Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Naked Truth

Julien Levy, Frida Kahlo, New York, 1938. Vicente Wolf Photography Collection. © 2001 Philadelphia Museum of Art

When her friend, photographer, and lover Julien Levy took Frida Kahlo’s photograph of her topless, unbraiding her hair (above), Levy called it “a fantastic liturgy.” In the current exhibition of Kahlo’s art at the PMA, we see a new Kahlo revealed in celebration of the centennial of her birth last year in a liturgy of art and personality just as fantastic. Through Kahlo’s own paintings and photographs of her and those closest to her heart, the layers of (both imposed and self-created) myth obscuring the flesh and blood woman and the significant modernist artist are lifted. Guest curator Hayden Herrera, the queen of Kahlo scholarship dating back to her groundbreaking biography, and co-curator Elizabeth Carpenter unbraid the complicated strands of “Fridamania” to present a new view of this so very visible artist.

Frida Kahlo, Henry Ford Hospital, 1932. Oil on metal, 12-13/16 x 15-13/16 inches. Collection Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño, Mexico City © 2007 Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust. Av. Cinco de Mayo No. 2, Col. Centro, Del. Cuauhtémoc 06059, México, D.F.
In the catalogue to the exhibition, Victor Zamudio-Taylor, in his essay “Frida Kahlo, Mexican Modernist,” deconstructs the two-sided coin that is the cult of Kahlo known as “Fridamania.” “This has been a mixed blessing insofar as the concern with her persona and life story has made it difficult to evaluate the importance of her art within the history of modernism,” Zamudio-Taylor writes. He believes that the mainstream embracing of Kahlo’s work comes “at the cost of recognition of the innovative character of her work.” Amazingly, the uniqueness of Kahlo’s work loses impact through this familiarity. To correct this, Zamudio-Taylor calls for a restoration of Kahlo’s work as “ex-centric, that is to say, outside the center or mainstream.” Secondly, although he recognizes the power of Frida to galvanize special interest groups, he sees that adoption as robbing the works of the power of “paradox,” and asks that the “contradictions” in the paintings be “allowed to remain as such” rather than find resolution in woman’s rights issues, Mexican nationalism, gay civil rights, etc. Lastly, he hopes for a restoration of “the matrix of cultural mestizaje,” i.e., the “’third space’ that is personal and public, individual and creative” when Kahlo collides the different aspects of her culture and self in her work. In embracing Kahlo so closely, the public no longer allows her to stand on her own as a unique, modernist artist.

By restoring Frida’s freedom, works such as Henry Ford Hospital (above) gain new life. “Although secularized,” Zaumudio-Taylor writes of Henry Ford Hospital, “the ex-vovo form, here made new and modern, retains the power of its religious origins while opening a horizon of both formal and narrative possibilities.” In re-evaluating our approach to Kahlo, Henry Ford Hospital and other works retain their status as brilliant works of powerful autobiography (here memorializing a miscarriage in Detroit) yet gain additional significance within the context of modern art practices. The artist Kiki Smith goes so far as to laud Kahlo as the first postmodernist, claiming “that contemporary art began with Kahlo” as “the first to make her body into art and herself the subject and object of her art.” Andre Breton famously said that Kahlo’s art was a “ribbon around a bomb.” In this new approach to her art, that nearly dormant bomb is rearmed for a new generation.
Lola Alvarez Bravo, Frida Kahlo with 1930 Self-Portrait drawing by Diego Rivera, Coyoacan, circa 1945. Vicente Wolf Photography Collection. Lola Alvarez Bravo © 1995 Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona Foundation.

In Elizabeth Carpenter’s essay, “Photographic Memory: A Life (and Death) in Pictures,” Carpenter analyzes the dual nature of Kahlo as “both the consummate manufacturer of her own image and a beguiling, willing, and supremely photogenic subject.” Kahlo adopted traditional Mexican dress as part of her relationship with Diego Rivera, but her entire life was a dress-up party in a sense, always playing to cameras both real and imaginary. However, Carpenter sees a limitation in the photographs. “The photographs support and detract from the paintings due to their inherent indexicality, their basis in reality,” she writes. “But, as [Roland] Barthes poignantly argued, they fall short in that they do not convince us of the referent’s existence; we do not know her if all we know are the paintings.” Together, the photographs give us pieces of Frida that never truly add up to a whole. The topless photos of Frida by Julien Levy (including the one at the top of this post) present her as seductress, appealing to both men and women. Photos such as Lola Alvarez Bravo’s picture of Frida with a drawing of Diego (above) show an unguarded Kahlo, apparently less engaged with the photographer than the drawing, which seems to look directly into the lens. Kahlo loved to draw upon photos of herself and to leave lipstick kiss marks on their backs, further inscribing them with her personality in addition to the simple image captured. Nickolas Muray’s color photographs of Frida capture her in all her explosive vibrancy, while his somber black and white pictures of her suffering in traction, the tears of pain visibly welling in her eyes, present yet another facet of this jewel of a soul. (The Delaware Art Museum is currently showing an exhibition of more of Muray’s photographs of Kahlo.)

Frida Kahlo, My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree)/Mis abuelos, mis padres, y yo (árbol genealógico), 1936. Oil and tempera on metal, 12-1/8 x 13-5/8 inches. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Allan Roos, M.D., and B. Mathieu Roos digital image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY © 2007 Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust. Av. Cinco de Mayo No. 2, Col. Centro, Del. Cuauhtémoc 06059, México, D.F.

The biggest surprise of the Kahlo exhibition catalogue, to me, comes in Hayden Herrera’s contribution, “Frida Kahlo’s Legacy: The Poetics of Self.” The one person associated most with writing on Kahlo defies expectations by writing instead on those influenced by Frida. Just as Kahlo traced her lineage back through My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree) (above), Herrera follows it forward to art today. Beginning with the Neo-Mexicanists of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Hayden presents such artists as Nahum Zenil, who honors Kahlo’s memory in his self-portrait titled Frida in My Heart, embracing Kahlo’s example as both a Mexican and a homosexual. Jose Luis Romo, himself the victim of a near-fatal car accident, identifies closely with Kahlo’s injuries in his art as much as with her Mexicanist pride. Japanese photographer Yasumasa Morimura presents an amusing take on Kahlo’s legacy in his “delightfully over-the-top, subversive yet adoring images” in which he restages Kahlo’s self-portraits but replaces her with himself in drag. The Mexican-born San Francisco artist Enrique Chagoya plays off of Kahlo’s What the Water Gave Me in his What Appropriation Has Given Me (Fritas y Dieguitos), which calls for Chicano pride in the face of Americanized faux Mexicanisms as Fritos and Doritos, renamed in his painting for Frida and Diego Rivera, respectively. Kiki Smith credits her debt to Frida to Kahlo’s “very strong precendent of using the physical to show the spiritual… Her work exists in your consciousness whether you are aware of her or not.” Smith also praises Kahlo for surpassing the limitations of figurative art by “interject[ing] a much more whole version of being a person and being a woman,” that is, “she interjected the messy part.” Herrera neatly presents the messy, sprawling nature of Frida’s legacy and influence and shows the breadth and depth of her lasting impact.

Frida Kahlo, The Frame, c. 1937–38, 11-1/4 x 8-1/8 inches. (Centre Pompidou, Paris; Musée national d’art moderne/Centre de création industrielle). © 2007 Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust. Av. Cinco de Mayo No. 2, Col. Centro, Del. Cuauhtémoc, 06059, México D.F.

With this catalogue and exhibition featuring so many of Kahlo’s works and images of her life, we come away with a framework in which to see through to a fresher and different Frida. Just as with her brilliantly colored work The Frame (above), Kahlo the artist and person continually sought out new frames of context in which she could explore the nature of art, the nature of self, and the nexus of those two natures. I found the catalogue’s supplementary section listing events in Kahlo’s life with contemporary landmarks in politics, culture, and technology fascinating in that it shows her as a person intimately connected with her world and age. Such connection makes her stunningly modern and appealing to us today, challenging us to be of the world and yet still transcend it, just as she did in her art and personal charisma. For everyone who thinks that they know Frida Kahlo well, this exhibition and catalogue will shake you up and make you look again—something Frida herself never failed at in life.

[Many thanks to the PMA for providing me with a review copy of the catalogue to their exhibition Frida Kahlo and for the images above.]

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