« They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality. »
(Frida Kahlo, Time Magazine, “Mexican Autobiography”, 27 Aprile 1953)
Frida Kahlo de Rivera (Spanish pronunciation: July 6, 1907 – July 13, 1954), born Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderón, was a Mexican painter known for her self-portraits.
Kahlo’s life began and ended in Mexico City, in her home, which is known as “La Casa Azul,” the Blue House. Her work has been celebrated internationally as emblematic of Mexican national and indigenous traditions, and by feminists for its uncompromising depiction of the female experience and form.
Mexican culture and tradition are important in her work, which has been sometimes characterized as naïve art or folk art. Her work has also been described as surrealist, and in 1938 André Breton, principal initiator of the surrealist movement, described Kahlo’s art as a “ribbon around a bomb”. Frida rejected the “surrealist” label imposed by Breton, as she argued that her work reflected more of her reality than her dreams.
Kahlo had a volatile marriage with the famous Mexican artist Diego Rivera. She suffered lifelong health problems, many of which were caused by a traffic accident she survived as a teenager. Recovering from her injuries isolated her from other people, and this isolation influenced her works, many of which are self-portraits. Kahlo suggested, “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.”
Few artists have captured the public’s imagination with the force of Frida Kahlo (1907–1954). In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of this Mexican artist and to recognize her powerful influence on artists working today, the Walker Art Center (in association with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) has organized a major traveling exhibition that goes beyond the myth, providing an intimate look at 46 of Kahlo’s hauntingly beautiful paintings and 90 photographs from her personal albums, many of which have never been seen by the public. Premiering at the Walker October 27–January 20, and co-curated by world-renowned Kahlo biographer and art historian Hayden Herrera and Walker associate curator Elizabeth Carpenter,
travels to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in February 2008 and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in June 2008. Celebrating the opening will be a sold-out Walker After Hours Preview Party on Friday, October 26, and a sold-out opening-day talk with Hayden Herrera at 2 pm Saturday, October 27. (A complete listing of related events follows.)
The exhibition concentrates on Kahlo’s most renowned work, the seductive and often brutal self-portraits, but also includes a selection of portraits and still lifes that amplify her own sense of identity. As her artistic practice progressed, her work grew in confidence and complexity, reflecting both her private obsessions and political concerns. While struggling to gain visibility and recognition both as a woman and an artist, Kahlo was a central player in political and artistic revolutions occurring throughout the world.
“The most important aspect of Kahlo’s painting is, I believe, its emotional force,” says Herrera. “Looking at her self-portraits, you feel that she is speaking directly to you. Whatever it was that propelled her to paint herself again and again connects with the viewer on the deepest level. She painted her own image because she wanted to know herself and to make herself known. She wanted to be kept in mind. She also painted to dispel loneliness, to exorcise pain, and to strengthen her fragile hold on life.”
A small gallery within the exhibition will feature photographs that once belonged to Kahlo and Diego Rivera from the Vicente Wolf Collection—many have never before been published or exhibited. Emblematic images of Kahlo and Rivera by preeminent photographers of the period (Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Lola Alvarez Bravo, Gisèle Freund, Tina Modotti, Nickolas Muray) will be on view alongside personal snapshots of the artist with family and friends, including such cultural and political luminaries as André Breton and Leon Trotsky. These photographs—several of which Kahlo hand-inscribed with dedications, effaced with self-deprecating marks, or kissed leaving a lipstick trace—pose fascinating questions about an artist who was both the consummate manufacturer of her own image and a beguiling and willing photographic subject.
“These photographs are ubiquitous in the Kahlo literature and are utterly inescapable, in much the same way that her biography remains the primary force to be reckoned with,” says Carpenter. “It is tempting to read the work through the life experience of this uncommonly vital, brilliant, and agonized individual, as she herself encouraged us to do. The photographs ask much the same thing, tempting us to know Frida, to comprehend, consume, and digest her essence. The photographs breathe life into her memory, but they also lie. Her true nature remains elusive.”
During her lifetime, Frida Kahlo was best known as the flamboyant wife of the celebrated muralist Diego Rivera. Today she has become one of the most celebrated and revered artists in the world. Between 1926, when she began to paint while recuperating from a near-fatal bus accident, and 1954, when she died at the age of 47, Kahlo painted some 66 self-portraits and about 80 paintings of other subjects, mostly still lifes and portraits of friends. “I paint my own reality,” she said. “The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to.” Her reality and her need to explore and confirm it by depicting her own image have given us some of the most powerful and original images of the 20th century. Paradoxically, her work allowed her to both express and continually fabricate her own subjectivity.
Frida Kahlo was born in 1907 in Coyoacán, then a southern suburb of Mexico City. Three years after the 1925 bus accident, she showed her paintings to Rivera. He admired the paintings and the painter; a year later they married. Theirs was a tumultuous relationship: Rivera once declared himself to be “unfit for fidelity,” and Kahlo largely withstood his promiscuity. As if to assuage her pain, Kahlo recorded the vicissitudes of her marriage in paint. She also recorded the misery of her deteriorating health—the orthopedic corsets that she was forced to wear, the numerous spinal surgeries, plus a number of miscarriages and therapeutic abortions. Her painful subject matter is distanced by an intentional primitivism, as well as by its small scale. Kahlo’s sometimes grueling imagery is also mitigated by her sardonic humor and her extraordinary imagination. Her fantasy, fed by Mexican popular art and by pre-Columbian culture, was noted by the Surrealist poet and essayist André Breton when he came to Mexico in 1938 and claimed Frida for Surrealism. Kahlo rejected the designation, but clearly understood that under the Surrealist label, doors would open—Breton helped secure exhibitions in New York in 1938 and in Paris in 1939.
Soon after Kahlo returned from attending her Paris show, Rivera asked her for a divorce. They remarried a year later. In the second half of the 1940s her health worsened. Kahlo was hospitalized for a year between 1950 and 1951 and in 1953 her right leg was amputated at the knee due to gangrene. But her insistence on being strong and joyful in the face of pain sustained her, and in her journal she drew her severed limb and wrote “Feet, what do I need them for if I have wings to fly?” She was given her first exhibition in Mexico in 1953. Defying doctor’s orders, Kahlo attended the opening and received guests while reclining on her own four-poster bed. Because she could not sit up for long and the potent effects of the painkillers she was prescribed, her paintings from 1952 to 1954 lack the jewel-like refinement of her earlier works. Yet her late still lifes and self-portraits—many of them proclaiming Kahlo’s Communist allegiance—are testimony to her passion for life and her indomitable will.
Frida Kahlo brings together works such as Henry Ford Hospital(1932), recording the anguish of her miscarriage in Detroit (a first in terms of the iconography of Western art history), and The Broken Column (1944), painted after undergoing spinal surgery. It also will include self-portraits such as Me and My Doll (1937) and Self-Portrait with Monkeys (1943), both exploring the theme of childlessness. On view will be paintings that deal with her suffering over Rivera’s betrayals, including the artist’s undisputed masterpiece The Two Fridas (1939). Created during her separation and divorce from him, this magnificent double self-portrait is a powerful image of pain inflicted by love and an expression of Kahlo’s divided sense of self. Collectively these images suggest the extent to which, for Kahlo, painting served as both catharsis and an opportunity to redefine and critique modern bourgeois society.
Collectors of Kahlo’s work can be found around the world—the paintings in the exhibition come from some 30 private and institutional collections in the United States, Mexico, France, and Japan. Several paintings have never before been on public view in the United States, including Magnolias (1945). Two of the most important and extensive collections of Kahlo’s work—the Museo Dolores Olmedo, Xochimilco, Mexico City, and the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of Modern and Contemporary Mexican Art, which is currently housed in the Centro Cultural Muros, Cuernavaca—have agreed to loan some of their most treasured Kahlo paintings to the exhibition.
In conjunction with the exhibition, the Walker and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art have organized two exhibitions of works from their collections to be presented at the Museo Dolores Olmedo in 2008.