Vogue put her on the magazine’s cover in 1938, shortly after she impressed art luminaries at a gallery in New York City–her first solo show. Paris was next, and, in 1939, The Louvre bought one of her self-portraits, the first by a Latin American artist. Picasso was already a star when they became acquainted in Paris and he turned into an admirer, presenting her with a pair of earrings shaped like hands. In 1953, a year before her death, she arrived by ambulance for her first solo exhibition in Mexico City and held court from her four-poster bed. And yet, Frida Kahlo sold very few paintings during her lifetime and her celebrity was mostly attached to her husband’s, famous muralist Diego Rivera. Twenty years later she began to emerge on her own as a cultural icon and one of Mexico’s most famous painters. By 2001, she was the face of a new U.S. postage stamp; by 2002, the subject of the award-winning movie Frida starring Salma Hayek; by last Spring, one of her paintings sold for $8 million at auction.
Frida Kahlo is my new art obsession–a girl crush, you could say–thanks to a special exhibit at the Dallas Museum of Art. I’d been hearing about it for months, and finally managed to get there before it left town this past weekend. Mexico 1900-1950: Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Jose Clemente Orozco and the Avant-Garde debuted in Paris last fall, moved to Dallas in March, and is now headed home to Mexico. Chronologically, it took a while for the exhibit to get to Frida, who was born in 1907 and didn’t start to perfect her craft until the 1930s. As soon as I met up with her in a section called “Strong Women,” I was infatuated.
What did I know about the artist/woman going into the exhibit? Not all that much. Her paintings were kind of strange. She looked like nobody else: those eyebrows that met at the bridge of her nose–like a winged bird in flight! A hint of mustache. Photographs showed her in long, brightly colored Mexican dresses and elaborate hair accessories featuring flowers or fruit. At some point, she’d married the more famous Diego Rivera. Last but not least, I knew she’d survived a terrible accident in her youth but was sketchy on the details.
Even though my intent here is to obsess over Frida, it would be unfair to slight the men in the room. Their contribution to Mexican culture and the art world at large deserves a standing ovation. In 1910, after Mexico’s President/dictator Profirio Diaz rigged his re-election (at 80, he’d been in power for almost 35 years), the Mexican Revolution began. When it was over 10 years later, the incoming president wanted a way to unite the mostly illiterate country and handed the job to his Secretary of Education, Jose Vasconcelos. The secretary commissioned the country’s best artists to paint murals throughout Mexico. “The Big Three,” as they later became known, were: Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. They had different styles, but each worked to capture Mexico’s history, its people and heritage, the horrors of war, the beauty of everyday life, or the technology of the future. Internationally, Rivera became the most famous of the group, and private commissions took him to San Francisco, Detroit and New York City. During the Great Depression, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt drew inspiration from Mexico’s mural project and created his own Federal Art Project to put artists to work.
Frida started painting in bed–after a horrific accident at the age of 18. She’d been sitting with her boyfriend, riding home from university in Mexico City, when their bus collided with a trolley car. A metal handrail shot through her hip and came out the other side. She spent three weeks in the hospital with a crushed pelvis, a fractured spine, and a broken leg and foot. She was sent home in a body cast, where she recuperated for three months, and gave up on the idea of becoming a doctor. Her parents encouraged her painting, buying her the supplies and attaching a mirror to her bed so she’d have a subject to paint: herself. Over the course of her life, she would require 30 operations. (Life can be cruel: at age 6 she’d contracted polio, emerging with a stunted right foot and a limp.)
“I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.” Frida Kahlo
Diego Rivera entered her life three years later. She’d first encountered him at the university, standing on a piece of scaffolding as he worked on his first mural for the government. At 16, she was only one of 35 women at the university. Diego was twenty-one years older, a child prodigy who’d studied art in Europe for the duration of the Mexican Revolution. When they met up again, they were both members of the Communist Party. She asked for his artistic advice. He showed up weekly at her parents’ house, Casa Azul (Blue House), to instruct her in painting and to court her.
“It was obvious to me that this girl was an authentic artist.” Diego Rivera, writing about Frida’s first paintings.
When the couple tied the knot in 1929, her parents described it as a “marriage between an elephant and a dove.” He was 6 feet tall and about 300 pounds; she was only 5’3″ and petite. He’d already been twice divorced. Appearances aside, he was said to be charismatic, and his enormous talent must have served as an aphrodisiac. His two great loves were painting and women, and he was incapable of being faithful. Their relationship and his many affairs which broke her heart (including one with her sister) figure into much of her work. Of her approximately 150 paintings, over 50 were some sort of self-portrait. Frida has been called “mother of the selfie.” Today’s cell phone selfie is a way to insert oneself into the context of a larger story: a celebration, a “remember when” moment, or even an “I may not be the most important thing in this picture, but I was there–my life matters” moment.
Telling a personal story through her paintings became Frida’s trademark. She had almost no formal training–a few drawing lessons as a girl, a photographer for a father–but her husband was a great muralist and storyteller. Watching him work, she learned how to tell a story, but her paintings were more personal and smaller in scale. By all accounts, Frida and Diego had a deep bond and love for one another. They divorced in 1939 but remarried the following year. She had many of her own affairs (with men and women) and it’s easy to speculate that hers were payback for his, but who’s to really know? She died at 47, but despite all her physical and emotional pain, she continued to dress up in her colorful clothes, she continued to paint and laugh and love, and she continued to fight for causes she believed in. And after she was gone, she evolved into a cultural icon: for feminists, for gays, for other artists.
Frida Kahlo was one strong woman. By example, she was telling us that life is full of tragedy, despair and heartbreak, but it’s also a thing of beauty–and well worth fighting for.