There are so many ways to be interested in Frida Kahlo, who was born a hundred years ago and died forty-seven years later, in 1954, that simply to look at and judge her paintings, as paintings, may seem narrow-minded. No one need appreciate art to justify being a Kahlo fan or even a Kahlo cultist. (Why not? The world will have cults, and who better merits one?) In Mexico, Kahlo’s ubiquitous image has become the counter-Guadalupe, complementing the numinous Virgin as a deathless icon of Mexicanidad. Kahlo’s ascension, since the late nineteen-seventies, to feminist sainthood is ineluctable, though a mite strained. (Kahlo struggled not in common cause with women but, single-handedly, for herself.) And her pansexual charisma, shadowed by tales of ghastly physical and emotional suffering, makes her an avatar of liberty and guts. However, Kahlo’s eminence wobbles unless her work holds up. A retrospective at the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis, proves that it does, and then some. She made some iffy symbological pictures and a few perfectly awful ones—forgivably, given their service to her always imperilled morale—but her self-portraits cannot be overpraised. They are sui generis in art while collegial with great portraiture of every age. Kahlo is among the winnowed elect of twentieth-century painters who will never be absent for long from the mental museums of future artists.Read More
She was born Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón in the house where she would die, in Coyoacán, then a prosperous suburb and later a district of Mexico City. She was the third child of a Hungarian-German immigrant photographer, who was an atheist Jew, and a pious mestiza from Oaxaca. Polio, at age six, withered her right leg and foot. She was among the rare girls admitted to the sterling National Preparatory School, in Mexico City, where she grew from an effervescent tomboy into a brilliant young woman, during the creative tumult of the nineteen-twenties. When she was eighteen, a bus crash left her with spinal and pelvic damage that would entail many surgeries, some of them probably unnecessary. (Was she masochistic? Anyone doomed to a lifetime of pain will find veins of sweetness in it.) While convalescing, she began to paint, depicting herself, in styles influenced by Renaissance and Mannerist masters, with the aid of a mirror set in the canopy of her bed. In 1928, she took up with Mexico’s chief artist, Diego Rivera, who was twenty years her senior. They married in 1929, divorced for a year in 1939, then remarried. They were the loves of each others’ lives, though with innumerable supplements. Their semi-public affairs (her amours included Leon Trotsky and numerous women); their dealings with famous figures in America and Europe, from John D. Rockefeller to Pablo Picasso; and their political adventures, as Communists subject to sectarian pushes and pulls, make Hayden Herrera’s hugely consequential biography, “Frida” (1983), a delirious read. (Herrera is a co-curator, with Elizabeth Carpenter, of the Walker show.) Kahlo died, probably of a complication of pneumonia, the last in a cascade of deteriorative maladies, a year after the opening of her first solo exhibition in Mexico.
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