Event - Frida Kahlo, Walker Art Center, through January 20, 2008.
Can you say self-portrait? Patron saint of Mexico, self-created icon, Christ and Mother Mary stand-in Frida Kahlo has paintings in her first exhibition in also-ran Minneapolis, running through January 20 at the ‘new’ Walker Art Center.
You have to hand it to Mexico. What country in the world has images of three revolutionaries – Zapata, Villa and Kahlo – hanging all over the country? The U.S. does not have pictures of our revolutionaries like Washington or Lincoln or Grant in stores or houses. Our memory does not go that far back. Kahlo and her story are familiar to many, if only because she probably did more self-portraits than any other painter. When I first discovered Kahlo, I was put off by this. What heights of self-centeredness! What conceit! I avoided Kahlo like the plague. Then I saw the film “Frida” with Selma Hayek. Say what you will about Hollywood, this will be their first, and last, film about Kahlo. And perhaps the last film about Kahlo by anyone. The best part of the film was explaining the self-portraits, and actually showing other, broader works that put her squarely in the surrealist tradition. Andre Breton explained this to Kahlo, who was actually surprised to hear it. She is probably the most prominent woman surrealist painter.
Some of her best non self-portraits are not in this collection, but there are a few that are. Kahlo was tortured by spinal injuries from an accident, multiple miscarriages, and adultery from her two-time husband, Diego Rivera. She spent time in hospitals and at home, flat on her back, where the legend is the only thing she could paint was herself, lying flat, from mirrors suspended above or in front of the bed. In concentrating on herself, breaking the mold of most painters, in showing herself in pain, bleeding, part animal, dressed as a peasant, an Aztec, in high detail, aging over the years, her body parts exposed, she created the first ‘autobiographical’ painting style, which was effective because it spoke to more than just Frida Kahlo. In effect, she created herself as a semi-religious icon for Mexican women, and Mexican people, representing their pain. Her personal story became something many women might identify with. Indeed, the show was attended by many women on the one free Thursday I went, including many Latino women.
Some of the paintings here are “Henry Ford Hospital,” about a miscarriage in Detroit; “The Dream”, which hung in Paris; “Self Portrait on the Border,” which is about the clash of Mexico and the U.S.; and “My Dress Hangs There,” about her stay in New York. Another is "Moses," based Kahlo reading an analysis of Freud. "Moses" is one of the better non-self portrait pictures, and in style is similar to Rivera. It includes mini-portraits of Hitler and other assorted odious ones on one side and Lenin, Stalin and Gandhi on the other, in the apparently 'non-odious' area.
There are several portraits of Rivera in the show, though he is not the theme here. There are two paintings, one of which is "Suicide of Dorothy Hale," that spread out onto the frames. Another has a three dimensional approach, as it is mounted under a kind of painted glass, and made me think Kahlo might be the source for so many Mexican three-dimensional ‘box’ paintings now popular. Additionally, Kahlo painted on metal a lot, which might have been a product of poverty, or an appreciation of its hard texture and thin width.
There is also a large collection of photographs of Kahlo and Rivera attached to the show, from the collection of a friend in San Francisco. Kahlo, as true in her painting, was also the favorite subject of the camera. Her clothing and jewelery compliment her art, as she saw herself as a 'work of art' as well. In one photo, Kahlo is shown in neck traction, with the Spanish words, “totally fucked’ written across the top. In another, the most famous, Kahlo poses with her family dressed as a young well-dressed man. There are 4 pictures of Trotsky, and one interesting picture of Rivera and Kahlo in front of an English sign selling Marxist pamphlets, which might have have been taken in NY in front of a Socialist Workers Party table at the New School.
Typical of the Walker, they make no mention of Kahlo’s specific radical politics in their storyboard descriptions of her life, preferring to dwell on the personal trials. While the storyboards are extremely accurate in other respects, the curators should be spanked for this de-sanitization of Kahlo in the interest of appealing to middle class women from Minnetonka, who they think don’t want to know their dear Frida was a communist, and for a long time a Trotskyist sympathizer.
Go to the show, as the Walker has finally hit two home runs with this and the Picasso 'inspiration' show one after the other. This show was very crowded, on both pay and Thursday nights, so get there early. After years of sterile 'modern' art shows that communicate to few people, the Walker has finally grown as a museum. Of course, in the process they had to abandon 'abstract' art in their special exhibitions. And better yet, visit the main source museum for Kahlo in Coyoacan, Mexico, just southwest of Mexico City. This, also, is close to the Old Man's last resting place.