Frida's Birthday

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Intimate Exhibit Reveals Icon's Enduring Public, Private Persona

They’ve thrown a little birthday party for Mexican artist Frida Kahlo on the occasion of her 100th birthday at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, although you’d be forgiven if you got the impression that Kahlo arranged the whole thing herself.

“Frida Kahlo: Public Image, Private Life. A Selection of Photographs and Letters” is tucked away on the fourth floor of the museum—as if a visit is a matter of paying personal, private respects to the late icon. It’s an exhibition of three rooms off a cramped hallway, but it contains a full, rich life, the echoes of which have left us with an even fuller afterlife.

The small display features the museum’s own Kahlo self-portrait (dedicated to Leon Trotsky, a friend, ex-lover and victim of a Stalin assassin) as well as 23 photographs by different artists and 10 unpublished personal letters that Kahlo wrote to family, friends and husband Diego Rivera, the great Mexican muralist. In addition, there are 12 never-before-seen photographs of Kahlo’s private bathroom at the Casa Azul, which reveal her corsets and medical apparatuses that were a part of her daily reality after being afflicted with polio at age 15 and then gravely hurt in a bus accident three years later.

Small though it is in size and volume of material, the exhibition adds to the Kahlo legend, strengthens the powerful memory that exists in her work, and offers new perspective on the numerous accounts of her spectacularly dramatic, almost operatic life story. Not surprisingly, the Mexican-born actress (and great beauty) Salma Hayek starred in a recent film of Kahlo’s life made by the idiosyncratic and gifted director Julie Taymor.

As you walk through the cramped spaces of the exhibition, it feels a bit like a wake—a Mexican Day-of-the-Dead sort of wake—because some of the material gives off a morbid vibe, particularly the numerous haunting, mostly black-and-white photos of her bathroom and others depicting Kahlo in death.

You can look at the exhibition as a kind of celebration of the artist’s life, or as a view of her transcendent life as a Mexican cultural icon and, yes, celebrity, before the word became common as mud. You can also look at it as a tangible meditation on the afterlife of artists and their work—and why reputation, memory, interest and fascination persist and grow exponentially for some, while they change or fade for others.

And in today’s times, when sound and image are easily made virtual and retrievable, this meditation on afterlife is true for popular entertainers and artists, especially if they die at a relatively young age or in a dramatic fashion. “Great career move,” an agent is supposed to have quipped when he heard that Elvis had died—and the agent turned out to be a prophet.

For example, like Kahlo—a female artist in a male-dominated society—l9th-century Parisian cultural figure and author George Sand, who held her own in the age of Victor Hugo, was also famous for her famous lovers (Chopin among them) and wore pants. But today, although her life makes for good biographical reading and even films, nobody reads her actual books anymore. That’s not the case with Kahlo. Her work remains as popular, if not more popular, than ever—and not just in Mexico, but all over the world.

That’s partly because the subject of Kahlo’s work was Kahlo herself. Most of her self-portraits captured her fascinating personality in a vivid, colorful, dramatically beautiful folk-art style, merging ideas of Mexico and its people into the artwork as well.

Similarly, her private life and public image gave way to become something larger than life itself. She was famous for her volatile marriage to the great (and considerably older) muralist Rivera, himself a revered national treasure and cultural icon. She was equally famous for her lovers—not to mention Rivera’s frequent adulteries.

Most people know that Kahlo lived much of her life in excruciating pain from injuries suffered in a bus accident in her youth. People also know about her politics, which were socialist and revolutionary—a serious brand of populism that mixed Soviet-style communism with unabashed admiration.

In various ways, all of this can be found in her art and the iconography of her art, its symbolism and its Mexicanista vividness, which, though specific, over time became universal. This exhibition offers these references, with Frida herself acting, in a way, as a guard with the self-portrait that stands at the exhibit’s entrance. Here is Frida—shawl, flower in her tightly wrapped hair, bright-red fingernails, ruby-red lips that are a little pursed, deflecting pain just a little, and those unforgettable black eyebrows and eyes.

The rest is documentation of the highest order—photographs with Rivera, her family and even her small dog. There are also two charming photographs with Leon Trotsky, his wife and Max Shachtman, which encapsulate a domestic drama that invites you to imagine a conversation among them.

The bathroom images by Graciela Iturbide (made this year), meanwhile, constitute a disturbing photo essay that exposes the details of Kahlo’s private, daily life and physical pain: a water bag, paint-spattered smock, political poster of Stalin, and stifling corsets that look like instruments of torture, which, in their own way, probably were.

Kahlo died in 1954 days after her 47th birthday, but her death, as we see in this exhibit and the continuing fascination with her work and life, was clearly just the beginning.

Frida Kahlo: Public Image, Private Life. A Selection of Photographs and Letters through Oct. 14 National Museum of Women in the Arts 1250 New York Ave., NW For more information, please call (202) 783-5000 or visit www.nmwa.org.

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999