Thursday, November 29, 2007
The Person She Knew Best
“I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone. I am the person I know best,” Hayden Herrera said yesterday during The Rose Susan Hirschhorn Behrend Lecture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, quoting the subject of her lecture, Frida Kahlo. Herrera, author of the indispensible biography of Frida, spoke for over an hour on the great artist, displaying the courage and artistry of Kahlo as well as her own scholarship and panache. As the sold-out crowd shuffled into the auditorium, the slide of Kahlo’s The Broken Column (above, from 1944) greeted us, as resolute and unflinching as Kahlo herself in the face of emotional and physical pain.
Herrera, who is currently working on a biography of Isamu Noguchi, centered her survey of Kahlo on the self-portraits, which Herrera sees as “substitute Fridas” the artist would send off into the world. Through her portraits, Herrera contended, Kahlo could “extend her being into the world and make herself known.” Although these portraits all show Frida “always fearfully alone,… her mask of reserve” almost never slips. When that mask slips slightly in her 1947 self-portrait, Diego and I, painted after Diego Rivera asked for a second divorce, the control of the other portrayals seems that much more remarkable.
Tracing the trajectory of Kahlo’s life from the first Self-Portrait (above, from 1926), Herrera captured both the obsession with death and the humor of her subject. Herrera knows Frida like few others, and knew all the right laugh lines to keep the often difficult subject matter palatable. Speaking of Madonna’s desire to play Kahlo in a movie, Herrera quipped, “Luckily, she didn’t.” The often absurd egotism of the “elephantine” Diego Rivera provided plenty of comic fodder as well. Such moments were welcome in the midst of Herrera’s retelling of Kahlo’s struggles with childlessness, illness, and finally drug abuse and suicide. Ending with the same image she began with—The Broken Column—Herrera beautifully described Kahlo as “a female Saint Sebastian” posing as the “heroic sufferer” never surrendering to the pain. Looking back to the Self-Portrait of 1926, you can actually see the toll the years had taken on Kahlo. The almost Renaissance princess of 1926 (demonstrating Kahlo’s affection for Botticelli and Bronzino) gives way to the mature artist looking out upon the world and demanding to be seen.
It was wonderful to see a sellout crowd, but I wish the demographic had been a little younger. Aside from myself and a handful of other non-museum personnel, the crowd was exclusively people over sixty. Certainly students and artists would have benefitted from hearing Dr. Herrera speak, if not just to learn more about Kahlo but to learn how a true art historian approaches a subject with respect, devotion, and affectionate humor. (Perhaps the PMA will make a podcast available.) Dr. Herrera’s lecture served as a great appetizer for the main course of the Frida Kahlo exhibition coming to the PMA next February.
[Many thanks to Dr. Herrera for signing my copy of her biography of Frida. I’ll save it for Alex (and the sister he may have someday) to read years from now.]