During her lifetime, Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) lived in the shadow of her far more famous husband, Diego Rivera, but with a big push from American popular culture beginning in the 1990s, she’s taken over the spotlight, emerging in the 21st century as the best-known and most-recognizable Mexican artist in the world — despite being famous for challenging, ignoring and disrupting cultural norms in Mexico.
In response to Rivera’s many infidelities, she had affairs with both men and women. An ardent Communist, she devoted her life to social protest, from leading labor marches to protesting the United States’ interventions in Latin America. A proto-feminist, she used her art to explore her lifelong struggles with excruciating pain caused by a streetcar accident when she was 18.
The Mexican Revolution inspired her to wear native Mexican costumes, but even when it became unfashionable, she continued to use the long, flowing dresses to hide a leg shriveled by polio. Her father was a German-Jewish immigrant; her mother half-Indian and a devout Catholic.
Deborah Kuetzpalin Vasquez, assistant professor and head of the art program at Our Lady of the Lake University, said Kahlo stands for just about everything considered taboo.
“She was bisexual and had a problem with monogamy,” Vasquez said. “She had a unibrow and a mustache and hairy women aren’t cool. She wasn’t worried about conforming to what the culture thinks is beautiful. Women probably respond more to her work because they understand how women have been marginalized in the art world. She was a political activist for unpopular causes. She showed artists how to take the personal stuff in their life and put it in their art. She wasn’t afraid to delve deep into her own emotions. She always said her work wasn’t surreal; it was very real.”
San Antonio artist Carla Veliz, included in “A Woman’s Place Is…” through August 20 at Centro de Artes in Market Square, said Kahlo’s work is extremely sincere, honest and transparent.
“She didn’t shy away from exposing her personal life no matter how tormented, sad and painful it was,” Veliz said. “I feel many women artists, whether Latina or not, have a special connection with Frida’s work precisely because she ‘says it like it is’ or in her case ‘painted it like it was,’ no hidden figures or allegories, all real.”
Looking far below the superficial surfaces of today’s selfies, Kahlo’s self-portraits are brutally honest windows into her soul. But she didn’t really impact this country’s popular imagination until the 1990 publication of Martha Zamora’s Frida Kahlo: The Brush of Anguish, followed by director Julie Taymor’s 2002 biopic Frida starring Salma Hayek.
“Similar to Andy Warhol, Frida Kahlo captures the attention of both the art world and the popular imagination,” noted René Paul Barilleaux, the McNay Art Museum’s Head of Curatorial Affairs. “And also like Warhol, she offers the great combination of a cinematic biography, a unique and easily recognizable signature style, and a body of work that conveys the artist’s personal interests and concerns as well as universal issues.”
“Fridamania” continues to grow and mutate aided by a slew of exhibits, documentaries, books and mass merchandising with her image emblazoned on refrigerator magnets, sneakers, T-shirts, tote bags, coasters, cosmetics and, yes, even tequila and beer.
In conjunction with the major exhibit “México 1900-1950: Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco and The Avant-Garde,” the Dallas Museum of Art and the Dallas Latino Center for Leadership Development recently tried to set the Guinness World Record for the biggest gathering of people dressed like Frida Kahlo. Criteria included a “unibrow drawn onto face joining the eyebrows,” three artificial flowers worn in the hair and a red or pink shawl with a flower-printed dress extending below the knees.
But with charges of inappropriate “cultural appropriation” becoming the new battle cry for cultural warriors, there was some push-back, including a comment by Glasstire reader Gabriella Scott: “A tired bloodless effort to appear culturally relevant by creating saccharin pop that does not connect people to art in any way and leaves the public with the empty husk of simulacra icons. Pathetic.”
Vasquez said the current Frida frenzy reflects the usual ambivalence the U.S. audience has for all things Mexico.
“They love our art, our food and our culture, but they don’t really like us,” Vasquez said. “But for me, Frida is a powerful icon, a woman who broke down the barriers of the art world and became prominent in the world’s museums. She went above and beyond, and she did it on her own terms without compromising her values and beliefs. She is a vital symbol to the world that Mexican culture is living and breathing. And I’m proud that she’s become an icon to so many different types of people, especially those who have been marginalized and discriminated against.”