• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (23/10/2020)

(Review of Frida Kahlo)


It's not often that a documentary from Exhibition on Screen has competition from a Hollywood movie. But images form Julie Taymor's Frida (2002), which starred Salma Hayek in the title role, keep popping into the mind while watching Ali Ray's Frida Kahlo. Co-scripted by Phil Grabsky, the driving force behind EOS, this is the first entry in the series to profile a female artist. Despite a reliance on the works held at the Museo Dolores Olmedo in Mexico City, it also breaks new(ish) ground by providing a career overview without focusing on a specific exhibition. Yet, the customary presence of several erudite academics and curators ensures that this is every bit as informed and inspiring as its predecessors.


Following an audio paean to Frida Kahlo's work and her significance as an artist and as a woman, narrator Anna Chancellor informs us that she was born in the Coyocán district of the Mexican capital on 6 July 1907. Biographer Hayden Herrera reveals that her mother, Matilde, was a Catholic of Indian descent, while her father, Guillermo, was an immigrant from Pforzheim in the Black Forest who helped nurse his favourite daughter through a childhood bout of polio at the Casa Azul. Adriana Zavala, Associate Professor of Art History at Tufts University, notes how cosmopolitan Mexico City was at the turn of the 20th century


Great niece Cristina Kahlo Alcalá believes that Frida became a natural sitter because she often posed for her photographer father, who had emigrated at the age of 19 with a backpack and no Spanish. As an avid reader and a talented watercolourist, he introduced his children to the pleasures of culture and Frida repaid his enthusiasm by becoming one of the few girls to secure a place at the National Preparatory School. Here, while hoping to become a doctor, she became part of an intellectual group named `Los Cachuchas'. As Gannit Ankori, Professor of Art at Brandeis University, points out, this included Frida's boyfriend, Alejandro Gómez Ariás, who was with her on 17 September 1925 when she was seriously injured in a fatal collision between their bus and a tram.


While recovering from her multiple fractures, she resumed her youthful interest in art and provided a sobering insight into her suffering in the 1926 drawing, `The Accident'. Although untutored, works like `Urban Landscape' (1925) show an instinctive talent. Alejandro bought her books on art, while Guillermo gave her a small paint box, which she used to paint family members in items like `Portrait of Alicia Galant' (1927), which reveal the influence of European art. Indeed, Sandro Botticelli's `The Birth of Venus' (1483-85) helped shape `Self-Portrait in a Velvet Dress' (1926), along with her father's black-and-white photograph of her in a black silk dress. Frida made use of a mirror fitted into the canopy of her bed and, according to Hilda Trujillo, the director of the Frida Kahlo Museum, used the beguiling image to remind Alejandro (whose disapproving family had sent him to Germany to break her spell over him) that she was an alluring modern woman and that he should be grateful to have her in his life.


He was soon forgotten when Frida met artist Diego Rivera after joining the Communist Party in 1928. He was a key figure in the Muralist movement that had emerged during the decade-long battle against a dictatorial regime and, as Carlos Phillips Olmedo, the director of the Dolores Olmedo Museum, states, works like `The History of Mexico' (1929-35) in the stairwell of the National Palace in Mexico City reflected the optimism of a country experiencing a rebirth. Trujillo concurs that the 1910 revolution transformed the nation and Ankori highlights the fact that the art it spawned dismissed the colonial and the bourgeois in focusing on the indigenous.


Following their marriage in 1929, the fortysomething Rivera began to have an enormous impact upon Frida's artistic and political outlook, as well as her emotionality. Her mother described it as the union of an elephant and a dove, but Guillermo recognised that Rivera's wealth would mean his daughter's medical bills would be paid. After their move to Cuernavaca, he also noticed the immediate change in Frida's artistic approach, while her dress sense also underwent a transformation as she started wearing traditional Tehuana peasant clothing to stress her mestiza ancestry and her connection to the matriarchal society of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec,


Her new look is evident in canvases like `Frida and Diego Rivera' (1931), which was painted in San Francisco in a consciously Naive manner, although it clearly bears a similarity to Jan Van Eyck's `The Arnolfini Wedding' (1434). However, her style was evolving rapidly, as Josefina García Hernández, the director of collections at the Dolores Olmedo Museum, stresses in referencing `Portrait of Luther Burbank' (1931), which depicts the torso of the prominent hybridising scientist as a tree trunk whose roots burrow into his own buried skeleton. Zavala explains that Frida based the portrait on a magazine photograph and filled it with pre-Hispanic iconography that bore the influence of her reading about Surrealism.


In April 1932, Kahlo and Rivera arrived in Detroit, where he was to paint a series of frescoes on the theme of industry. In a letter to Dr Leo Eloesser, she complained about the city being a grubby village and declared the United States to be `ugly and stupid'. She also consulted the doctor about whether to terminate her pregnancy, as she was concerned about her health and the fact Rivera would be a neglectful father. However, she lost the child and Ankori explores how she enhanced her artistic reputation by channelling her agony in `Henry Ford Hospital' (1932). It was radical in its depiction of Kahlo's naked body on a bloodstained bed against the backdrop of a factory. But it also went against the traditions of Western Art by being an anti-Nativity scene.


As Cristina Kahlo Alcalá reveals, this picture also challenged the conventions of the devotional images known as `retablos', which were painted with an inscription on metal to be hung in churches to petition God for help. Over shots of items in Kahlo's own collection, retablo artist Alfredo Vilchis Roque describes how she adopted this miniature `ex-voto' format in such paintings as `A Few Small Nips' (1935), which is as much a story of everyday Mexican life as a work of art.


In his autobiography, Rivera called these unprecedented masterpieces `agonised poetry'. Among them was Kahlo's sole lithograph, `Frida and the Miscarriage' (1932), which Ankori shows to be a self-portrait of the birth of an artist, as a third arm holds a palette to proclaim that this is how she will view herself now that she is incapable of being productive in other ways. It also presents her as a woman alone and Herrera explains how this fed into the decision on relocating to San Ángel in 1933 to have Le Corbusier's student, Juan O'Gorman. design adjoining blue and white/pink houses that were linked by an upper walkway so that they could live separate lives if they wished to.


However, they split up after Rivera had an affair with Frida's younger sister, Cristina, and she cut off her hair, switched back to chic fashions and moved into an apartment in Mexico City. Her paintings of this period were much bloodier and she also took to drinking to drown her sorrows. She also had a number of flings before making up with Rivera in time to welcome Leon Trotsky to the Casa Azul in 1937. They briefly became lovers, but Rivera resented his wife sleeping with other men (as he didn't like `sharing his toothbrush'), although he turned a blind eye to her occasional same-sex dalliances.


Kahlo explored her pain in `My Nurse and I', her favourite painting, which Ankori claims represented Frida's resentment at Cristina for stealing her mother's breast milk when they were babies and for alienating the affections of her husband; Zavala also highlights that Kahlo has placed herself in the Christ position in this Madonna and Child scenario, while the mother figure wore an Olmec tribal mask. Herrera links this image with Kahlo's affinity for the Mexicanidad brand of romantic nationalism, while Josefina García Hernández reveals how Rivera was a prime mover in the preservation of Pre-Hispanic artefacts


In 1938, André Breton came to lecture in Mexico and he was struck by the Surrealist aspect of Kahlo's `What the Water Gave Me' (1938). In a letter to composer friend Carlos Chávez, she distanced herself from the movement because she painted her own reality while they explored their dreams. In confirming this interpretation, Carlos Segoviano, the curator of the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City. claims Kahlo as a magic realist who consigned her memories to canvas. Zavala explains that Kahlo worked like a muralist by starting in a corner and working her way down using fine brush marks, which Ankori avers were always deliberated upon, as there was little room for spontaneity in her art.


In a letter in late 1938 to photographer Lucienne Bloch, Kahlo reveals that Julien Levy has invited her to New York for the first of only two solo shows in her lifetime. They selected 25 pictures, half of which were sold. She travelled to Paris when works like `Self-Portrait: The Frame' (1938) were included in an exhibition of Mexican art and she expressed her delight at the kind words of Pablo Picasso. Joan Miró and Wassily Kandinsky in a letter to friends Ella and Bertram Wolfe. But her joy was short-lived, as Rivera demanded a divorce when she returned to Mexico City and she confided her distress in a letter to photographer lover, Nickolas Muray, after she returned to her family home to endure a bout of health problems that were exacerbated by her drinking.


The divorce was finalised on 8 November 1939. But, despite trouble with her hands, Kahlo completed her largest work, `The Two Fridas' (1939), which reflected the fact she deemed Rivera to have caused her more damage than the tram. Confirming her decision to abandon Tehuana dress, the lowering sky in the dual portrait bears the influence of El Greco's `View of Toledo' (c.1599-1600) and Segoviano informs us that such backdrops would become common in the second phase of Kahlo's career.


A third of Kahlo's 150 paintings were self-portraits and a montage follows over a passage from a letter to Chávez, in which Frida claims that depicting herself allowed her to be more honest. Over `Fulang-Chang and I' (1937), Zavala suggests that her limited mobility explains the auto-focus, although she also posits the notion that this was a commercial artist offering pieces of herself for sale. Hernández notes that she sits at a three-quarter angle in items like `Self-Portrait With Monkey' (1940), `Self-Portrait With Braid' (1941) and `Self-Portrait With Small Monkey' (1945), which is close to the pose she often adopted with her father. What is noticeable, as we see `Diego on My Mind (Self-Portrait As Tehuana)' (1943), is that the other elements in the pictures are constantly changing, whether they are monkeys, cats or her ex-husband, who appears above her famous eyebrows in a portrait in which every part of Frida's body apart from her face is covered by her ornate white costume.


As Muray was taking ravishing colour photographs of Kahlo at this time (in which she poses face on), Zavala believes she worked from these pictures rather than mirror images. Indeed, she gave him Self-Portrait With Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird' (1940) as a gift to hint at the self-sacrifice she will have to make in order to patch things up with Rivera. Despite the recurrence of the solemn expression, Ankori detects subtle differences in each picture, as Kahlo adopts different personae in `Self-Portrait Dedicated to Dr Eloesser' and `Self-Portrait With Cropped Hair' (both 1940), with the latter exploring an androgyny that was rare in artistic expression at that time. She also tellingly quotes Alejandro Gómez Ariás's contention that there were lots of Fridas, but none were exactly who she wanted to be.


Aware that Kahlo's health was linked to her anguish at being apart from Rivera, Eloesser brokered a reconciliation that led to a remarriage in December 1940. She decided to turn a blind eye to his philandering and the Casa Azul became a social hub. But, as `Without Hope' (1945) testified, she continued to have numerous operations, although Herrera wonders whether she underwent some in order to gain her workaholic husband's attention. In `The Broken Column' (1944), she is wearing one her detested surgical corsets (supporting a cracked architectural column rather than a spine), while her exposed flesh is pierced by countless nails.


Over a photograph of Kahlo working on a canvas suspended over her bed, Rivera's artist grandson, Pedro Diego Alvarado, marvels at how she could find beauty and hope when she was in such physical discomfort. However, as Herrera notes, the portraits she drew in her diary were much wilder and less precise than her canvas works. Hilda Trujillo suggests this was the place where Kahlo tried to understand herself through her writings on art, politics and her personal life. She also turned Casa Azul and its garden into a microcosm of Mexico, but Rivera refused to be tamed and, as he continued to have very public affairs, Kahlo produced `The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Myself, Diego and Señor Xolotl' (1949). According to Ankori, this is a painting about balance that is influenced by Kahlo's interest in yin and yang that came from her reading of Eastern philosophy and theology. But there is also plenty of Pre-Hispanic and Christian symbolism to demonstrate her belief that love is the basis of all life.


Having spent much of 1950 in hospital after undergoing an unsuccessful bone graft on her back, Kahlo became addicted to morphine. She had to be strapped into her wheelchair to work and she is seen sitting impassively in `Self-Portrait With the Portrait of Dr Farill' (1951), in which she holds a palette containing her heart and some brushes dripping blood. In April 1953, Kahlo had her bed moved so she could attend a Mexican exhibition dedicated to her oeuvre that had been curated by Rivera and their friends. However, she died at the Casa Azul on 13 July 1954 at the age of 47.


She kept painting, with `Still Life With Parrot and Flag', `Still Life (I Belong to Samuel Fastlicht)' (both 1951) and `Viva la Vida, Watermelons' (1954) throbbing with life and colour. But Ankori attests that she will be remembered most for the self-portraits, which put her on a par with Rembrandt Van Rijn and Vincent Van Gogh for the way in which they capture their time, as well as the artist's likeness. Zavala, however, is troubled by the way in which Kahlo's art has endured because of the way her image has been exploited and the manner in which Fridamania has manufactured a popular celebrity around her life and work in order to sell memorabilia.


This closing notion is worth a documentary of its own, but it chimes in neatly with the problem of selling to survive that even the most avid card-carrying Communist artist couldn't avoid confronting. Given that Rivera was never short of a peso or two, Ray and Grabsky might have devoted a little more time to Kahlo's marketability and how she was able to live in the Casa Azul and pay her medical bills in the year after the divorce. More might also have been said about her reputation with the art establishment, as she only received two solo shows during her lifetime. Similarly, something might not have gone amiss about her discovery by academe and when Fridamania actually started and the lengths to which it has gone and the depths to which it has purportedly stooped.


As ever with EOS, however, these are minor grumbles about a film that informs and enlightens with clarity, insight and enthusiasm. Scholars Ankori, Herrera and Zavala are particularly impressive in identifying and dissecting Kahlo's most significant conceptual and stylistic traits. But each contributor has something useful to impart. although it should be noted that Rivera is cut a surprising amount of slack, which was very much not the case in Julie Taymor's more melodramatic re-enactment. Typically, the camerawork is exemplary, although there are none of the trademark glides across a gallery floor, as Ray cuts between an establishing shot of a picture under discussion and more detailed close-ups. Given that we have been deprived of EOS tours for such a long while, we should be grateful for anything they can show us, especially when it has been assembled with such intellectual and technical rigour and élan.


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