An Ode To…Frida Kahlo

A recent issue of the Guardian’s Weekend magazine featured a fashion spread informing their readers how they could acquire the Frida Kahlo ‘look.’

This could apparently be easily achieved by shelling out on, amongst other things, a 254 Diane Von Furstenberg peasant skirt and a pair of 291 Adele Clarke shoes.

Whatever this reveals about the Guardian’s grasp of irony, it is strangely apt.

As an artist Kahlo was deeply aware of the power of persona and her carefully cultivated image is now very much part of our cultural landscape. Earlier this year, the National Portrait Gallery created an exhibition purely out of a series of photos of Kahlo and, at the Tate Modern – which is currently holding a major retrospective of her work – the gift shop sells postcards of Kahlo in her trademark Mexican dress, her long black hair elaborately styled, alongside those featuring her paintings. But then, with Frida Kahlo, the line between artist and artwork was always blurred.

The details of her remarkable life are arguably as familiar as any of her paintings but, of course, Kahlo never shied from mining her own pain for her work. A later painting entitled No Hope shows a bed-ridden Frida vomiting forth a fountain of viscera onto her waiting easel; this is an image made at a time when she was becoming increasingly physically, and psychologically, fragile but it can also be read as a commentary on the raw, unflinching nature of her work.

From a young age Kahlo appeared very aware of her personal image, of the importance of controlling how she presented herself to the world; early family photographs show a teenage Frida dressed in a man’s suit, cocky and confident, clearly enjoying the effect on others that her appearance could generate.

As a girl she had hopes of studying medicine. But when she was eighteen she was involved in a near-fatal accident, a bus collision that left her so seriously injured that she never completely recovered. It was during her long recuperation that she started painting; an specially designed easel was placed beside her bed to allow her to do so and a mirror installed above her, enabling her to embark on the series of self-portraits that would define her.

From the beginning her self-image was set; one of her earliest paintings, Self Portrait Wearing a Velvet Dress, already features the famous monobrow and the emphasised moustache – though the picture lacks the sternness of her better known self-portraits, her visual sense of herself was strong from the start.

“There were two accidents in my life: the bus and Diego Rivera.”
– Frida Kahlo.

The monobrow and the moustache would become recurring motifs in Kahlo’s work. In her paintings her facial features, her whole look, were harder than in reality; she continually played on ideas of beauty and femininity – and still managed to exude both. She fully grasped the effect that repetition and recognition could have on people; it’s fascinating to wonder how she would have played things in today’s media-saturated age.

Compared to the bloody rawness of painting like A Few Small Nips or Henry Ford Hospital, which respectively depicted murder and miscarriage, Kahlo’s best known self potraits give little away. In fact, they have something of the look of religious icons about them and that is what they have become: icons. Madonna has, in interviews, spoken of feeling an affinity with Kahlo and, while it’s easy to scoff, there is something in what she says: there is an evident level of ambition and self-knowledge that bothe women share.

Kahlo famously said that there were two accidents in her life, the bus and Diego Rivera. A famous muralist and, at the time, one of Mexico’s most celebrated artists, Rivera began his relationship with Kahlo when she was 21 and he was almost twenty years older. Theirs was a difficult marriage. Riviera had an affair with Kahlo’s sister and she too had her lovers – both men and women. It was during a period of separation between them that she painted perhaps her most famous work: The Two Fridas. In this double self-portrait, both versions of Kahlo sit with their hearts literally exposed (anatomical imagery a common theme in her work). One holds a pair of scissors, the other a tiny photo of Diego. Arterial blood drips on their skirts.

In her lifetime Kahlo was overshadowed by Rivera but the reverse is now true. Though in the years after her death the interest in her was minimal, there is so much in her work – the Eastern philosophy, the Mexican heritage, the political and sexual symbolism – and so much in her life, with her famously turbulent marriage and her bisexuality, that it was inevitable people would eventually be drawn back to her.

“She lived her life exactly as she wanted and never apologised.”
– Salma Hayek on Kahlo.

Unsurprsingly perhaps, she now has many famous fans: Madonna being one of the most vocal. And, when a film of her life was mooted, both Madge and Jennifer Lopez grappled for the role that eventually went to Salma Hayek. The struggle that Hayek faced to display a little facial hair in the film just shows, once again, how ahead of her time Frida was, on so many levels. Tracey Emin, with her infamous bed and her needlework confessionals, is one of many who owes much to Kahlo.

As a result of the emotional and physical pain in her life and the overt symbolism in her work – Saints and skulls and open wounds – Kahlo will always be popular with the type of people who scrawled snippets of Sylvia Plath on their maths exercise books at schoool. But maybe that’s as it should be. Let the Kahlo phenomenon roll on. Let her image sprinkle advertisements and the Guardian run their fashion spreads. Because the only person who defined Frida Kahlo was Frida Kahlo and that is well worth celebrating.

Frida Kahlo @ Tate Modern, London, runs from 9 June – 9 October 2005

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