San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, June 14 – September 28, 2008
Was it just coincidence that questions about our attitude toward women’s achievement hit the front pages the same week that Frida Kahlo’s centenary retrospective opened at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art?
Well, yes. The flurry of news stories weren’t about Kahlo but another long-suffering woman and the misogyny that erupted in response to her presidential campaign. Still, I found myself wondering: is Kahlo the Clinton of the art world, a courageous barrier-breaker in a male-dominated arena? Or is she art’s Hillary, who has attracted legions of worshipful fans by shamelessly playing the victim card?
I went into Frida Kahlo, which was organized by the Walker Center in Minneapolis in association with SFMOMA, leaning toward the latter point of view. I came away convinced that, however irritating Kahlo the icon may be, as a painter she’s too good and too weird not to take seriously.
The retrospective first opened at the Walker last year (Kahlo was born in 1907) and traveled to Philadelphia before coming to its final stop in San Francisco. Along with a trove of photographs of Kahlo and her circle, many never exhibited before, the show offers dozens of the selfportraits for which Kahlo is best known plus depictions of flowers and fruit, portraits of Kahlo’s friends and relatives, and mystical Symbolist mash-ups—42 paintings in all.
The knock on Kahlo is that her fame has less to do with art per se than with the “victim chic” of her biography—polio at six, a gruesome, crippling trolleycar accident at 19, marriage, divorce, and remarriage to Rivera, incessant infidelities, miscarriages, and surgeries—and the fact that, as a half-Jewish, half-mestiza, intermittently lesbian, disabled Mexican woman, she’s a veritable political-correctness punch line. It doesn’t help that she’s also wildly popular with people who are more likely to read People than ArtForum.
Indeed, many of Kahlo’s images are so familiar that encountering them in person is like a celebrity sighting: they’re smaller than you expect, yet denser with significance than anything else in the room. But unlike many celebrities, they look better in real life than on glossy paper. The brushwork and colors are more delicate, and the paintings’ slightly overcast patina give them a depth that make the reproductions look a bit brassy by comparison.
Her smaller, cruder self-portraits are full of surprises, such as the red-veined plant growing around and through the artist’s body in one picture, or another’s monstrous masked woman suckling the infant Kahlo from a transparent breast. The large, more highly finished autorretratos are riveting, particularly those in which Kahlo surrounds herself with animal familiars— monkeys, parrots, a cat, a dog—that amplify her fierce, shamanic presence.
Even when Kahlo painted beings other than herself, her egotism infused them with magic. A 1938 still life of a pile of gray rocks and magenta cactus fruit, overseen by a tiny Dia de los Meurtos figurine, is luscious and tragic, the specter of oblivion making the cut-open fruits’ speckled flesh seems all the sweeter. A 1937 portrait of her husband, the muralist Diego Rivera, depicts the man she adored and resented all her adult life as both frog and prince; it’s a mug shot that’s also a love letter.
In Kahlo’s day, even more than ours, serious painting was about expanding the canon, even (viz. Rivera and his muralist peers) changing the world. The artist’s hungry ego could be masked and justified by the pursuit of Truth, Justice, Art. Kahlo burned with ambition, but she did not conceal that her own needs—for expression, attention, validation—were the whole point. Truth and the rest, if they turned up, were side effects. If Hillary Clinton offends by being too obviously ambitious, Kahlo irks by redefining ambition as purely selfish.
But Kahlo’s lack of restraint evokes, at her best, the most exuberant outsider art. Not that Kahlo was an outsider. But she adapted many of the forms and formulas of Mexican folk art to her own ends, using the frontal simplicity and careful brushwork of naïve portraiture and the narrative techniques of retablos and ex votos to tell the story she found compelling: her own. Her combination of visual imagination, unrepentant solipsism, and disregard of art-world propriety is flat-out exhilarating.
That doesn’t mean Kahlo is easy to take. I’m happy to look at her paintings but grateful not to know her. Too much of her pain—her jealous infatuation with the notoriously promiscuous Rivera, her addiction to surgery, painkillers, and alcohol—was self-inflicted, raising the question of whether her art consoled her for her suffering or demanded ever more of it.
Her all-consuming personality sometimes threatens to overwhelm the pictures on the wall. So does the “Fridamania” that transforms everything from her eyebrows to her miscarriages into a marketing brand. But the best of her pictures, particularly the self-portraits, survive their maker, and her fans and detractors as well.
Tessa DeCarlo claims to have a few illusions remaining.