FRIDA KAHLO'S LEGACY
THE POETICS OF SELF
During the twenty-eight years of her painting career Frida Kahlo was best known as the exotic wife of the hugely famous muralist Diego Rivera. She was the woman who wore festive Mexican costumes and who painted peculiar, often shocking self-portraits. Since the late 1970s—thanks in part to feminism, the Chicano movement, and Multiculturalism—Kahlo has become an international cult figure. Exhibitions, books, and films about her abound. Her face graces
T-shirts, jewelry, coffee mugs, and computer mouse pads. One of
self-portraits appeared on a 2001United States postage stamp. In
Frida Kahlo's most passionate devotees tend to be young women artists. In the late 1970s and early 1980s she became a feminist role model, admired because she had the courage to make small, highly personal paintings in the heyday of Mexican muralism and because
she kept on working in spite of pain and in spite of being in the shadow of her powerful husband. Along with feminists and women artists, gay men adopted Kahlo as a role model in their struggle to achieve a more open society. Kahlo's wildly unconventional and often painful self-portraits - in 1932 she painted herself having a miscarriage and being born - were liberating for homosexual artists who wished in their work to address issues of sexual orientation. Chicanos and Chicanas idolized Kahlo because of her passion for her Mexican identity, her affiliation with what she called la raza, and her "revolutionary spirit."
Some of the artists for whom Kahlo was strength-giving pay homage to her by including her image in their art as a kind of emblem. The Chicano artists Rupert Garcia and Esther Hernandez come to mind, as well as Mexican painters such as Lucia Maya. In the mid-1980s Maya did a series of drawings and lithographs in which Kahlo appeared, usually more than once. A number of artists have created altars to Frida. Most of the altars I have seen were more effective as acts of homage than as aesthetic objects. Encouraged by Kahlo's example many artists have turned to autobiographical subject matter, creating either narratives of events in their lives or imagery that alludes to their experience in a more metaphorical manner. Some painters have adopted Kahlo's intentionally folkloric style to give their subject
matter a certain distance as well as a distinct visual charm.
The artists whom I would like to look at were propelled by Kahlo to invent their own pictorial languages. Their art does not look like Kahlo's, but they do draw upon certain ideas and freedoms that she explored. Their art tends, like hers, to be closely related to their lives.
Most of Kahlo's legatees follow her example in painting self-portraits, and several use the body—often wounded, fragmented, and in pain—as a way of expressing meaning. My most important criterion in selecting the artists I discuss here is that they have transformed what
they took from her into something completely their own. By looking at this small group of artists and seeing how Kahlo's work inspired them, we can gain a better understanding of her contribution to the history of art. . .
A number of women artists in the
Ellen Berman (b.
five-year-old daughter, Sarah, to a Kahlo retrospective at the
We went into the Frida Kahlo show and were just knocked back on our heels. I'd never heard of her. I'd never seen any paintings anything like that. It was a particular time in my life. I had this daughter I was struggling to find a way to communicate with and to communicate about. I really didn't have a way to do either. And there was the sheer incredible, amazing strength and guts of these paintings. Two years later, when I went to art school, I knew immediately that I had permission to paint my own story, my own experiences, and my own need to talk about these things, because Frida Kahlo did. I began to paint self-portraits right away. Kahlo completely gave me the key to open the door.
portraits of herself with her daughter, such as Sarah and I (and the
When she painted Sarah and the Illustrated Insults (1984), Berman felt that she was almost copying Kahlo's images of her body in duress. "I was trying to use imagery in the way that she would. The portrait is about the various trials that Sarah had to endure: her hair standing out like lightning because she had seizures; the X-acto knife is like the scalpel when she had eye surgery; the burn from spilt coffee, the injections, the necklace of pills; the cameo refers to her muteness." In the background Berman (like Galan) painted two disembodied eyes that weep tears. Just as Kahlo recorded her miscarriages and surgeries in paint, Berman unabashedly addresses subjects that society would prefer remain invisible.
Sarah died in her sleep when she was seventeen. In the years that followed, Berman painted a series of ferociously honest self-portraits. Like those of Kahlo, these portraits have an energy that suggests that painting them helped to steady tumultuous feelings. She also painted a group of what she calls "relic" paintings, most of them depictions of clothing that had belonged to Sarah. In addition, she produced a number of paintings of dolls in shoeboxes that make you think of dead babies, thus recalling Kahlo's Deceased Dimas Rosas (at Three Years
of Age) (1937), a painting that
may allude to Kahlo's sorrow at not being able to bring a child to term. From
the same years come numerous still lifes in which anthropomorphic fruits and
vegetables interrelate like actors in some drama of loneliness and grief. Many
of the still lifes show bruised and sometimes cut-open fruits carefully
arranged on plates.
Berman loves to remember the "astonishing revelation" of her first encounter with Kahlo's work, but, she says: "It's hard to think about Frida now. She's become such a cultural phenomenon, so ubiquitous. She's almost become not herself." For all that, Kahlo remains in the back of her mind. "I think," she says, "that almost all women artists would say she was important to them, because of her guts, her determination, and her success."
Ellen Berman, interviewed by the author,
from Frida Kahlo, Edited by Elizabeth
Carpenter, Catalog accompanying exhibition at