In recent years, thanks to feminism and a renewed interest in Surrealism and in the art of Latin America, Frida Kahlo has moved to the forefront of attention. She has achieved a status unimaginable during her lifetime and we have seen a “Fridamania” cult.
No longer is she seen as secondary to Los tres grandes—Diego Rivera (her husband), Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Sequieros—the great muralist, who fused a grasp of modernist art with a celebration of pre-Coumbian culture. Kahlo, a largely self-taught painter, favored small paintings; her subjects were not heroic, but personal and self-reflective.
Of the 76 paintings on view at the San Francisco Museum of Moder Art through Sept. 28, about 40 are either self-portraits or pictures in which Frida’s presence is central. Many of them deal with her great physical and emotional suffering. She had contracted polio when she was 6 years old and was badly injured in a street car accident at 18 and had to endure innumerable operations in her lifetime.
One of many pictures that address her painful condition is The Broken Column (1944) which she painted during a five-month period when she had to wear a steel orthopedic corset. We see her as a female San Sebastian with nails, instead of arrows, piercing her flesh. In the painting an open column replaces her broken spine. This is seen against a desert landscape with dark ravines.
When André Breton, the leader of the Surrealist movement came to Mexico, he described her art as “ribbon around a bomb,” but she rejected the label, saying “I never painted dreams, I painted my own reality.”
But Breton was instrumental in furthering her career as a professional, rather than as an “outsider” artist, and she showed her work at Julien Levy’s Surrealist gallery in New York in 1938. A small painting in the show, a painting which makes us think of René Magritte, The Suicide of Dorothy Hale (1939), is a retablo, as she called it, in memory of a friend who threw herself out of the window of a New York high-rise. We see the woman’s body falling from the building and simultaneously lying on the ground with the artist’s inscription on the panel.
The exhibition includes two rooms of photographs—done by famous photographers such as Manuel Bravo, Lucienne Bloch and Tina Modotti, as well as a memorable photo of Breton and Rivera talking to Leon Trotsky in Coyoacan, taken in 1938, two years before the Communist leader and close friend of Diego and Frida was assassinated there. Included also is a photo of the official license issued when they were remarried in San Francisco in 1940.
Frida Kahlo may not have been a great painter, but she has exerted an enormous influence on later artists, including Americans such as Vito Acconci, Enrique Chagoya, Rupert Garcia, Amalia Mesa-Baines, Bruce Nauman, Carolee Schneemann and Kiki Smith, among others. This exhibition, which started in Minneapolis and went on to Philadelphia before coming here, may well result in further impact.