International Frida-mania has made Frida Kahlo a feminist icon, Surrealist inspiration, kitsch archetype and unibrow heroine. We forget that though the Mexican painter had ardent followers she was neither a role model nor famous when she died at age 47. Fame belonged to her husband, the muralist Diego Rivera.
To get to the heart of Kahlo's art, we have to peel back the layers of mythology, thick as impasto. As an artist she was usually very good, even excellent, and certainly original. Great? Probably not. She didn't go for greatness. Kahlo (1907-54) was most interested in exploring suffering with a visual rhetoric based on her own horrific experiences, making paintings that become meditations on life embraced with joy and conviction no matter the challenges.
"Frida Kahlo at the Dalí" is a timeline of her growth as an artist, using paintings and drawings, and as a person, using dozens of photographs from her personal albums as well as quotes from and about her. She was a genius at providing provocative observations.
The photographs especially help to cut through the cliches and oversimplifications that tend to dominate public discourse about her. Most were taken by friends. They show her in a positive light — people rarely grimace for the camera — but they are windows into how others saw her in contrast to the art, which was often about how she saw herself.
The museum always mounts elegant installations, and in this instance, the exhibition creates a flow through her biography in an intimate, eloquent way. This is the first solo Kahlo show in Florida, making accessible to many the original works rather than reproductions in books. The caveat for those fortunate few who have seen the occasional large exhibitions in U.S. or international museums (especially in Mexico) is that the Dalí was able to borrow only 15 paintings. Their size might surprise viewers; most are small. This is probably, at least in part, because of her physical limitations. She couldn't climb ladders or scaffolding and didn't have assistants to fill in spaces.
We see few examples of art from her early years. Kahlo contracted polio when she was 6 and was bedridden for months, so her father, a commercial photographer, gave her art supplies to help her pass the time. But once she recovered, he encouraged her to engage in athletic activities even though one of her legs was permanently shorter.
Kahlo's fearlessness was apparent even in childhood, when she would challenge anyone to best her physically. But photographs of Kahlo as a child show her most of the time conventionally dressed in frilly frocks appropriate for a culture which leaned toward European influences.
In 1922, she was accepted at the prestigious National Preparatory School in Mexico City, one of only 35 girls out of 2,000 students. Her courses focused on science with an aim to enter medical school and become a doctor. That first year, she met Rivera, a leading light of the new Mexican mural movement, who had been commissioned by the government to paint a mural at her school. The encounter was of no consequence to Rivera and probably little to Kahlo. But it was the beginning of one of the two central events that changed her life.
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The second occurred on Sept. 17, 1925, when a bus bearing her home from school was struck by a trolley. Some people died, others were unscathed. Kahlo was critically injured by a rod that impaled her abdomen, along with many broken bones including some in her spinal column. She survived, though her devastated body endured dozens of operations through the years that never fixed much. She convalesced after the accident at her family home for several months, and Kahlo began to paint on a custom easel and mirror installed so she could work lying on her back.
A drawing in the show commemorates the first anniversary of the accident. While stylistically it doesn't hint at her later works, it has multiple elements, real or seen as if in a dream, that would inhabit her mature canvases. Her body is wrapped in bandages while she lies on a bed; her eyes are closed and above her hovers another face of the artist looking out and away from the carnage. The accident itself is pictured at the top, a violent scene full of bodies.
Beside it a painting, The Bus, from 1929 alludes to the bus on which Kahlo rode that fateful day but doesn't reference the accident itself. Five adults and a child sit on a bench, each representing a certain class, from barefoot peasant to well-to-do merchant, all sitting together. Through windows we see the countryside give way to factories. The characters and setting represent the amalgam of Mexico at that time, more than a decade after the upheaval of the years-long Mexican Revolution, a civil war in which the rights of the various classes of people were at stake. The painting itself isn't sophisticated; it could be characterized as part of the folk art tradition, especially since Kahlo was teaching herself how to paint. Implicit in it is a sense of foreboding; the placidity of the ride is about to be interrupted by the crash. Some of the passengers will live, some will die.
Though she was self-taught, Kahlo was well-versed in Western art. In Portrait of Alicia Galant (1927) her friend is painted in Renaissance style with an attenuated body, her pale skin glowing against a deep purple dress. Anatomically, the work has a problem. Notice how out of proportion the right arm and hand are. Yet it's arresting, not least because of the very non-Renaissance background in which stylized trees, resembling those of Mexico, and stars shimmer in isolation in a landscape that isn't barren but magical and mysterious. It prefigures other backgrounds in later paintings that were to enchant the European Surrealists. "Backgrounds" would disappear. No middle ground would yield to a distant landscape that might assume a later journey. Her paintings were of the here and now with no promise of a future.
Kahlo had sought Rivera's assessment of her fledging talent, and he encouraged her. She encouraged his attentions, and they married in 1929. Theirs was a complex relationship unified by their temperaments and egos with one constant: Each had an unwavering belief in the other's talent. For the next several years, the couple traveled extensively outside of Mexico because of Rivera's commissions. At this point, Kahlo began eschewing modern dress in favor of that reflecting the indigenous culture of Mexico. Obviously, she created a sensation in the United States and Europe.
More important, her art begins to incorporate a form of realism that tells a deeper truth than a surface narrative. A powerful example is Henry Ford Hospital (1932), which depicts her miscarriage during a stay in Detroit. It is one of the most explicit portraits of inconsolable grief, in which Kahlo lies tethered to a hospital bed stained by blood by strands that resemble ribbons or umbilical cords, connected to literal and symbolic images including a fetus. The bed is planted on barren earth and in the background rises a line of sterile industrial buildings.
Kahlo was unable, because of the accident, to bring a baby even close to term. Not helping was her husband's inability to be faithful. Throughout their years together, he had many affairs and she retaliated with her own, but probably the most devastating for her was his liason with her sister Christina. Kahlo doesn't point fingers in her paintings. Moral judgments on such lapses probably paled in light of her struggle to survive in the fullness of the life given to her.
In Kahlo's mature works, a lifetime of influences coalesces. Self Portrait With Small Monkey is worked in her it's-all-about-the-foreground style. The 1945 painting shows the typically unsmiling artist entwined in a golden ribbon which connects her to a pre-Columbian statue, one of hundreds she and Rivera collected in a nod to Mexico's origins before Spanish Colonialism. She is accompanied by a monkey, a stand-in for Rivera, who kept them as pets, and her favorite little dog, a Xolotl, which is the national dog of Mexico. They act as talismen and protectors.
The ribbon also encircles a nail, which Kahlo uses in The Broken Column (1944) multiple times as stigmata piercing her body. She is seminude in this work, her torso enveloped in straps like the many harnesses she wore for her back. Her neck and torso are cut open to reveal a column, not the spinal one but a shattered Ionic one. Her hair is loose, an unusual arrangement. Instead of tears, her eyes rain drops of milk. As always, they make direct contact with the viewer but there is uncharacteristic doubt in them. And weariness. And no expression of religious ecstasy like that present in the centuries-old paintings of Christian martyrs by which she seems inspired. This isn't a work of triumph or redemption. Hers is a 20th century existential statement that acknowledges personal and global atrocities with not an answer but the question: Why?
The most moving works for me are in the final gallery, both painted in 1945. They bring thoughts of the Black Paintings of Francisco de Goya, the great Spanish painter of the late 18th century.
The Chick seems charming enough. The baby bird perches on twigs in front of an elaborate arrangement of plant life overrun with spider webs and insects. It references the memento mori genre, "Remember you must die." Yet there's more to it. The bird looks up at the inevitable destruction and its expression hearkens to Goya's apprehensive dog facing an unknown void.
The Mask (of Madness) is overtly disturbing. In the self-portrait, Kahlo holds a mask of a weeping woman over her face, fake purple hair below her own dark braids. Like that of the chick, it's a visage of uncertainty and goes further in being one of grotesqueness, as if the unseeing mask watches the dawning horror of Goya's Saturn Devouring His Children. It's a rare example of the artist distancing herself from reality.
Forget labels. Kahlo rejected the approbation of the Surrealists and wouldn't have known what feminism was because the word hadn't been invented. Her exotic way of dressing wasn't an affectation. It was an identification with what she considered the true Mexico before Spanish colonization, and she wore the headdresses and colorful clothes daily as we see in the photographs.
Frida Kahlo is an important artist, and I'm not putting the limiting "female" next to "important." She gave voice to a new kind of self-portrait that was self-referential without being self-indulgent. Hers find the keen balance between clear-eyed reportage of facts and the companion reality of their consequences. No mediative grace intervenes between Kahlo and her travails.
In this show, we see the dichotomy of the her life: the woman longing for normalcy in the photographs, the artist determined to face the limitations of her non-normal life in the art.
So what is the difference between great and important?
Kahlo was beyond healing, but more time might have led to ever more powerful evocations of the central theme of nonredemptive suffering. That might have put her in the front ranks. Over time, I hope, the obsession with the persona we have created will subside and her art can be assessed without so much hoo-haw surrounding it.