Most people will know Frida Kahlo – or at least be acquainted with her face – from a coffee mug, postcard, t-shirt, freezer magnet, or even a match box. I used to have what I considered to be a healthy dose of scepticism towards the 20-century Mexican artist, even though her work itself seemed quite interesting when it was first presented to me within the walls of the arts faculty where I studied. After all, what is apreciated by the masses is often somewhat suspicious to the academic – and perhaps especially to the art historian – however snobbish that may be. The obvious branding of Kahlo’s persona, practised by printing her face on a wide array of consumer goods, made her enough of a ‘one size fits all’ to be on my guard. My initial scepsis started to soften when I first wrote about the artist in an article for the Dutch art magazine mister Motley two years ago, in which I mentioned the big collection of religious art that Kahlo and her husband, the famous Mexican painter Diego Rivera, held in their blue-painted house in the suburbs of Mexico City. In fact, the more I read into the couple’s collection, their house, Kahlo’s life and her work, the more fascinated I became – just like so many other people around the world.
And so I found myself – alongside a few hundred other tourists – waiting in line for the Casa Azul (‘Blue House’) when I was visiting Mexico City three months ago. The house, where Kahlo and Rivera lived from their marriage in 1929 until Kahlo’s early death in 1954, attracts about 25.000 visitors a month, rendering it one of the best visited museums of the country. While leaning against the blue wall of the house, I observe the crowd and wonder why and how on earth this woman, more than a sixty years after her death, still appeals and speaks to such large numbers of people. I let my eyes wander over the street and realize that during my entire five month-trip through South and Central America I have not been half as excited once as I am now. Not even at all the ancient ruins and sacred sited I visited in Peru, where I had to try so hard to feel something, some of the place’s energy, to be touched by something bigger than myself. The kobalt-blue wall in my back alone is already doing it for me. Am I now too – like so many others – starting to fetishize Kahlo’s character? Am I also guilty of the mythologization of her persona instead of caring about her actual work?
I’m still a bit lost in these troubled thoughts when it is my turn to enter the museum. There’s always something stange about seeing the artworks that you’ve seen so many times in textbooks, exhibition catalogues, on posters and the web suddenly in real life. The crowd takes me up in its flow and moves me along walls hanged with paintings that I know all too well yet appear to be very different now that I behold them in all their physique. Then I arrive at a section on the wall showcasing part of Kahlo’s extensive collection of ex-votos, the type of religious folk art that I had written about at the time. Ex-votos are objects made by or in the name of devotees who wish to express their gratitude towards God or one of the saints for having answered a particular prayer. The Mexican kind, the one assembled by Kahlo and Rivera in the patio of their house, is called milagrito (‘little miracle’). It typically consists of a small retablo, often made of tin, carrying a painting containing these three elements: the depiction of the ‘ miracle’ taking place, the saint or divine entity that is held responsible (depicted through a cross or as a floating entity overseeing the whole from somewhere in the upper section of the painting) and a written dedication and description of the event in the image’s lower bar. Kahlo, who’s life was marked by suffering, found in this ex-voto a suitable form to depict the rougher sides of her existence. (The artist had a limping leg as a result of having suffered polio as a kid, and all the more had been struck by a severe bus accident in her early twenties, which perforated her spine and had left her infertile.) ‘Portrait of my Father’, ‘My Birth’ and ‘Unos cuantos piquetitos’ are all examples of works inspired the ex-voto. But I imagine that Kahlo’s collection of these objects did more than providing her an artistic form. Perhaps these little miracles also filled her with hope and new strength whenever she found herself overwhelmed by the pain and sorrow that made painting physically challenging at times.
Kahlo’s workshop is kept more or less exactly how she left it when she took off in her ‘flying bed’ (referring to both the ending scene of the famous film biography ‘Frida’ and her own often-quoted words “Feet, what do I need them for if I have wings to fly?”, that she wrote in her diary preceding a foot amputation in August 1953) from the room next to it. In front of the atelier’s door stand the painter’s easel and a table carrying – apart from a large amount of small paint bottles – a mirror with a wooden frame. Freeing myself from the stream of people I come closer and dreamingly stare into the glass, imagining that Frida Kahlo had done so too. When I look up again, my gaze crosses the eyes of one of the supposts looking at me from the corner of the room. I turn red as a tomato. I feel caught, embarrassed, exposed – but why? do I immediately then wonder. Kahlo, for one, didn’t seem to have that problem. That mirror is standing there for a reason, namely: of the 181 paintings she left us, 55 are self-portraits (and the lion’s part of the others depict topics related to the artist’s inner world and personal trauma). Kahlo nowadays is even popularly referred to sometimes as ‘the 20th-century queen of selfie’. She made no secret out of studying herself extensively, nor seemed to have a problem with others staring. Matter fact, I would even go so far as to state that not only is this self-directed stare at the very core of her work, it also – and this is not without irony – is the key to its staggering success.
Although there exist certain similarities, like that fact that the self-image that both selfie-photographers and Kahlo communicate is carefully curated for example, I would plead that Kahlo’s portraits should be read and rated differently. In contradiction 99 percent of modern-day selfies, Kahlo’s paintings have a significance that goes way deeper than the surface. By making use of religious and cultural symbols and connotations, the artist often subty portrayed the not so picture-perfect aspects of her life. In other words, instead of pretty pictures, Kahlo gave us real stories. Stories about love, but also pain, brokenness, obsession, rage – in short, stories about real life that we can relate to. Maybe that is exactly why I felt so much as I was standing in line in front of the Blue House: Kahlo has left us with such a wide array of human emotions, that we feel connected to her, almost as if we know her (the publication of Kahlo’s diary at the beginning of this millenium has undoubtedly contributed to that). Perhaps caring about her personal life, her story, as much as about her work then is not such a sinful, unacademic thing to do – this woman wanted us to see her and to understand her. She longed to be recognized in her pain and we ourselves feel recognized whenever looking at her paintings. It is not without reason that Frida Kahlo has become the icon of so many different minorities and social groups (LGBTQ’s, feminists, indigenous artists, etc.), who all tap into different aspects of her persona. Perhaps what her art is to us can be compared to what her collection of ex-votos was for her – they are images that give us something to hold onto when the going gets tough. They strengthen us, fill us with hope, let us know that we’re not alone.
One thing anyone looking at Kahlo’s art comes to realize very strongly: this woman was alive. If she really lived all the things depicted in her paintings (and her diary suggests that she did), she lived crazy love, sick romance, raging obsession, severe suffering, blind jealousy, madness, anger, lust and laughter. She lived as if it were with her heart on her sleeve – not afraid to feel it nor to show it. If there is one lesson that we can learn from Kahlo today, it is to live and to share. Until she got too tired (her early death is presumed to have been a chosen one), she herself whole-heartedly devoured life as if it were a juicy piece of water melon. She knew how to squeeze every little bit of juice that was in there (she is known to have had numerous affairs with both men and women, she was notorious for partying late and taking up tequila drinking-contests against men, and she unconditionally and obsessively loved and supported a man who was known for his extramarital adventures, just to name a few things), without ignoring the rotten bits that were harder to swallow. She embraced the whole. She shared with us life’s vibrant colours, the pleasure, the juice so to say, but also the darker sides of her existence in paintings in which we see her, but also recognize ourselves. That’s from Frida to us.