In this issue of the magazine, Peter Schjeldahl writes about Frida Kahlo and a retrospective of her work at the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis. Here is a selection of art work by Kahlo, as well as photographs of Kahlo and her husband, Diego Rivera.
There are so many ways to be interested in Frida Kahlo, who was born a hundred years ago and died forty-seven years later, in 1954, that simply to look at and judge her paintings, as paintings, may seem narrow-minded. No one need appreciate art to justify being a Kahlo fan or even a Kahlo cultist. (Why not? The world will have cults, and who better merits one?) In Mexico, Kahlo’s ubiquitous image has become the counter-Guadalupe, complementing the numinous Virgin as a deathless icon of Mexicanidad. Kahlo’s ascension, since the late nineteen-seventies, to feminist sainthood is ineluctable, though a mite strained. (Kahlo struggled not in common cause with women but, single-handedly, for herself.) And her pansexual charisma, shadowed by tales of ghastly physical and emotional suffering, makes her an avatar of liberty and guts. However, Kahlo’s eminence wobbles unless her work holds up. A retrospective at the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis, proves that it does, and then some. She made some iffy symbological pictures and a few perfectly awful ones—forgivably, given their service to her always imperilled morale—but her self-portraits cannot be overpraised. They are sui generis in art while collegial with great portraiture of every age. Kahlo is among the winnowed elect of twentieth-century painters who will never be absent for long from the mental museums of future artists.
She was born Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón in the house where she would die, in Coyoacán, then a prosperous suburb and later a district of Mexico City. She was the third child of a Hungarian-German immigrant photographer, who was an atheist Jew, and a pious mestiza from Oaxaca. Polio, at age six, withered her right leg and foot. She was among the rare girls admitted to the sterling National Preparatory School, in Mexico City, where she grew from an effervescent tomboy into a brilliant young woman, during the creative tumult of the nineteen-twenties. When she was eighteen, a bus crash left her with spinal and pelvic damage that would entail many surgeries, some of them probably unnecessary. (Was she masochistic? Anyone doomed to a lifetime of pain will find veins of sweetness in it.) While convalescing, she began to paint, depicting herself, in styles influenced by Renaissance and Mannerist masters, with the aid of a mirror set in the canopy of her bed. In 1928, she took up with Mexico’s chief artist, Diego Rivera, who was twenty years her senior. They married in 1929, divorced for a year in 1939, then remarried.
Rivera often remarked, correctly, that Kahlo was a better painter than he was. Picasso confessed himself incapable “of painting a head like those of Frida Kahlo.” André Breton praised her art—with enthusiasm marked by condescension—as “a ribbon around a bomb.” In point of fact, the ribbons and other feminine adornments that she renders are, themselves, rhetorically explosive. Breton also claimed her as an exemplar of international Surrealism. Wrong again. At her best, she is a better artist than any of the Surrealists except Salvador Dali at his best, unless early Giorgio de Chirico may be deemed Surrealist before the letter. Besides, the avant-garde most germane to Kahlo’s development in the twenties is that of German Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), which mined heightened realism for psychological drama. To this, she added fecund inspirations from Mexican pre-Columbian and folk art and Spanish-colonial and Creole portraiture. No swoons into the supposed unconscious—even most of her dream pictures are wide awake. She was terrific at still-lifes of fruit and flowers and at picturing animals—she intermittently maintained a menagerie of dogs, cats, parrots, and monkeys—all of which channel her consciousness. Kahlo’s self-portraits are about her gaze, as subject matter, technique, and content. They dramatize sheer attentiveness. They tell us exactly what it’s like to be Frida Kahlo, with, I believe, a superbly indifferent confidence that we will not understand. She confides, but she won’t plead. She makes eye contact not with the viewer but with herself—watching herself watch herself, in an extended but closed loop. T. S. Eliot articulated the truth, regarding all successful art, of a dissociation of “the man who suffers and the mind which creates.” Make the man a woman, and Kahlo becomes singular for having engaged both parties at once—and only them. Looking at the pictures, you’re not there.
The meaning of Kahlo’s art comes across in reproductions, but not its full dynamic, which involves brooding subtleties of surface and color. The reproduced images are shiny and bright. The paintings are matte and grayish, drinking and withholding light. (Their display calls for intense illumination—that of the Mexican sun, say. They should not be hung on white walls, as they are at the Walker, where the contrast makes them look like holes in a snowbank.) The lovely, highly varied, blushing colors (even Kahlo’s browns and greens blush) don’t radiate. Fused with represented flesh, foliage, fabrics, and, yes, ribbons and jewelry, they turn their backs to us. The payoff of this reticence is an absorption in the artist’s touch. It’s easy to fantasize that Kahlo’s brushes were fingertips, able to mold her own more than familiar features in the dark. The tactility of certain self-portraits is, among other things, staggeringly sexy. In “Me and My Parrots” (1941), it combines with sharp tonal contrasts of warm color to convey invisible moistness, as of a summertime, full-body, delicate sweat. Elsewhere, the felt oneness of sight and touch stirs harrowing empathy, as in “The Broken Column” (1944). Kahlo’s nude body is split open to reveal a crumbling pillar, nails penetrating her flesh everywhere. Tears flow from her eyes, but her face is dispassionate, as always. Her pain is not her. It just won’t let her mind stray to anything else, for the moment. The work belongs to a category of images with which Kahlo confronted and endured episodes of agony, including heartbreak and rage. (Most piercing are laments of her disastrous pregnancies; she longed for children but physically could not bring a baby to term.) They aren’t great art, but they are moving testaments of a great artist.
Blisteringly scornful of self-importance—in a letter from Paris, in English, she lauded Marcel Duchamp as “the only one who has his feet on the earth, among all this bunch of coocoo lunatic sons of bitches of the surrealists”—Kahlo would surely raise her prodigious eyebrow to behold what has been made of her. But immortal fame rarely meshes with the temperament of those it befalls. It is about the wishes of others. In Kahlo’s case, the ways that she has been used by feminists, multiculturalists, bisexualists, and whatnot are readily defensible. Each catches the glint from one of her facets. Most of all, Kahlo is authentically a national treasure of Mexico, a country that her work expresses not merely as a culture but as a complete civilization, with profound roots in several pasts and with proper styles of modernity. She didn’t accomplish this by trying to, as Rivera did. She simply did it. For confirmation, visit her house, the Casa Azul, in Coyoacán, whose contents and décor are as vibrant with her presence as if she had just stepped outside. I should disclose that I’m nearly a Kahlo cultist, myself. Much that is hurt and disappointed in me feels momentarily allayed, and almost healed, when I am in the spell of her art. Like the serene Madonnas of Giovanni Bellini, with their hints of the coming Crucifixion, her self-portraits assure me of two things: first, that things are worse than I know, and, second, that they’re all right.