There is a shame for any serious artist in being understood. Many artists cultivate a mystique precisely to avoid being explained away. But a resistance to being too well known comes into conflict with a desire to communicate and express oneself, to belong, to be loved. Frida Kahlo, one of the 20th century’s great artists, gives us occasion to think about this paradox. We know her. We love her. The exhibitions keep coming. And, inevitably, we think we understand her.
Kahlo’s life and work are addressed, engrossingly, in Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving, at the Brooklyn Museum. A second, smaller show, Frida Kahlo and Arte Popular, opens shortly at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Brooklyn show is not just about how Kahlo made herself visible and known. It is as much about how she sought to avoid the ignominy of being too well known. It is, in short, about mystique.
Curated by Catherine Morris and Lisa Small and based on an exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum last year, the showhinges on 10 Kahlo paintings from the well-travelled Gelman Collection. It is filled out with dresses, jewellery and ephemera and there are dozens of photographs. So it’s as much about Kahlo’s fashioning of her persona as it is about fashion, painting or photography.
I have never seen a photograph of Kahlo that isn’t captivating. The Brooklyn show is filled with them, dating from early childhood to her final decade, and reminds us that she fascinated people even before she began painting her indelible self-portraits.
Kahlo became a celebrity when she was just 22, after marrying the already-famous Diego Rivera. She spent the rest of her life in his shadow. “The conclusion I’ve drawn,” she later wrote to him, “is that all I’ve done is fail ... I live with you for 10 years without doing anything in short but causing you problems and annoying you. I began to paint and my painting is useless but for me and for you to buy it, knowing that no-one else will.”
How painful this is to read, knowing that Kahlo was the better artist. She was better not because she happens to be more popular now nor because she was more talented or prolific than Rivera. She wasn’t. She was better because her art has an urgency and a specificity that his almost entirely lacks.
Rivera’s art is like political speech: In trying to apply to “the masses,” to everyone, it doesn’t actually apply to anyone. Kahlo’s is emphatically about herself, with results so jewel-like, compressed and beguiling that we are all, helplessly, interested.
Kahlo’s early fame put her on a strange trajectory. She was photographed for Vogue and Time and Vanity Fair by the most famous photographers alive: Edward Weston, Manuel lvarez Bravo, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham. They were interested in her because they were interested in Mexico and Mexican politics; because they were interested in Rivera; and because when you see tiny Frida standing next to hulking Diego ... well, how could you not be interested?
But above all, they loved her sense of style, her charisma and a personal energy that the early photographs make clear was palpably erotic. “The gringas really like me a lot and take notice of all the dresses and rebozos that I brought with me,” she wrote to her mother from San Francisco, “their jaws drop at the sight of my jade necklaces and all the painters want me to pose for them.”
The Brooklyn show invites you to join them in gawking. It contains pre-Columbian jade and greenstone necklaces of the kind Kahlo liked to wear (and painted herself wearing), as well as rebozos (rectangular, handwoven shawls), embroidered dresses and skirts, cotton blouses, silk boots, jewelry, makeup and more. Her costumes included traditional Mexican garments, mostly from Oaxaca, but also items from Guatemala, China, the United States and Europe.
Their importance to Kahlo, and to her fashioning of herself, became clearer than ever in 2003, when a bathroom adjacent to Kahlo’s bedroom in the Blue House, where she lived most of her life, was unlocked and a wardrobe of vibrant costumes uncovered.
Among them were 16 gorgeously embroidered blouses and 25 skirts from the indigenous and matriarchal Tehuana society, based in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. These ensembles become unforgettable when worn with stiff lace collars, originally Spanish but transformed by the Tehuana, who wore them as a frame around the face.
Kahlo didn’t just paint herself in these costumes; she also posed for photographs and appeared in public in them. It was long assumed she wore them to please Rivera. (Both Kahlo and Rivera were members of the Communist Party, champions of the Mexican Revolution and promoters of native Mexican culture.) But since 2003 that assumption has started to fall apart.
More likely, Kahlo’s drive towards self-portraiture, her manipulation of her persona, was a product of pain.
Her Blue House wardrobe included an array of orthopaedic devices. A whole section of the show is devoted to these and to the various medicines Kahlo took. It is a reminder that there is no way to think about Kahlo, no way to come to grips with the power of her art, without also thinking about pain.
Her pain. Not yours. Not mine.
“Pain is always new to the sufferer,” wrote the 19th-century writer Alphonse Daudet (who had reason to know), “but loses its originality for those around him. Everyone will get used to it except me.”
We all have gotten used to Kahlo’s pain. She never did. Pain is always fresh and always incommunicable. It splinters the self and impedes all efforts to maintain a coherent self. So it also defeats the desire to be truly understood.
Her pain was persistent. She contracted polio at the age of 6. The stricken right leg was deformed and deteriorated throughout her life. It developed ulcers, tumours and ultimately gangrene, requiring the amputation of toes and finally, in 1954, her leg below the knee.
“Awareness,” wrote the performance artist Stelarc, “is what happens when the body malfunctions.” Kahlo’s awareness must have been incredibly acute. Her 6-year-old self invented an imaginary companion to help her cope. And this, as Gannit Ankori notes in a 2013 biography, marks the beginnings of Kahlo’s “splitting” of herself, a common psychological response to trauma and pain, which later stimulated her self-portraiture.
She fought against her condition with tremendous vitality and determination. But her confidence suffered.
Kahlo suffered her next, most horrific, physical misfortune when she was 18. She was with her boyfriend on a bus when an electric tram plowed into it. Several people were killed. Kahlo’s spinal column, writes Ankori, “was broken in three places; her collarbone and two ribs were broken; her right leg had 11 fractures and the right foot was crushed; her left shoulder was out of joint and her pelvis was broken in three places.” She also suffered, say the medical records, “a penetrating abdominal wound caused by iron handrail entering left hip, exiting through the vagina and tearing left lip.”
Why recount all this? It is well known, to the point of cliche. But it does tend, I think, to get short-circuited, replaced by an abstract halo of “suffering,” and sublimated into Kahlo’s glamour, her status as a feminist icon.
That is how we understand her, or try to. But we can’t.
Kahlo was not, while she painted, an icon. She was a human being, a woman, daughter, sister and wife. Such was the constancy of her pain that she “lived dying,” according to one friend. But she was also, astonishingly — and despite many cruel betrayals — in love with life.
Can anyone look at her paintings and doubt it? Her faux-naf style and lumpy private iconography are the very opposite of suave. But they are emotionally limpid and hard-pressed, like diamonds.
Kahlo wanted, I think, what we all want (when not tempted by the abyss): life. More life. Yes, she wanted us to know her. But she may have wanted even more to avoid the shame of being known — known as Frida the icon, Frida the wife of Diego, even Frida the suffering victim.
She painted, like all the greatest artists, from a place of paradox. Only in this way could her art express her yearning to be recognised for what she was: fragile, robust, inimitable Frida.
Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving runs through May 12 at the Brooklyn Museum.