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Frida Kahlo

Artist, Icon, Revolutionary

Frida Kahlo is typically rendered as either the eccentric lady artist of the mustache and unibrow, memorialized by Hollywood goddess Salma Hayek, or the shunned wife of legendary muralist and revolutionary Diego Rivera. In a new touring exhibition organized by Kahlo biographer and art historian Hayden Herrera, we get to see Kahlo in all her incarnations—primarily through a slew of seductive, mysterious, and sometimes claustrophobic self-portraits that describe vicissitudes of political and personal agony, as well as the ultimate triumph of self-definition through the manufacturing of Kahlo’s own image.

Fifty paintings from the beginning of Kahlo’s career in 1926 to her death in 1954 include not only her renowned, cryptic self-portraits, ranging from excoriations of bourgeois life to deeply personal meditations on mutilation and disability—but also a number of still-lifes and other portraits that add greater depth to the hallmark iconic images we are so familiar with. Kahlo’s artistic life began in 1926, when she began painting shortly after a bus accident that would leave her physically debilitated and prone to lifelong chronic pain. By the time she died at the age of 47, she had already produced a compendium of 66 self-portraits and 80 other paintings—all of them mysterious, lush, and subversive, but always intimately connected to the circumstances of her own life.

While Kahlo’s earlier paintings, such as “Self-Portrait with Necklace” (1933) reflect a delicacy and youthfulness that make them seem almost restrained, her later works teem with indigenous symbolism and a lexicon of devotional imagery that would grant her a place among the Surrealist painters of the age. While her husband’s work was more directly invested in the political and social injustices wielded against the working class, his paintings seem almost de rigueur given the proliferation of political art in the last century. In comparison, as an artist whose career was largely marginalized and eclipsed by Diego Rivera’s luminary status, Kahlo created works that were much more cosmically resonant and complex in their evaluation of both politics and personal suffering.

Kahlo was an artist who was preoccupied with pain. Primitive images of surgery and mutilation, which largely documented her own battle with disability, abound in her work. Self-portraits are typically neither innocuous nor straightforward, and Kahlo’s were no exception. Paired with esoteric pre-Columbian symbols, her self-portraits also contained allusions to spinal surgeries, miscarriages, and other often agonizing and invasive procedures. They are a fascinating commentary on the body’s physical and metaphysical boundaries, as well as the physicalization of female desire and longing.

“Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird” (1940) is a striking example of Kahlo’s harrowingly gorgeous oeuvre. The thorn necklace renders a Christlike representation of martyrdom and suffering. While hummingbirds typically represent love and luck in Mexican folklore, the one that Kahlo carries is dead. Over her shoulder, an iconic spider monkey (which many critics have also posited are stand-ins for the children that Kahlo never had) glowers into the distance, at once whimsical and menacing. It is this dichotomy that precisely obfuscates simple readings of artistic subjectivity; in this piece, everything and its opposite simultaneously exists in a nexus of interpretations.

Other notable pieces include “The Broken Column” (1944), which epitomizes Kahlo’s bodily and mental state post-spinal surgery. Her open torso reveals a spine that is constructed of a fractured ionic column. Her breasts are bare and she is clad only in an orthopedic corset as tears pour from her eyes and nails pierce her skin. A foreboding background of dark blue sky is nearly classical in appearance; it is an image that immediately suggests heroism and martyrdom, but there is a certain black humor that pervades the piece as well—Kahlo is well aware of the absurdity and ineffectuality of martyrdom, and even in her pain, she is unwilling to countenance a resignation to suffering.

Walking through a gallery full of Kahlos that exude resolution and strength is daunting, to say the least. If one holds to the well-worn cliché of the male gaze, the very image of a female is one that customarily and by necessity undergoes a visual assault by the viewer. However, these are pieces that spin new mythologies of the artist even as they take us deeper into her life; Kahlo’s self-portraits are suffused with the kind of internality that one cannot easily infiltrate. They are at once seductive and impregnable. In fact, given that the images were manuf(r)actured and multiplied by the artist herself, there is a certain recalcitrance in the work that is more disquieting than welcoming—which is certainly a testament to women’s still limited agency in creating their own images of femininity.

Kahlo’s work represents an identity that was conflicted, continually in flux; these are pieces that reflect a numinous arc of self that couldn’t be contained in easy categories. Luckily, the exhibit doesn’t merely shroud Kahlo in myth and visual anecdotes. It also features a collection of photographs that once belonged to Kahlo and her husband, including snapshots of friends and family (and even cultural figures like Andre Breton and Leon Trotsky), oftentimes mutilated by Kahlo’s lipstick marks and personal denouncements or dedications. Two galleries in the exhibition even reveal Kahlo’s visits to San Francisco in the 1930s and 1940s (she and Rivera divorced in 1939 and remarried in 1940 at San Francisco City Hall). A tongue-in-cheek headline from the San Francisco News in 1931 announces, “Mrs. Diego Rivera Revealed As Portrait Artist in Own Right.” And even if her glory is mostly posthumous, fortunately for us, it exists.

The exhibition is at the SFMOMA through September 28th.