There were four women in a group, obviously here To Experience Mexican Culture. Spotting Javier’s painting on the wall of the coffee shop, which he entitled Frida, one of them declared, “Oh, it’s a Frida!” When one of her friends pointed out that was its title, not the artist, there was a slight deflation of the group’s elan, but not much else.
I often like to chat with visitors to the town, offering tips on things to see, or to avoid. In this case, the froth on my cappuccino suddenly became an object of intense fascination to me. How could anybody look at Javier’s caricatured pseudo-portrait and think it was by Kahlo? He is a local painter who uses the walls of Buenos Tiempos as a gallery, and every few weeks sells one of his works thereby. He has a tendency to paint kitsch, but he knows his market, which … well, likes kitschy stuff. But his Frida has a sarcastic edge he doesn’t usually employ.
Kahlo in her prime, in the late 1930s. Note the ‘hands’ earrings.
When I discovered Hayden Herrera’s book on Frida Kahlo’s paintings around fifteen years ago, I lapped it up. It explained a lot to me about Mexico, and the relations between Mexican men and women. For a time, before I moved here, I had a Kahlo poster on my office wall, and received plaudits from several female editors and salespeople working in my area. Frida the wounded-genius-surrealist (more rarely, Frida the ardent communist) became a feminist icon after Herrera’s 1983 biography of her came out, followed by the book on the paintings. Herrera herself is fair and honest, but Kahlo was appropriated, you might say, by people who project a lot onto her that was hardly true.
For a start, the surrealist label: her aims and methods were different to the surrealists, even if she enjoyed the attention they paid her. It was necessary for her, because Mexico ignored her throughout much of her life, even if it adored her husband, Diego Rivera. Her main sales came in the U.S. She was a feminist from necessity, since as a Mexican woman she was expected to keep her place, and wouldn’t.
And then there were her physical afflictions, including polio (or, possibly, spina bifida) when she was a child, and her appalling traffic accident during her teen years, when her abdomen was penetrated by a bar of metal. She spent months in a body cast after that.
When an artist is ‘claimed’ by an audience with an agenda, reactions can be harsh. I have Mexican friends who despise her, seeing her as the privileged wife of a wealthy painter and muralist (Rivera) who kept her beyond material need her whole adult life, while she exploited traditional Mexican art and identity beyond her right to do so. The pair of them lived self-indulgently, travelling, partying, having affairs, and somehow finding time to paint as well. The injury was hard for her, leaving her unable to bear a child to term as well as causing her lifelong pain. But we can see her, at times, exploiting her level of disability. Did she really need thirty surgeries, or was there an element of attention-getting in some of them?
Her paintings, repeatedly featuring herself, have been dismissed as high-end selfies. They’re far more than that, obviously, but her fascination with herself can become wearing. She tends to denigrate her appearance, emphasising her slight moustache or her unibrow. Photographs show a woman with a sense of fun and a far from ugly face (to my eyes), while the paintings often harden her features. In some self-portraits by other artists, we gaze into the painter’s eyes. Kahlo, in hers, gazes into ours, and it isn’t a friendly look she offers. It is the plaintive look of someone attempting to gain respect as a woman in a macho society; it is also, I often feel, about something that’s not my problem. Go and paint other people and their lives, I want to tell the pictures.
A 1940 self-portrait; note the wound on her neck (and the hands earrings again).
Someday, but I’m sure it won’t be yet, she will find her place as simply an artist. A great one? I don’t know, but certainly a striking one, with a unique style. But while presumed fans of hers can mistake a small-scale, caustic parody for one of her own works, she is clearly at the mercy of people who are reverent to aspects of her legacy, but fit her into their own mythologising and fail to see who she actually was.
It’s sad, because I always see her as a greatly flawed person, who wasn’t ashamed to be seen that way. That is her true uniqueness and value. And if she was pulled off the pedestal onto which she’s been hoisted, she might finally fall into her natural place as a creative spirit. It’s just as easy, I find, to create seemingly positive, lush stereotypes of Mexico and its culture as it is to demonise it as the home of corruption and violence. In both cases, the truth slides away from us, and yet once more, we pass by a useful mirror of ourselves.