Few artists have been so much embraced by pop culture as Frida Kahlo, and as a result even those less knowledgeable in fine arts know her name. Fittingly the exhibition of the Hungarian National Gallery focuses on both the works and the myths surrounding the artist, while also exploring the effect she had on contemporary artists. With three exceptions the material of the exhibition came from the Dolores Olmedo Museum, which the curator divided into five big sections, separating the units very sharply from one another with the installation. We can consider it a great success that a Frida Kahlo exhibition finally came to be – even if it can be criticised in some respects.
Henry Ford Hospital
In the first half of the 20th century many female artists were already working worldwide, there were a few in Mexico apart from Frida Kahlo too (e.g.: Remedios Varo or Leonora Carrington of British descent), the stars, however, were men here as well. Alongside José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros the painter prince of the day was Diego Rivera. Although Kahlo did have some exhibitions in Mexico and in the United States as well, what’s more, André Breton invited her to Paris to exhibit her work, her artistic significance was nowhere near that of Rivera.
It was the depiction of her own bodily experience that made her an emblematic figure of the essentialist feminists of the 70s. With her pictures she touched topics that were taboo even in the communication between women themselves: birth, miscarriage, childlessness, illness, pain, unfaithfulness etc., and the female image she thus created immeasurably distant from the one earlier painters provided us with. This is the true virtue of Frida Kahlo, the externalities that she herself made into her brand, and which determined and reinforced her work.
The Love Embrace of the Universe
Frida Kahlo is often thought of as an early feminist, although she wasn’t one, and didn’t consider herself one either. Her looks are regularly interpreted as nonconformity and a confrontation with expectations of female beauty, because she did not pluck her eyebrows and her moustache. Actually the notion that Frida Kahlo accepted herself with her flaws, not caring about the expectations of others is not true at all. Due to her bad teeth we can hardly find a photo of her in which she smiles with an open mouth. If we look at Mexican women of her time, it is apparent that the moustache-thick eyebrow combo was not infrequent, although it was prevalent mostly among poorer women, who did not wish or could not afford to succumb to European beauty ideals. The importance of the seemingly insignificant eyebrow and moustache – that are nonetheless a feature of the Frida-phenomenon – has more to do with the fact that Frida Kahlo’s cult was made truly popular by feminist art focusing on the “discovery” of female artists of yesteryear and the recent past. Her art was first seriously considered by Raquel Tibol in 1977 and by Hayden Herrera in 1983, and the literature about Frida Kahlo grew to a substantial size from the 1990s on. In the time period when active depilation was the norm, and facial hair seemed like conscious rebellion against media dictated female beauty ideals.
The acceptance of her bodily flaws is usually also listed as a virtue. The truth, however, is much more subtle. It is true that her pictures revolve around her own sufferings, self-portrait, self-analysis, and she openly showed the pain over her miscarriage and childlessness, her illness, she painted her operations, but she chose to hide her leg crippled first by polio and later by her accident. This was the purpose of first the manly attire and later the Tehuana dress, which also became her trademark. And interestingly enough this native American garment evoking an ancient culture represented not the past, but the modern Mexico, progressiveness, for Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo both rejected the European originated academic art that was popular at that time in Mexico, and the values it represented. And Frida wore the folk dress mainly to please Diego, this is the topic of her painting The Two Fridas made after their divorce (missing from the exhibition), in which one of her selves is dressed in the native American outfit liked by Diego, while her other self wears a European attire.
The Broken Column
Diego Rivera is a key figure in Frida Kahlo’s life and art. Frida married Diego who was more than twenty years her senior in spite of her mother’s protests. Their relationship not only lacked harmony, it would be fair to say that they were not equals within the marriage. Frida Kahlo suffered from a rather strong Diego-dependency, but this did not stop her from having lovers on the side (even women). Her biographers usually try to justify her behaviour by saying that Diego routinely cheated on her, even with her younger sister, Christina, which led to their divorce. Looking at the paintings we can easily follow how their relationship changed despite the constant dependency, in the beginning we see the little girl beside the dominant Diego (Frida and Diego, 1931), and almost twenty years later she cradles her husband like a baby as a caring mother. (The Love Embrace of the Universe, 1949). After their divorce and during their second marriages both their relationship and Frida Kahlo’s personality changed substantially, which the literature usually omits to mention.
Frida Kahlo was not a feminist, even though during her career feminist movements had existed for a while, and she herself was politically active, but she concentrated on general social sensitivity, not gender. In her work it is not men and women generally, who are depicted, her pictures are not about women, but solely about herself. It is her and Diego or one of her lovers. But the significance of her subject matter was perceived also by Diego Rivera: „She was the first woman in the history of art to treat, with absolute and uncompromising honesty, one might even say impassive cruelty, those general and specific themes which exclusively affect women.”
Translated by Péter Papolczy