Painting Her Reality: Frida Kahlo

Posted by in May's Magazine

Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderón is perhaps the unlikeliest of heroines. The late Mexican artist became the idol of America’s 52 million Hispanic/Latin American population, academics and feminists have re-evaluated her work and young people have created a Kahlo cult complete with T-shirts, Japanese Kokeshi dolls, books, posters and comics. Back in the 1990s at the height of Kahlomania a Mexican shoe manufacturer made Kahlo slippers the toes of which were decorated with a bushy fringe that mimicked Kahlo’s signature eyebrows, which met in the middle.

Now a new exhibition and book bring Kahlo to another generation. The exhibition, Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up at the V&A in London brings a fresh perspective on Kahlo’s compelling life story through her personal belongings. In the book, Hidden Frida Kahlo, Helga Prignitz-Poda writes: ‘Her work always revolved around herself [and] is perhaps so popular today, as queen of the selfie, because her constant self-reflection and loneliness represent the fundamental issues of our time. In the longing for closeness, the constantly questioning gaze directed towards the viewer is the driving force of her work’.


She has been nominated as one of the top women of the 20th century. And has been a touchstone for activists interested in disability rights and identity politics. In 2002 Salma Hayek starred in a Hollywood biopic usurping Madonna who had long wanted to play Kahlo in a movie of the artist’s life story. Madonna famously owned Kahlo’s My Birth, a graphic and disturbing picture showing Kahlo’s adult head emerging from her mother. Madonna said. “If someone doesn’t like the painting then I know they can’t be my friend… I identify with Kahlo’s pain and sadness.” (The music video for Madge’s 1994 song Bedtime Story was heavily influenced by Kahlo.)

So how did a disabled, bisexual, Hispanic woman become a cult figure among feminists, academics, pop stars and Hispanics? Kahlo began painting at 16; she married the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera in 1928 and after her death in 1954 her house in Mexico City became a museum. It was in the mid-1980s that Kahlo’s name came to prominence again, when the Mexican government decreed her art a national treasure.

Since then critics have hailed her the greatest artist Mexico has ever produced. ‘Her greatest appeal is her strength in adversity’, wrote Kahlo’s biographer Hayden Herrera, ‘and her chief subject was pain, pain caused by the slow deterioration of her body due to injuries suffered in a streetcar [accident] when she was 18’. In 30 years Kahlo had more than 30 operations, she suffered lifelong back-pain, had a foot amputated and became addicted to painkillers. Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly? Is one of her many inspirational quotes and, according to the late writer Angela Carter, a lifelong fan, Kahlo was “a connoisseur of physical suffering.”

Throughout her stormy 25 year marriage she depicted the agony of her injuries and the heartache inflicted on her by Rivera’s many extramarital love affairs (one with her sister). “For a society drawn to notions of victimisation, Kahlo is certainly an alluring victim. ‘For people preoccupied with psychological health, the gritty strength with which she endured her illness is salutary’ – wrote Herrera in 1983.

Griselda Pollock, academic and author of several books on women and art, points out, “The reason she is such a powerful figure is that Kahlo’s art is available to so many different constituencies.” But Pollock was critical of so-called Kahlomania, which tends to take Kahlo’s life and work out of context and exploit it. “I’m delighted her work has become more well-known but it is important to retain the accuracy of people’s understanding of Kahlo’s life and not to see it just as a dramatic story.”

Pollock has also been critical of the myth that because Kahlo was unable to have children she was driven to paint, often with an uncompromising vision. “No allowance is made for complexity or ambiguity and certainly no independent sexuality. Kahlo is being seen as a woman exquisitely beautiful but ultimately doomed. It’s much more important that she lived a long life, had a complicated relationship with Rivera, that she had relationships with men and women, and fully explored her identity.”

Frida specialised in self-portraits, one of which was sold in 1990 in New York for nearly $1.5 million, the most at the time ever paid at auction for a Latin American work of art. “I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone,” Kahlo once said. Years later, Angela Carter wrote memorably; ‘the face in the self-portraits is not that of a woman looking at the person looking at the picture; she is not addressing us… It is the face of a woman looking at herself, subjecting herself to the most intense scrutiny, almost to an interrogation’. Herrera talks of Kahlo never flinching from facing her own pain. “When she displays her wounds we immediately know that those wounds stand for all human suffering. She is a kind of secular saint. People look at her image and find strength’. 

Info: Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up opens at the V&A, London on 18th June. Hidden Frida Kahlo – Lost, Destroyed or Little-known Works by Helga Prignitz-Poda (Prestel Publishing £39.99)

Twitter @KenWilson84

Photo/Illustration: Frida Kahlo Rue de l’Ourq by Marko93-Jeanne Menjoulet

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