The French poet and Surrealist theorist André Breton described Frida Kahlo’s work as a “ribbon around a bomb.” His support influenced her career and simultaneously encouraged association with the Surrealist movement, but Kahlo herself was self-taught and never fully engaged in identifying with a particular school. Sympathetic to both leftist political art and the artistic avant-garde, an argument can be made for her as the first contemporary artist – the first to place herself as the subject and object of her works, and to make her body into art. During her lifetime, Frida Kahlo was a modern artist’s artist, admired by Marcel Duchamp, Vassily Kandinsky, Joan Miró and Yves Tanguy, however, it is significant to note that her first and only solo exhibition in Mexico occurred in 1953, one year before her death.
The irony then, of the amusement park-like atmosphere of the current retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is frustratingly clear. The long lines and crowded rooms contain the troubling air of something that has become too popular for its own good. Like accidently biking into that procession for the Pope on Fifth Avenue, my visceral response to this large crowd is at first to turn around and move as quickly as possible in any opposite direction. But even if seeing the work alongside masses who crowd around the paintings with long audio guide descriptions is not an ideal way to view such works, it is in fact, the only way. Regardless of the atmosphere, experiencing a full collection of such significant (both historically but more importantly personally and emotionally) works is stunning, moving, and incredibly inspirational.
The show opens with two iconic paintings: Self Portrait with Monkeys and Frieda and Diego Rivera, painted from a newspaper photograph of the couple at their wedding. Introducing major themes of Frida’s life and work — pain at not being able to bear children, her undying love for Diego and the ongoing trauma in and around that relationship — these paintings lead directly into two rooms of photographs of Kahlo and her family. Including the famous family portrait where Frida appears dressed as a man, these rooms of history convey a biography that is not removed from art. Kahlo has a particular and calculated image in the photographs. Radically bohemian, she is dressed in traditional Mexican clothes and accessories when the norm for her social set was European fashions. Always with a cigarette in hand and a serious, confident look, the artist blurs the lines of life and art quite intentionally and with gorgeous results. The piercing look in her eye in these photographs conveys the same compelling mixture of power, pain and uncanny universal understanding as her many painted self-portraits.
Though self-identified as Communist and attuned to peasant culture, Kahlo grew up relatively wealthy as the daughter of a German photographer father and Mexican mother, and many of her works, including Family Tree and Moses, reveal mixed feelings about the certain duality of this experience. She was an avid collector of pre-Columbian art, and Mexican folk art eventually became a big component of her compositions, both in form and content. Specifically, Kahlo re-adapted and transformed the tradition of ex-voto paintings to suit her subjects. The popular Mexican art form traditionally serves as a form of gratitude for blessings and miracles performed by Catholic Saints, the virgins, or Christ. Small paintings done on metal, the ex-votos would show a scene of a suffering person in a hospital bed, for example, and then a prayer of gratitude below to the Saint who had helped to make this person well. Kahlo’s versions keep the graphic nature of the image, but in the case of The Suicide of Dorothy Hale — the commissioned but subsequently rejected portrait of the New York socialite — replace the prayer with the real, gory details of her death.
Also done in the ex-voto style are three self-referential and defining works: Henry Ford Hospital, which deals graphically with Kahlo’s miscarriage, My Birth and Self-Portrait at the Border Line between Mexico and the United States. These works address the enormously important life experiences of birth, death, and nationalism quite directly. But striking as well is how paintings shown alongside these, for example Still Life: Pitahayas and Sun and Life, which are so much more representational, convey quite the same feelings and ideas. In the still life of the Pitahaya we see a piece of exotic fruit native and unique to Mexico, sliced open, rotting, sexualized, and pointing to the inevitability of death. It is the beautiful, explicit and the fearless that comes to the surface so effortlessly in these works as a whole. Frida Kahlo’s paintings are highly individual, yet through this personal window shines a grand expression of human life and all of the universality contained within intimate experience.