Frida Kahlo has achieved such a level of iconic importance that most people who view her work have seen it only in reproductions: photos, posters, book illustrations, greeting cards, etc. As with all artists, though, seeing her work in person is really essential to appreciating it.
Frida’s subject material – the terrible bus accident when she was a girl, now so famous an event; the subsequent multiple operations; the corset-like braces; the bleeding, the miscarriages, the pain, the personal suffering, the emotional devastation, her marriages to Diego Rivera – is all so well-known and interesting that the viewer can be forgiven for not looking beyond it. But it’s worth asking, was she really a good artist? Was she the great artist that so many congratulate her for being, even greater than her remarkable husband Diego?
To help answer those questions, you should go to the current exhibition of Frida’s work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, on view until September 28. It would also be helpful to read Hayden Herrera’s wonderful book about Frida, one of the finest biographies I have ever read. Indeed it is one of the finest books I have ever read.
There are some artists and writers whose lives are almost as compelling as their work. Ernest Hemingway comes to mind, as always. Pablo Picasso. Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Indeed there are those whose lives are even more compelling than their work, as with Gertrude Stein – in her case, far more compelling. Frida’s life contains so much adventuresome brio, so much terrible pain and so profound a mix of lurching emotions, great kindness, and deeply-felt love, that you could hardly find as compelling a character in the pages of any fiction.
Ms. Herrera’s book exploits all these things and does so with so much good writing that the book itself is really a page-turner. This is not the usual in serious biographies. But Herrera’s talent as a writer allows her to tell Frida’s story with all the tenderness and verve it deserves. It is a very fine book that presents a delicately nuanced, painful, often humorous portrait of a very considerable person and artist.
I recommend reading Herrera's book in concert with seeing this exhibition because Frida’s life experiences were so intertwined with her paintings. Of the major artists I can think of who made as much of the self-portrait as Frida did, Rembrandt van Rijn is the one who comes most quickly to mind. I think it would be a mistake, though, to attempt comparing Frida’s abilities to those of Rembrandt. She can’t be blamed for that, since, especially in portraiture, no one has ever been as able as he was. To see a number of his self-portraits allows the viewer to understand this one man’s emotions almost in their entirety. The truth-telling of which Rembrandt was capable – so often quietly ghastly emotional truths, the disappointments in his life that one can see in so many of the portraits, and the richness of it conveyed so well by the way his brush brought him to life – has no equal.
But looking at Frida’s self-portraits causes the viewer to actually wince sometimes, to look away from the imagined pain of her travails. It is simply awful to consider what the physical pain she suffered must actually have been like and, especially, to imagine what it was like over so long a period, fully the last two-thirds of her life.
But, as with Rembrandt, all this would have escaped us if Frida had not been able to paint as well as she did. The pain that she felt was in her broken body. The pain we feel is carried by her brushwork, her sense of design, her ability to do a picture. Her truth lies in the finesse and vision she had as an artist. Indeed, because she paints so well, the pain is made even more palpable and difficult because it is presented so clearly. The broken spinal columns, the vaginal blood, the tears, the stoic look at the viewer, the exceptional backgrounds painted so beautifully and with such care; her clothing, her animals, the jewelry, the insects, her hair – all of it is fashioned with the precision and feeling of which only an artist with major ability and an intensely well-understood consciousness is capable.
So, yes, I would recommend going to this exhibition in order to see what Frida’s actual life, with all its pain and anguish, was like. And you will see that. But you won’t see it merely because of the terrible difficulties with which she contended in her life and about which you can read. You’ll really see it because she painted it so well. Her pain and difficulty will be injected directly into your heart. Her pain will become your pain. But also, because of her ability as an artist, her beauty will become yours as well.
1. Sylvia Salmi, Frida Kahlo, 1944; Vicente Wolf Photography Collection
2. Frida Kahlo, The Two Fridas (Las dos Fridas), 1939; oil on canvas; 67-11/16 x 67-11/16 inches; Collection Museo de Arte Moderno, Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes–Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, Mexico City; © 2008 Banco de México, Trustee of the Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust. Av. Cinco de Mayo No. 2, Col. Centro, Del. Cuauhtémoc 06059, México, D.F.
3. Frida Kahlo, The Broken Column (La columna rota), 1944; oil on Masonite; 15-11/16 x 12-1/16 inches; Collection Museo Dolores Olmedo, Xochimilco, Mexico City; © 2008 Banco de México, Trustee of the Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust. Av. Cinco de Mayo No. 2, Col. Centro, Del. Cuauhtémoc 06059, México, D.F.
4. Frida Kahlo, Frieda and Diego Rivera, 1931; oil on canvas; 39-3/8 x 31 inches; Collection San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Albert M. Bender Collection, Gift of Albert M. Bender; © 2008 Banco de México, Trustee of the Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust. Av. Cinco de Mayo No. 2, Col. Centro, Del. Cuauhtémoc 06059, México, D.F.