As Covid-19 cases continue to skyrocket across the country, museums are attempting to adapt to our new virtual world. Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the Smithsonian Associates Streaming Series lecture, “The Art and Life of Frida Kahlo.” Hosted by Mary McLaughlin and delivered by art historian Nancy G. Heller, the lecture provided an overview of Frida Kahlo’s tragic life and powerful paintings in an attempt to explain the “Fridamania” that has taken the world by storm.
Even if you are not a student of art history, you would likely recognize an image of Frida Kahlo. Her face is plastered across tote bags, picture books, puzzles, coffee mugs, socks, and, now, masks. How did an Indigenous women artist with a disability manage to make such an impact in just a short three-decade career? According to Heller, the answer lies somewhere between a tortured life and striking self-portraiture.
Much of the lecture was focused on a chronological view of Kahlo’s life. She suffered from polio as a child and was involved in a horrific automobile accident at 18 that left her bedridden. It was during this time that she began to paint. The lecture provided wonderfully strange images of Kahlo painting in the hospital with modified easels strapped to her bed frame. While her earlier paintings were described as “flat,” these would provide the foundational work for many of her later masterpieces.
Aside from persistent medical problems, the lecture also discussed Kahlo’s relationship with fellow artist Diego Rivera in detail. Their tumultuous love story is also often discussed considering their age difference, various affairs, and eventual rekindling. Kahlo’s relationship with Rivera was analyzed through a handful of her paintings, including Frida and Diego and Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair.
The lecture also dipped into Kahlo’s politics and celebration of Indigenous Mexican culture. Kahlo was a proud member of the Mexican Communist Party and often associated with prominent communist leaders. It was interesting to learn that Trotsky lived at her home for a number of years. In terms of Kahlo’s “Mexicanidad,” Heller discussed Frida’s vibrant Indigenous clothing and celebration of Mexican culture in contrast with her wealthy European patrons. As the child of a European man and an Indigenous Mexican woman, this contrast would bubble up throughout Kahlo’s life in different ways and is still the source of contentious debate to this day.
It was helpful to learn that Kahlo’s work is technically classified as surrealist (though she rejected this term herself). While categories like this don’t tell the full story, it is often helpful for me to place artists within general themes. Kahlo’s paintings, according to Heller, include stark elements of surrealism, including exaggeration, juxtaposition, and doubling. These elements can be seen in The Two Fridas, The Broken Column, and Itzcuintli Dog with Me.
It was a real treat to see these paintings in conjunction with learning more about Kahlo’s life. During the lecture, it occurred to me that while I was familiar with Kahlo’s ailments and her likeness, I only recognized a few of her paintings. This, to me, was a sure sign that “Fridamania” had taken hold of me as well. Because I felt like I had a good understanding of who Kahlo was, considering the media saturation of her likeness, I didn’t feel obligated to take a deep dive into her work. This lecture reminded me that Kahlo is more than a unique face and a tragic story and was truly an incredibly accomplished and thoughtful painter.
© Dayna Hagewood (11/23/2020) FF2 Media
Featured Photo: Biography.com via Getty Images
Top Photo: A photograph of Kahlo. Photo Credits: fridakhalo.org
Middle Photo: Kahlo painting in bed. Photo Credits: The Guardian, Frida Kahlo Museum
Bottom Photo: The Two Fridas via fridakhalo.org