This past semester I taught an arts-integration Spanish language unit at Baltimore City College. It was an incredible experience, and I will likely detail it more in a later blog post. One of the core objectives of the unit was to examine the art and activism of Frida Kahlo, one of the most celebrated artists of our generation. So when I got a chance over the winter holiday to visit the North Carolina Museum of Art’s exhibition Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism, on show until Jan 19, 2020, I was thrilled to finally get a chance to see her artwork in person!
Frida Kahlo (b. July 6, 1907 in Coyoacan, Ciudad México) was a Mexican, queer, gender-bending feminist, Marxist, antifacist, female artist. Her radical politics, complicated love life, and fierce personality coalesced into artwork that is profoundly inspiring. You may know, but just to review –
- At 6 years old she contracted polio which kept her bedridden for 9 months
- At 18 years old she was in tragic bus accident; a steal handrail impaled her thru the hip, breaking her back in three places, and fracturing her hip. This left her with severe pain and health issues throughout her life.
- She married the famous Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera, at 22 years old. He was 20 years older than her. Their marriage was fraught with infidelity.
- She lived in the US for 3 years, in which time she learned first hand and criticized the oppressive nature of American capitalism and imperialism.
- She was an activist for women, indigenous people, the handicapped, and workers her entire life, including up until her death. For example, In 1954, three years before she died, she attended a communist protest agains the American government intervention in Guatemala.
In all of her works, she heavily uses symbolism to convey meaning, often implementing symbols that reflect her Mexican, indigenous, and European ancestry. Her work reveals her personal, intimate, and vulnerable experience as a woman that suffered so much pain and resiliency. I loved this exhibit because, in addition to seeing the work up close first-hand, they included so many photos of the artist working,
Frida Kahlo was also revolutionary by the way she skillfully took a long-accepted art genre, self-portraiture, and transmuted standards of beauty to talk about identity. For example, ake for example, the work below, Self-Portrait with Red and Gold Dress, 1941. She depicts herself with red lipstick, rouged cheeks, and intricately braided hair, but also accentuates her unibrow and mustache. She constantly played with gender-norms, who once wrote, “Of the opposite sex, I have the mustache, and in general the face.” Her attention to detail is so beautiful that it pulls you into the painting, only to be met with her unapologetic and challenging gaze. Fierce!
The exhibition was awesome! I am so grateful I got to see some of her work in person. While almost three-fourths of her paintings were self-portraits, she expressed her self through her clothing and the symbols she chose to include in the composition. Flora and fauna feature prominently in her work, like the work below, Self-Portrait with Monkeys. She kept monkeys as pets in her home and often described them as “surrogates for maternal love.” The vulnerabilities she shows in other works, like Self-Portrait with Braid and the Wounded Table, reveal her anxiety about WWII, her health-struggles, the pain of Diego’s adultery with Frida’s sister, and her grief with her father’s death.
Also in preparation for the exhibit, my family and I watched the 2002 bioflick produced by and starting Salma Hayeck called Frida. It is a historically accurate and entertaining introduction to her life; it will also help you appreciate Frida’s life and work more. Here is trailer. Thanks for reading! ❤