was worth a mention in the society columns of the city. As irony has it, only half a century later the little wife’s fame as a painter had eclipsed her husband’s.
Frida Kahlo is now considered as the most widely recognized woman artist of all times and this despite the very narrow subject range of her work: the variation of one major theme – her self-portrait. Frida’s face is everywhere—on embroidered Frida bags and Frida mugs, innumerable books ("Frida’s Diaries," "Frida’s Wardrobe" etc.), postcards, calendars, in Frida look-alike contests, TV documentaries, a glamorous Hollywood movie. Such an inflation of an image creates the impression that one knows her inside out, but in Frida Kahlo’s case the image has retained a stubborn mystery – iconic like a 20th century Mona Lisa without the smile. Her image calls one to look again and be again surprised.
A well constructed and curated retrospective at San Francisco MOMA gives rise to wonder about the mysteries and multiple ironies of this artist’s work. From June 14 to Sept. 28 the museum presents some 60 paintings, from 1930 to 1951 (Frida was born in 1907 and died in 1954), surrounded by a large selection of private and partly unpublished documents and photos. Side shows present samples of the Frida cottage industry, including contemporary Mexican artisans’ work inspired by her.
This time around, what struck me was the contradiction between the way this image in its reproduction looms so large in our culture whereas the actual paintings are mostly unimposingly small, some painted on bits of Masonite or metal like miniature Mexican retablos. Is this contradiction a consequence of a woman artist holding back (by comparison with the vast murals her husband was painting), battling low self-esteem, or was it a necessity, being crippled, lying in bed, at times in traction, unable to handle large canvasses? Looking at these modest-size self-portraits (often in elaborate, beautifully decorated and painted frames) one can’t escape the fact that Frida Kahlo’s fame has not been made by the usual suspects of the art market, male art critics and gallerists. In spite of early praise by fellow artists (Joseph Cornell created a Frida-box for her) Frida’s fame has been a grass roots fame that arose in the seventies out of a common recognition by women that this artist’s work had a unique relevance. Even though in 1938, during a visit to Mexico, André Breton found enough dreamlike strangeness in Frida’s imagination to declare her a "Surrealist," she was only truly discovered during the feminist revolution, when the personal became political.
I have a hard time imagining that men would easily and comfortably engage with the pronounced androgyny and ambivalence of Frida’s self-portraits. Her painted exaggeration of her mustache and severe, grown-together bird-wing eyebrows contradicts the theatrical, folkloristic decorations of her hair and clothes. Her voluptuous dresses and attire belie the unyielding straightness of her back, the way she insists on sitting with wide open knees, sometimes holding a cigarette in the nonchalant way of a man or wearing a joint in a cigarette holder affixed to a ring on her finger. Sometimes she shows herself in men’s clothes. In an early photo, aged 19, she is wearing her father’ suit and tie with slicked back hair in a cocky way as if she were the natural son in her family.
But it is the way she looks at us—her stare—most often aimed straight at the spectator or, with a slight twist of her face, from the corner of her eyes, intensely observing, that is anything but comfortable. This is not the feminine beauty inviting the male gaze as an object to please. The very opposite: hers is a provocative, often steely gaze, unrevealing, closed and entirely self-centered, and there is this stubborn withholding of any smile. In most of her self-portraits Frida seems to challenge anybody who looks at her with ambivalent and even aggressive messages: Don’t think that you know me, that you can read me like a book. You can look at me as long as you like but I dare you to come close. I am who I am and if you don’t like it, go to hell!
It seems fairly obvious that it would take women, many women, gazing back at Frida to read, appreciate and understand the ironies in this challenging gaze. Frida’s self-portraits created mass interest and excitement at a time when members of the "Second Sex" began struggling with the temptation to place themselves at center stage, the way Frida did in her paintings; when they looked at themselves, their objectification, the double-edged sword of beauty, with mixed feelings, like Frida seemed to have done. Learning the story of her life — her childhood polio, the almost fatal bus accident at 18, the tempestuous marriage to Diego (the incurable philanderer), her infertility, her frequent miscarriages and forced abortions, her imprisonment in hospital beds and plaster corsets — impressed women viewers as a particularly traumatic version of a woman’s life, a never-ending struggle with emotional and physical pain. This allowed for identification on multiple plans, making Frida the modern Madonna and Mater Dolorosa who painted her unfaithful husband lying in her lap.
But Frida Kahlo also took on and embodied the male counterpart of the Christian mythology: In one of her paintings (not shown in San Francisco), she is a doe-eyed stag pierced by arrows. In another, one of the most powerful portraits of the exhibition, she wears a crown of thorns around her neck and shoulders – "Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird" (1940). The passion of Christ is turned into the Passion of Frida. The heroic acceptance of suffering in her gaze was read as inexpressively sad. No doubt, in women’s eyes from the seventies onward, here was a sister who had been led like an innocent lamb to the slaughter, both by fate and by the faithless man she loved. (Diego is quoted on the back cover of one of the Frida books: "When I loved a woman I wanted to hurt her the more I loved her..."). The very fact of Frida’s repeating the same image over and over cast a spell and lent her work a ritual quality of sainthood.
Saint Frida would not have had the overwhelming impact had she not also been perceived as a rebel. In her paintings, the Christian imagery of silent suffering and victimhood – so toxic and confining for women – appears transcended into an act of a defiant survival: first and foremost through the act of creation; in her life through her fierce struggle for independence, trying to get even with Diego by taking women and men as lovers. Her work—the "autobio-mythography" of her face and body—was read as a record of rebellion, an exorcism, a bold expression of rage about all the sources of her pain – her broken body, her broken marriage, the broken bonds between men and women.
In the first room of the retrospective "Frida and Diego Rivera" (1931), la Belle et la Bête, are holding hands in a naive, childlike style that soon turns bloody with "Henry Ford Hospital" (1932), the unflinching scene of a miscarriage that looks like a botched abortion. A 1933 self-portrait in the style of an antique Italian fresco points to the discrepancy between exterior beauty and inner turmoil, perhaps self-doubt or even hatred; it has the words "Muy feo" (very ugly) written across the canvas. A whole number of what could be called rage and revenge paintings follow Diego’s philandering: "A Few Small Nips" (1935) shows a Frida look-alike as a dead prostitute covered with stab wounds on a bed in front of a thug holding the knife with a sick grin. During their divorce, in 1939, "The Suicide of Dorothy Hale" (1939) evokes the uncanny, chilling fall of a body from a skyscraper in three stages, coming ever closer through—or against—hard air and wind, finally hitting the pavement. "Two Nudes in the Forest" (1939), an idyllic jungle scene reminding one of the naive French painter Rousseau, has a naked woman lying in another woman’s lap, with no man in sight. Frida’s loneliness and self-division (before getting remarried to Diego) is visible in the largest painting of the show, "The Two Fridas" (1939) : one of them a bride, the other a painter, their hearts are connected by an open blood vessel that at any second might lead to both of them bleeding to death.
The Mexican tradition of retablos, paintings as prayers and vows (Ex-Votos), plays through Frida’s work in surprising ways as exorcism and as a powerful counterpoint to the suffering. Many paintings seem to transcend pain through a pagan-matriarchal vision of nature in the form of ancient Goddesses and their spirits – luxurious plants and animals. In this vision of earth-rooted power and healing Frida herself becomes in turn a baby suckling at the flowering breast of a pre-Columbian Great Goddess ("My Nurse and I", 1936) and she becomes a priestess dressed in the ritual garments of an ancient folk tradition, holding baby Diego in her lap while her eyes and the cosmos itself are shedding both milk and tears ("The Love Embrace of the Universe", 1949).
Objections from male critics have maintained that Frida Kahlo, with her narrow, repetitive range of topics and the "naive" style of her iconography, is necessarily a minor painter. Only recently, in a review of the retrospective, the New York Review of Books recapped this tradition of finding fault with her self-portraits: "….little is going on in these pictures. The paint application is dry, docile, and the same all over. Our eyes aren't made to jump—to readjust to changes in scale, texture, or space—as we take in the works, and Kahlo's expression from one painting to the next is remarkably unvaried. Altogether there is a sense of fuzziness and banality, and an obviousness of color, to her later work." Indeed, our eyes are not made to jump. This surely puts Frida back into her place: that of the little woman next to the male giants of painting.
Jumping eyes may not be the best way to penetrate Frida’s work. Just one close look at the animals accompanying her in her paintings is a lesson in her superb artistry. These animals (they could have been painted by any great master of the past) are so vibrant, so brilliantly alive under her brushstrokes that they seem to be imbued with a shamanic power. Some are apparent playmates, perhaps replacing the children Frida could not have. All of them appear to be allies who magically protect the wounded woman at the center. In "Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird" (1940), the monkey on her right shoulder plays with a thorny twig, embodying the playful innocence of a child unknowing of pain. The fierce black cat on her left shoulder seems to keep the demons of death at bay who threaten the artist with the fate of the hummingbird, tied up as the crowning jewel at the necklace. The bird is lifeless, muted, open-winged like Frida’s eyebrows and in the position of being crucified.
Looking closely at the quality of her work, the stare of her eyes that can appear
stereotypical in its hermeticness ("remarkably unvaried"), shows almost imperceptible shadings of emotion. It reminds me of a girl’s fascination with dressing up a paper doll in the most extravagant costumes: every one sheds a subtly different light on the personality of the doll and changes the felt expression of the face that objectively stays the same. One has to look and look again at Frida’s face to detect the change, to even name this elusive flicker of a mood—pride, strength, fierceness, rebellion, hopelessness, despair—that seems contained, by what? Some powerful artistic intention? Iron will and self control? A deeper understanding? A spiritual vision? Looking at Frida’s bold self-celebration against all odds—in radiant, luxurious colors — the eye always goes back to the center of her face, and meets a gaze that looks at life and death, offering neither judgment nor answers to their mysteries.