Coming Around to Frida: On Her 100th Birthday, Mexico Embraces Kahlo
There, the painter Frida Kahlo was born; later, she lived there with husband and fellow artist Diego Rivera in flamboyant, eccentric, troubled marital bliss. Pilar and I are huge admirers of both, especially of Kahlo.
We didn't know that very day was the 100th anniversary of Kahlo's birth. Or that Mexico, city and country, was gearing up for a massive celebration, into which we unwittingly walked. I was about to see an old question answered, something I'd wondered for most of my adult life. The answer was surprising, miraculous and puzzling.
At La Casa Azul, we saw a crowd of Kahlo look-alikes - coiled hair, peasant clothes, scarves, the renowned, frontal-assault unibrow. They partied beneath a 20-foot-tall papier-mache Frida. We saw a dancer dressed as Santisima Muerte, "Holiest Death," the folk/pagan/holy/funny/frightening avatar of mortality, who sang bawdy Frida songs. A choir of Fridas sang "La Paloma y El Elefante," the love story of Diego (very fat and thus nicknamed "Elephant") and Frida (the paloma or dove). Dizzying, a melange of tradition, outrage, glee and renewed bewilderment at this very odd, very singular person who painted in a new way, unequaled and unexampled.
Mexico has claimed Frida Kahlo, and so, it seems, have Mexicans. She is theirs, and they love her. She embraced them, and they are returning the embrace with the desperate affection and fatalistic fervor for which Mexico is famous.
Were she another painter, this would be easier to understand. By now Kahlo is the best known Mexican painter in the world, better known than Murillo, Orozco, Siqueiros, or even Rivera himself, thanks to a movie (starring Mexican actress Salma Hayek Jimenez), many books, and posters tacked to college dormitory walls throughout the world. She is (whether she should be or not) a feminist/gay/people with disabilities/bisexual heroine, a superwoman for anyone who favors gender-bending, subversion, free art and sexuality, modernist and postmodern painting, and fearless emotional and philosophical trailblazing.
She is, however, an uneasy fit for Mexican culture. In this country dominated by tradition and Catholicism, she was an atheist communist (in and out of the party); in a land still gripped (say it: held back) by paternalism and machismo, she was her own woman and often her own man. She took on a more-Mexican-than-Mexicans identity, yet she was the daughter of a German immigrant who married a Mexican woman.
Sometimes she was a Mexican Grandma Moses, at others anatomically (not to say pornographically) aggressive. At still others, she was (no matter what she herself said) a surrealist, taking her cue from Andre Breton (doing much, much better work than he ever could). At yet others, she was a modernist utopian visionary, like her husband and fellow activist-provocateur Rivera.
Most of the time, she was all of these. This was a physically and emotionally sick woman, addicted to alcohol, nicotine and pain pills; scarred by a traffic catastrophe when young; bedridden, desperate, faithless, tormented.
And Mexico loves her. You should see the crowds lining up for her retrospective at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. (It's coming to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in February.)
I watched people crowding to get a glimpse of "The Two Fridas" (a bloody meditation on identity, history and gender) and saw my question answered. That question was: Modern art was iconoclastic and outrageous, undermining much people believe in and hope for. Often, its MO is to wreck what we value, and that is (partly) why so many people reject it. Would people ever hold it for their own?
Stunning, the yes answer. At least with Frida Kahlo. Children, folks from the countryside, oldsters, business suits, ripped jeans, embracing their Frida. Her work repays them with paintings such as "Xochitl" ("Flower of Life"), of a bloom that is really the human apparatuses doing what they do. Or "The Broken Column," which splits her body in two to show anguish made permanent. Kahlo keeps telling us: There is no God; capitalism and the church are evil; Uncle Sam and Europe are drowning us; the workers will triumph; sexuality should be free in all directions; pleasure is pain; the unconscious rules; my ugliness is my beauty. And they reply: We love you.
Behind the affection, perhaps, is that people know her story and believe, sentimentally enough, it exonerates her from all the things she is saying. Perhaps it's just that Mexico loves a bleeder.
Or perhaps she connects because - painfully - so much she protested against still exists in Mexico: classism, racism, sexism, stifling poverty and prudery, hypocrisy of church and state, the too avuncular Tio Sam.
I think much of it is this: People really are capable of absorbing divergent, dissonant, challenging experience, of granting space to artists and thinkers who reject the foundations beneath people's feet. We don't have to like everything about an artwork to let it act on us. If art has something going on, many, many of us can see that and ride on its gust.
It sure isn't that she has lost her power to shock. People still get rattled; we were with someone who just couldn't handle it. I doubt there are many painters with a greater power to discomfit and confront.
Beyond all this is her hold on you; it is very hard to resist. My favorite is a 1926 self-portrait, sometimes titled In a Velvet Dress, painted while she was under the artistic spell of Amedeo Modigliani. Lovely creation - I stood rooted there - so did many, many others.
People are capable of much more than dreamed. Culture - be it never so repressed or reactionary or clueless - comes around, with time, to enfold what it once abjured. Make Frida somehow "safe"? Co-opt her? Try it. We can, we can take on new vocabularies, tone new musculatures. And that is how art makes new worlds.
I always hoped so. I am now glad to know it. Muchisimas gracias, Frida Kahlo.