Frida Kahlo at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Seldom does an art review need a little context from the perspective of the reviewer's own historical involvement with the work being reviewed, as this one does.
In 1975, I visited Mexico City and discovered the works of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Almost immediately, I developed an artistic obsession with Kahlo's image and over the years I have created hundreds of works on that subject, including dozens of art school assignments at the University of Washington School of Art (1977-1981).
Although the vast majority of those works were sold over the years, a few years ago I had a solo show in Washington, DC that chronicled 27 years of preparatory drawings, etchings, oil paintings, watercolors and sculptures about Kahlo.
In 1975 my parents took their first vacation ever, at least in my memory. As Cuban exiles, the American tradition of yearly vacations was as removed from their routine as the Cuban tradition of Nochebuena is from American Christmas holiday customs.
Anyway, they decided to go to Mexico City for a week with another couple from New York, which is where my folks had been living since leaving Cuba as political refugees in the early 60s. In 1975 I was finishing my first year in the US Navy, where I had enlisted right after High School, and stationed aboard USS Saratoga, homeported in Mayport, Florida.
I had turned down a New York State Regents Scholarship, a Cornell University art scholarship and a Boston University art scholarship to satisfy my desire to see the world before I went to college.
Mexico City and its nightlife and food (and how far a dollar went) made such an impression upon my parents and their friends, that the one-week trip became two, and eventually they spent nearly a month in that huge, dirty city, enjoying the food, scenery, clubs and markets. They also asked me if I'd like to join them for a few days, and since they were paying for it, I got a few days leave and flew to Mexico City for about five days of my own, unexpected vacation.
I hardly spent any time with them. As a 19-year-old teenager, my interests were more focused on girls, cheap booze and plenty of great things to do. It was while visiting a museum during the last few days of my visit, that I accidentally discovered Frida Kahlo.
I remember walking into the museum salon where the Two Fridas hung. It was love, or more like witchcraft, at first sight. This large, spectacular painting swallowed my visual senses and attention as no work of art would do again until I first saw Velasquez's Las Meninas at the Prado in Madrid eight years later.
At that first exposure, and the ones that followed over the years, as I tried to absorb as much of Frida Kahlo as I could in my remaining Mexico City days, I became an addict for the work and imagery of this Champagne Communist Mexican virago. I recall sitting down in the room where the Two Fridas was hung, and copying the painting through a pencil sketch done on gift wrapping vellum paper from an earlier touristy purchase of a huge, saucepan sized solid silver belt buckle and brown cowboy etched leather belt that I wore for years and that thankfully has been now lost.
Kahlo left me gasping for knowledge about her and her work. Her imagery was like nothing I had seen before, even in my childhood's New York atmosphere that often included day-long trips to the Brooklyn Museum, the Met, MOMA and many other New York museums.
The more of her work that I discovered, the more I became obsessed with learning about her. In 1975 and the first few years that followed, this wasn't exactly an easy task. In those years, at least in Mexico, Kahlo was still just Diego Rivera's wife; a wife who also happened to paint.
And thus my burning interest in visiting the massive Frida Kahlo exhibition which opened a few weeks ago at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA).
PMA is the only East Coast venue for this major exhibition, the first in nearly 15 years to be devoted to Kahlo's work. It includes more than 40 of Kahlo's paintings, including many that have never been exhibited before, and others which have never been seen in the United States. You can see the exhibition in the video below:
The exhibition was organized by the Walker Art Center working with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and curated by Kahlo biographer Hayden Herrera, whose brilliant Kahlo biography is a must read for Kahlophiles worldwide, and by the Walker's associate curator Elizabeth Carpenter.
In addition to the Kahlo works, the curators have included over 100 photographs from Kahlo's personal collection, some of which have been annotated and drawn on by Kahlo.
Among them are images by Tina Modotti, Nickolas Murray, Gisele Freund and many others. They truly help to create a sense of place and time and aura around some of the most iconic imagery from 20th century art.
The PMA show also adds some additional materials from the museum's own collection. These works, mostly ex-votos works, really add a brilliant insight to Kahlo's influences. The PMA additions were curated by the PMA's Michael Taylor and Emily Hage; more on that later.
A proper Kahlo primer demands the reading of Hayden Herrera's Kahlo biography or at the very least the viewing of Selma Hayek's Frida movie.
The film was the most recent of a curious worldwide Kahlomania that shows little sign of slowing down. It is especially curious in the sense that the artist who now represents "Mexicanity" to its most profound depth, was essentially ignored in her own country for many years, both during and after her lifetime (Kahlo died in 1954), and only had one exhibition of her works in Mexico (in 1953), just before she died.
Kahlo was born in 1907, and in 1929 she married Diego Rivera. At the time he was perhaps Mexico's best-known artist and womanizer, and their relationship was turbulent, to say the least. It also provided the subject matter for some of Kahlo's best-known works.
Almost upon entry we see "Frieda [sic] and Diego Rivera," painted in 1931. Painted while Kahlo and Rivera were living in San Francisco, this work was first exhibited at the 6th Annual Exhibition of the San Francisco Society of Women Artists. It's a rather sad double portrait, where Kahlo paints Rivera's profession as an artist, and depicts herself as a traditional Mexican wife, even taking Rivera's last name when she signs the work "Frieda [sic] Rivera." Their hands barely touch each other.
Kahlo was a woman of multiple identities, but this one is far from the Frida Kahlo who has become an unexpected icon to the world's feminist movement. And yet this early work provides a seminal entry point to Kahlo's deep debt to Mexican folk art, and what Herrera calls "Mexicanidad" (or Mexicanity), a post-revolutionary idea formulated by Mexico's intelligentsia to carve out a Mexican identity based upon its own rich indigenous history and its mestizo culture.
And over the years a distinct and very Mexican icon would emerge. An artist who has also become a separate icon not only to the same Mexicans who mostly ignored her while she was alive, but also to the new culture of Mexican-Americans once known as Chicanos who have since adopted her as an iconic cultural leader of their re-discovered Mexicanity.
A genetic and iconic paradox emerges in this latter deification of Kahlo. In 1936's "My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree)," Kahlo has depicted her own family tree proudly reflecting her own mestizo heritage, exhibited by her maternal grandfather's indigenous blood.
She also showcases her three Caucasian grandparents, and even depicts herself being sustained inside her mother and we also see the moment of creation as an European sperm enters her mother's mestizo egg. Kahlo shows herself as a small child in her Blue House, perhaps sadly stating the end of the line, as Kahlo was unable to bear children.
Kahlo's Mexicanity would grow and progress over the years, and she embraced the traditions of Mexican folk art and the colonial religious paintings known as "ex-voto" with a ferocity that is a perfect example why the post-modernist war cry of "it's been done before" fails immediately no matter how often repeated.
"So what?" would have answered Frida Kahlo as she used the ex-votos as guides for some of her most successful works.
In "The Suicide of Dorothy Hale," we have an opportunity that no one else got to see at the Walker or will see in SF. An opportunity to see, side by side, how Kahlo embraced an older tradition and brought it forward to her own painting dialogue.
Commissioned by Clare Booth Luce in 1939 (while Kahlo was living in New York as a bit of a Champagne Communist) to commemorate the suicide of her friend Dorothy Hale, I was told by Hayden Herrera that it "horrified" Luce when she first saw it.
It is a painting executed in the direct style of the ex-votos, and somehow the PMA has found in its own collection an ex-voto that almost matches the storyline of the Kahlo painting.
An ex-voto is a votive painting commissioned by someone to celebrate or record an event where someone has survived a dangerous event. In Mexico, it was generally painted on tin sheets. Often the ex-voto has a narrative style that shows the progression of the event, in a timeline, in the actual work.
In the Kahlo painting we see Dorothy Hale jumping to her suicide, first as a small figure jumping off her apartment building, which is surrounded by clouds echoing El Greco. We then see Hale's body in a close up of her fall, and finally the broken and bloodied woman on the ground. A banner at the bottom of the painting tells the story in Spanish, and Kahlo has bloodied her signature and even the frame.
In the PMA's ex-voto, titled "Fall from a Balcony," we see a Nanny and child falling through the floor of a balcony, which has given way under their weight. We also see them on the ground, having fallen and miraculously survived the fall. The banner at the bottom relates the story of the fall.
It's a brilliant juxtapositioning of two unrelated works that cement the powerful influence of ex-voto upon Kahlo's own work as no words can describe.
Brilliant artists borrow from all sources around. The Beatles' "A Day in the Life" borrowed from the morning newspaper headlines that Sir Paul was reading over his beans on toast:
I read the news today oh boyKahlo's horrific "A Few Small Nips," painted in 1935, is a revelation in many ways. As Herrera tells the story, Kahlo was inspired to make this gruesome painting, which depicts a man in a bloodbath of an assault on a naked woman who has been stabbed many times, from a newspaper story relating the crime.
Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire
And though the holes were rather small
They had to count them all
Now they know how many holes
it takes to fill the
The killer, while being reprimanded by the judge, was quoted as responding that he had only given the victim a "few small nips."
The work came at a difficult time in Kahlo's own life, when her marriage to Rivera was on the rocks, because Rivera had an affair with Kahlo's younger sister Cristina. The painting is a visual bloodbath itself; Kahlo's misery is projected onto victim lying naked on a bloodied bed. There's blood everywhere, including the frame, which Kahlo has used to extend the bloodstains.
And there's something else that even a Kahlo expert such as Herrera first discovered when she saw this painting for the first time during this exhibition: Kahlo has also stabbed the frame repeatedly, extending her own anger onto the wood, giving it a few small nips of her own.
This is why sometimes even a familiar work of art yields new clues when examined for real; those angry stabs on the frame had not been revealed in the countless reproductions of this work.
This revelation alone is worth a trip to see this exhibition. See Hayden Herrera discuss the work below:
Another incarnation of Frida Kahlo was her ability to paint her own pain. Starting with a horrific accident in her youth, which left her body broken and subject to pain throughout the rest of her life as well as countless operations, Kahlo borrowed from her own physical pain to deliver images that makes us wince from a different place than the images of a suicide or a stab victim.
Physical pain that comes from a deep moist place inside us all, and which Kahlo has exposed via her painting many times.
It's there in "The Broken Column," (c. 1944) and also in "Without Hope," and perhaps in one of her best-known paintings "The Little Deer," where the pain becomes arrows on the deer's body.
There are surprises in this show as well. Even for a Fridaphile like me and I suspect for most acolytes of Fridamania. Such as "The Circle," a round work that is undated and look nothing like any Kahlo work that I have ever seen.
And then there is "The Two Fridas" just as I remember from my first exposure to it back in the mid 1970s. This is her largest work, painted in 1939 and occupying a place of honor in the exhibition.
Two gigantic Fridas sitting against an El Greco sky, holding hands and sharing a bloodline. One is a Mexican Frida in her Tehuana dress; the other Frida is bloodied and the dripping vein paints small red flowers on her white dress; perhaps a contemporary European wedding dress of the times.
See curators Herrera and Carpenter discuss the work below (the video is part 1 of 3; the rest are at YouTube):
I hope that this exhibition will kindle new interest not only from her legions of fans, but also from art scholars and researchers, as there are still many holes and gaps that need to be identified and expanded in this amazing life.
Kahlo's influence on contemporary art also needs serious examination by art scholars and researchers. Kahlo's obsession with her own image has been reflected in the work of many important contemporary artists and photographers who use their body and image as the canvas for their work.
And even as Fridamania continues to expand and her images commodified into Chinese made Mexican souvenirs of all kinds, Frida Kahlo is a major 20th century artist, perhaps even eclipsing her husband's place in art history.
Like Picasso, Kahlo refused to be labeled and refused to produce one style or genre of work. “God is really only another artist," once said Picasso, "He invented the giraffe, the elephant, and the ant. He has no real style. He just goes on trying other things."
Frida Kahlo is at the PMA through May 18, 2008. See a quick walk-through the exhibition below: