Tens of thousands of Mexicans, young and old, rich and poor, had been standing in line for hours to get a glimpse of Kahlo’s paintings and her personal relics: her snapshots, her brushes, her ashes, the steel orthopedic corsets she wore under her peasant blouses and skirts to hold a wrecked body together.
The celebration, one gathers, was not the usual Fridamaniacal crush. It was more a fiesta, a devotional jubilee, an hommage to a Mexican saint in the city where she was born in 1907 and died in 1954. I couldn’t make the trip, but suspect that the essential Kahlo experience is the same anywhere. Through her art, we travel her life, a shining path of high Modernist adventure and a Via Crucis of physical pain, political passion and amorous torment. Basically, she felt what we all feel, only hugely, terribly. This is what makes her the people’s artist she is. And what makes her, to those who don’t get her extremist vibe, a romantic cliché.
The lines are also long for “Frida Kahlo” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a distillation of the centennial show, with 42 of Kahlo’s small number of surviving paintings and a slew of photographs. As surveys go, it’s modest and compact, but for that reason quickly absorbed. That’s the way Kahlo enters your system, fast, with a jolt, an effect as unnerving, and even repellent, as it is pleasurable.
Organized by the Kahlo biographer Hayden Herrera and by Elizabeth Carpenter of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the show opens with a single painting, “Self-Portrait With Monkeys” (1943). Kahlo presents herself in half-length, her now-mythical attributes precisely detailed: the handlebar eyebrows, the faint mustache, the dark hair pulled up in a sculptural pile. She’s coolly self-contained, but she has company: a quartet of puckish monkeys. One hugs her neck; another tugs at her blouse, as if feeling for a breast. She is unperturbed. She is a nature deity, mistress of beasts; these creatures are her subjects and children. They are also her equals, her friends. She is one of them.
Immediately after this charismatic introduction, the show goes into documentary mode with four rooms of photographs, many from Kahlo’s personal collection. Arranged in rough chronological order, they provide a biographical framework, a context for the paintings.
In a family picture of a teenage Kahlo, taken by her father, an immigrant from Germany, she is already tailoring life to her taste: she is wearing a three-piece man’s suit. Next we see her in 1929, at 22 — or 19 by her count; she changed her birth year to 1910 to coincide with the beginning of the Mexican Revolution — as the bride of the muralist and fellow revolutionary Diego Rivera, a baby-faced blimp of a man more than 20 years her senior.
By this point Kahlo had been painting for only four years. She started while recuperating from a near-fatal streetcar accident that crushed her spine and pelvis, leaving her permanently crippled and unable to bear children. For her, art always had a therapeutic dimension. It pulled her through crises again and again, which perhaps helps explain why she turned herself into art.
Wearing indigenous Mexican skirts and shawls that minimized the physical evidence of the accident, she became a piece of multicultural theater. As such, she was an irresistibly exotic subject for photographers, and also for herself. Carl van Vechten played up her exoticism; Lola Álvarez Bravo played it down. In Kodachrome pictures by the Hungarian photographer Nickolas Muray she looks like a still life of ripe tropical fruit. In a 1930 painted self-portrait in the show, the exotic look is still in formation. She sits alone in a chair in front of a plain pink wall, staring, evaluating. The props are yet to come.
She had a long affair with Muray, and reputedly a short one with the émigré Leon Trotsky, as well as extended liaisons with several women. Some of these attachments were reactions to a volatile marriage and meant to punish her philandering husband.
That marriage was the pivot of her life, and she did a lot of her best work when it was at its worst. It was on the eve of her divorce from Rivera in 1939 that she painted “The Two Fridas,” one of her largest and most famous images. In it she appears as twins, one dressed in the native attire Rivera doted on, the other in a prim white Victorian gown. On both figures the hearts are exposed, a symbol with Christian and pre-Columbian roots: the sacred heart of Jesus, the heart ceremonially ripped from the chest in Aztec sacrifices.
Kahlo’s art is rich with such symbols. When most of her Mexican colleagues were focused on political murals, she was looking at tiny votive paintings, folk images of catastrophic deaths and miraculous resurrections, and modeling her work on them. She was also collecting pre-Columbian sculpture, as potent to her as any church art. In one particularly beautiful Kahlo painting — she thought highly of it — called “My Nurse and Me” (1937), we see Kahlo reduced to the size of an infant and suckled by a dark-skinned Madonna with a Teotihuacan mask for a face.
Surely there had never been in Western art a Virgin and Child like this one, fusing cultural worlds that otherwise rarely touched. Nor had there ever been an image of the Nativity — or is it a Crucifixion? — like her “Henry Ford Hospital” (1932), in which she lies naked on a blood-spattered bed after one of her several miscarriages and abortions, the dead fetus floating above her like a balloon.
Kahlo’s contemporaries didn’t know what to do with this art, so implacably frank. André Breton called it Surrealism, but Kahlo rejected the term. My painting is real, she said; it’s me, it’s my life. It was only in the 1960s and afterward, with the rise of feminism, gay rights and identity politics, that her work began to make sense. And then it made explosive sense: an artist who had been bending genders, blending ethnicities, making the personal political and revolutionizing the concept of “beautiful” generations earlier.
How she did what she did, even physically, is hard to fathom. Throughout her life she had some 30 surgical procedures, most related to the accident of her youth, none effective. In the 1944 painting called “The Broken Column” she depicts herself weeping big tears, her body split open, her spine a shattered monument. For some viewers this image goes too far, into melodrama, kitsch: Frida, Queen of Martyrs! But if you’ve given yourself over to Kahlo, you’re beyond kitsch, you’ve set aside learned rules of aesthetic decorum. You’ve given her permission to write her own rules. She does. They’re forceful.
The force came and went in her last years. She drank heavily and became addicted to painkillers. Her revolutionary politics went awry: Stalin was a savior; Mao, the hope of the future. She still painted, but mostly still lifes, woozy, citrusy things that would be sweet if they weren’t so bizarre, with their gashed and bleeding fruits.
She finally had her first Mexican solo show in 1953 and went to the opening on a stretcher. She would soon lose a leg to gangrene. In June 1954 she had herself pushed in a wheelchair to join a protest against North American intervention in Guatemala. A few days later she died in the Blue House, officially of pneumonia, though there has always been talk of suicide. Her funeral was at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, where her show hung last summer.
Like any cult figure she has detractors, who scoff at the meticulously calculated self-image in her art, at her opportunistic narcissism. Was she self-aggrandizing? Of course. As she said, she was her art. But her subjectivity was capacious and empathetic. It encompasses so much — politics, religions, sexualities, ethnicities — that it’s almost self-effacing. I would suggest that biographical detail is just the beginning for understanding Kahlo’s work. It is an art much bigger than the life that made it.
I would also suggest that accusations of megalomania derive partly from social biases. Picasso’s art is routinely viewed through the lens of biography, with groups of work said to be evidence of his emotional response to this woman or that, the active element being his genius. Few people seriously complain about this version of art as egomania. Picasso was expanding his creative territory. Kahlo didn’t know how to keep her place.
But, of course, she did know how to keep it and still does. That place is pretty much everywhere now, wherever her art is, in Mexico City, in Philadelphia, not to mention on the Internet, where there are countless thousands of Web sites dedicated to her. And because her images, especially her self-portraits, are like no others, they stay with you, travel with you. You want the Kahlo experience? You don’t have to wait. Close your eyes, and bring her face into your mind, where you are always first in line.
“Frida Kahlo” is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 26th Street, Philadelphia, (215) 763-8100, through May 18. It travels to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, June 14 to Sept. 28.