Friday, 5 July 2013

Frida Kahlo; the 31 Women Number fourteen; her birthday is 6 July

1907 – 1954  Mexico

Frida Kahlo has the peculiar privilege of being the only woman artist whose story has been told in an Oscar winning movie. It also seems possible that more has been written about her than about all the other 31 Women put together. This fame is comparatively recent, for much of the twentieth century she was largely unknown. Frida Kahlo participated in several important exhibitions in her curtailed lifetime and was admired by the cognoscenti in Paris and New York, but after her death in 1954 her work was rapidly forgotten outside her home country of Mexico.  

In the twentieth century, most tomes which purported to give an overview of Fine Art mentioned very few women artists and Frida appeared as an aside to her husband, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, if she appeared her at all. Even books on Surrealism, the movement she was closely associated with, sometimes fail to mention her. Rivera himself admired and encouraged Kahlo’s painting, saying more than once that she was a better painter than him, but neither was in any doubt that Rivera’s work had the renown and brought home the cash.

Frida Kahlo died in 1954 and her name vanished from view outside Mexico. It wasn’t until the late 1970’s, with rising feminist interest in re-discovering women artists, that Kahlo began to be remembered internationally. Today she is probably the best known woman painter of her era and is regarded as the pre-eminent exponent of an explicitly female position in the twentieth century canon of painters. Her paintings epitomise the personal made universal that so differentiates the work of many (though by no means all) of the century’s women artists from their male contemporaries.

She was born in 1907 in Coyoacan, Mexico City, to a Mexican mother and a German immigrant father. Her life story, with her terrible accident as a teenager, her physical suffering and complex love life is well known and so I won’t present a timeline as such here. I will just discuss some of the factors which directly influenced her art. Her parents were the earliest of these.  

Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderon was the fifth daughter of photographer Guillermo Kahlo, a German/Hungarian Jewish refugee. He was always supportive of Frida; when at the age of six she had an attack of polio which damaged her right leg, he took her through a rigorous exercise routine and played sports with her to build her strength and confidence. Significantly, Frida was the only one of his daughters to take an interest and assist in the darkroom with his photographic work. The darkroom environment is one of intense creativity and whilst there was no colour involved, she would have learned pictorial composition, the use of shadow and light and the importance of detail and contrast in creating a good image, all lessons equally applicable to painting.
Frida’s mother was Matilde Calderon, a Mexican of mixed native and Spanish ancestry. Matilde performed the traditional, middle-class role of housewife, ruling her household with a degree of religious discipline that did not make family life particularly affectionate, though when fate afflicted Frida with severe medical problems, her mother’s care was devoted. It was Matilde who provided Frida, when she was bedbound, with paints and paper to begin the confrontation with her image and disability which would form a major aspect of her art.

Frida Kahlo regarded herself as a truly Mexican artist, she was passionate about her country and fascinated by its pre-Columbian heritage. Mayan as well as Catholic symbols appear in her canvases from 1932 onwards, but her later, eclectic imagery shows worldwide influences; she took ideas from ancient Egyptian, Buddhist and Hindu art as well as the European Renaissance. In 1945 she painted Moses, where, in illustrating the biblical story, she demonstrates all her influences, from Etruscan art and Queen Nefretiti via Italy to Ghandi and Communism. She adopted the Mexican retablo, small devotional pictures painted on sheet metal, as the medium for a number of her works. As both teacher and planner/artist she was also responsible for several murals, another important Mexican art form. Opportunities to express her pride in her country received its major boost when she married Diego Rivera, also passionately Mexican and already a world renowned muralist.

At first glance, some of Kahlo’s paintings can be mistaken for charming, even primitive/naïve renditions of pretty or quirky, but un-momentous subject matter: Frida with a monkey, Frida with a doll, Frida with her hair elaborately braided, etc. Others can be seen as pure, dreamlike surrealism such as her dreams floating in the bath around Frida’s feet. The actuality lies between the primitive and the surreal, but also well beyond them. Despite her passionate attachment to Mexican traditional and folk art, Frida Kahlo’s painting was not primitive, neither was it naïve; Kahlo was an educated, sophisticated and irreverent city girl, not a Mexican peasant. As a painter she was largely self-taught; being often housebound she had plenty of time to practice and refine her precise technique and her control of this only began to slip very near the end of her life.

Her diary of the 1940’s and 50’s reveals an interest in Breughel and Bosh, but early on she also studied Italian masters including Botticelli and Bronzino. In her late teens she was already aware of modern European art movements as well as the Renaissance masters. Her style then was modern, with elements from cubist collage, as shown in a painting from the mid 1920’s, depicting a group of sophisticated young friends in a café, titled, If Adelita..(the Peaked Caps). However she was defensively anti-colonialist and took from European sources only what she really liked, she was determined to be known as a Mexican artist.

Kahlo had first-hand contact with the non-Mexican avant-garde from 1930, when she and Rivera lived in San Francisco and travelled around the US for three years. She returned to the US many times and had her first solo exhibition at the Julian Levy Gallery, New York in November 1938 – it was a great success and she sold half her pictures.  Levy was something of a champion of women artists, in 1938 alone he gave solo exhibitions to six others as well as Frida, whilst other galleries exhibited little if any work by women.

Frida Kahlo’s highly individual personal style was a huge success in her travels and marked her out as different. Her favoured guise, in costumes representing the strong, matriarchal society of the Tehuantepec region, not only gave her the aura of a strong Mexican woman, uncontaminated by European concerns, it also helped to remove attention from her disability and hide her lame leg under full skirts. These costumes provided her subject for many paintings, though for Frida this was not their principal function. Her physical appearance was as much a work of art as her paintings, though it was no performance. Frida was immensely self-conscious, she wanted to be completely in control of the visual impression she made on people and so also in control of their reactions to her.

Frida’s complicated relationship with Diego Rivera was a key element in much of her art. From the faux-naïve wedding portrait she painted in 1931 to the dramatic Self-portrait with cropped hair of 1940, which she painted to depict their divorce, she documented their relationship, up and down. This love-hate marriage is frequently discussed, but today the deep political commitment, which she shared with Rivera, is either carefully downplayed or even, insultingly, dismissed as a delusional product of the medication she became dependent on towards the end of her life, to ease her physical suffering.

It may be an uncomfortable fact for those enamoured of the Frida Kahlo myth, but for most of her adult life Kahlo was a well read and enthusiastic supporter of world Communism. She even changed the year of her birth, from 1907 to 1910 not because she wanted to seem younger, but to coincide with the Mexican Revolution of that year. She denigrated herself for being unable to express her political views in her paintings and thus use her art as a platform for the cause. In her final years she began to try to redress the balance, but her increasing infirmity made some of these late paintings rather poor examples, no doubt to her profound dismay.

The self-portrait dominates her oeuvre and though she emphasises certain unfeminine qualities such as her heavy eyebrows and lip hair, her portraits are exaggeratedly feminine, paying elaborate attention to details of her hair, jewellery and clothing in a manner that reaches back to 18th century portraiture. Her repeated depiction of herself in her pictures sprang from her need to express those other crucial aspects of her life, over which she had no control. Her face looks directly out of most of her paintings and at the viewer. Today Frida Kahlo still makes bold eye contact with her public, her story and her unique works of art are more popular than ever.
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Sources include:-

Frida Kahlo edited by Emma Dexter & Tanya Barson, published in 2005 for the exhibition at Tate Modern

The Diary of Frida Kahlo: an intimate Self Portrait  published 1995 by Bloomsbury

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 You can read about each of the 31 women as their birthdays arrive, earlier ones will remain on this blog. Just click the 'Project 31 Women' label below to see the others.



 

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