|Since her death in 1954, Mexican painter Frida Kahlo has become more than an artist. She has been embraced as a feminist icon, a Latina role model, a symbol of strength and a martyr to physical suffering. She worked in the shadow of her famous husband, muralist Diego Rivera, with whom she had a tumultuous relationship rocked by his affairs with women -- including Frida's own sister -- and Kahlo's affairs with men and women.
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If all this sounds like the stuff of drama, it is. "Frida," star Salma Hayek's labor-of-love biopic, opens Friday, bringing with it a new wave of interest in Kahlo and her passionate, painful, extraordinary life. The distinctive, dark-eyed visage Kahlo immortalized in more than 200 self-portraits seems to be everywhere: books; calendars; mouse pads; temporary tattoos; and in Vanity Fair magazine's Out & In column, which rates Frida's trademark unibrow as the "In" example of "frightening facial hair."
In the Northwest, Kahlo fans can see the influence of the artist's surrealistic, color-drenched, symbol-laden work at levels both serious -- in an exhibition continuing through Jan. 5 at the Seattle Art Museum -- and fanciful -- a "Tribute to Frida Kowlow" bovine created for the Kows for Kids fund-raising event now residing at St. Mary's Academy in downtown Portland.
The current bout of Frida-mania may owe something to a high-profile fan. "Madonna, of all people," says Danel Malan, artistic director of Teatro Milagro, the touring program of Portland's Miracle Theatre Group. When Madonna started buying Kahlo paintings and lobbying to star in a movie biography, "it brought that whole sensation into Hollywood," Malan says.
Malan herself has been spreading knowledge of Kahlo as the author and star of "Frida, un retablo," a touring play based on Kahlo's life. "We were just up in Seattle in September doing performances, and people were coming like bees to honey," Malan says. "The shows were packed. Everywhere we've been, it's been huge."
"People are more aware of her," says Kristi Gray, who coordinated a display of Kahlo books and merchandise at Powell's Books in downtown Portland. "There are so many young women artists who look up to her and consider her a role model. She's one of my favorites, too. Her work is so very personal." Art was an outlet for Kahlo, says Gray. "It's what every artist strives for, taking their own personal experiences and pain and expressing them."
At The Gold Door shop in Southeast Portland, customers come in looking for anything related to Frida, says manager Jim Brown. The shop carries many examples of contemporary Mexican folk art inspired by Kahlo, as in a diorama depicting Kahlo and Rivera as Day of the Dead skeleton figures.
Patricia Cabrera, owner of La Calaca Comelona on Southeast Belmont Street, decorated her restaurant's walls with Kahlo portraits and photographs. "She was a really strong woman in this world, the male world," says Cabrera, who was born in Mexico. Cabrera hopes people will gain a broader understanding of Mexico by learning about Kahlo, who may have favored peasant dress but was, in reality, a sophisticated 20th-century woman.
Kahlo's life contained so many elements it's small wonder so many find something to relate to. Born in 1907 in a suburb of Mexico City, she was raised in a progressive, educated household, the child of a German-born father and Mexican mother. Kahlo contracted polio at age 6 and suffered near-fatal injuries in a terrible bus accident in 1925, complications from which led to endless surgeries and severe pain that often left her bed-ridden throughout her life.
She began painting while recuperating, launching a body of work that is utterly personal, reflecting the agony of her body and soul, grief at her inability to bear children, her politics (both Kahlo and Rivera were Communists) and her love of Mexican culture.
While Kahlo's self-dramatization and penchant for reinvention have made her popular, they've also hindered evaluation of her work on its own merits, says Bruce Guenther, Portland Art Museum curator of modern and contemporary art.
"Frida Kahlo is a phenomenon of the last quarter of the 20th century, in which personality and Hollywood story line drives the popular appraisal of an artist's work," says Guenther. As an artist, he adds, Kahlo created "some very compelling images in which she accessed our psychological discomfort with the body, and her passions. And that makes her work worth looking at and preserving. But, and this began to happen in her own lifetime, that value in her work is obscured by the costumes, the personality, the events."
Nevertheless, Frida remains a potent force, as Danel Malan says. The artist was 47 when she died in her sleep, apparently of an embolism. Some speculate she found a way to peacefully take her life. Malan has been thinking about Kahlo's end as her own 41st birthday approaches this month.
"I have that sensation of my own mortality creeping on me," Malan says. "The more I get to know Frida, the more I feel like I have to work really hard. I can understand how she was so driven. She painted until the day she died."
One of Kahlo's last acts, Malan says, was to grab her brush and scrawl words on a canvas. "She wrote, 'Viva la vida,' " Malan says. "Praise life."
Kristi Turnquist: 503-221-8227; email@example.com