1933 Article on Frida Kahlo: “Wife of the Master Mural Painter Gleefully Dabbles in Works of Art”

Kahlo One

Wal­ter Keane—supposed painter of “Big Eyed Chil­dren” and sub­ject of a recent Tim Bur­ton film—made a killing, attain­ing almost Thomas Kinkade-like sta­tus in the mid­dle­brow art mar­ket of the 1950s and 60s. As it turns out, his wife, Mar­garet was in fact the artist, “paint­ing 16 hours a day,” accord­ing to a Guardian pro­file. In some part, the sto­ry may illus­trate how easy it was for a man like Wal­ter to get mil­lions of peo­ple to see what they want­ed to see in the pic­ture of success—a charis­mat­ic, tal­ent­ed man in front, his qui­et, duti­ful wife behind. Bur­ton may not have tak­en too much license with the com­mon­place atti­tudes of the day when he has Christoph Waltz’s Wal­ter Keane tell Mar­garet, “Sad­ly, peo­ple don’t buy lady art.”

And yet, far from the Keane’s San Fran­cis­co, and per­haps as far as a per­son can get from Margaret’s frus­trat­ed acqui­es­cence, we have Fri­da Kahlo cre­at­ing a body of work that would even­tu­al­ly over­shad­ow her husband’s, mural­ist Diego Rivera. Unlike Wal­ter Keane, Rivera was a very good painter who did not attempt to over­shad­ow his wife. Instead of pro­fes­sion­al jeal­ousy, he had plen­ty of the per­son­al vari­ety. Even so, Rivera encour­aged Kahlo’s career and rec­og­nized her for­mi­da­ble tal­ent, and she, in turn, sup­port­ed him. In 1933, when Flo­rence Davies—whom Kahlo biog­ra­ph­er Ger­ry Souter describes as “a local news hen”—caught up with her in Detroit, Kahlo “played the cheeky, but ador­ing wife” of Diego while he labored to fin­ish his famous Detroit mur­al project.

That may be so, but she did not do so at her own expense. Quite the con­trary. Asked if Diego taught her to paint, she replies, “’No, I didn’t study with Diego. I didn’t study with any­one. I just start­ed to paint.’” At which point, writes Davies, “her eyes begin to twin­kle” as she goes on to say, “’Of course, he does pret­ty well for a lit­tle boy, but it is I who am the big artist.’” Davies prais­es Kahlo’s style as “skill­ful and beau­ti­ful” and the artist her­self as “a minia­ture-like lit­tle per­son with her long black braids wound demure­ly about her head and a fool­ish lit­tle ruf­fled apron over her black silk dress.” And yet, despite Kahlo’s con­fi­dence and seri­ous intent, rep­re­sent­ed by a promi­nent pho­to of her at seri­ous work, Davies—or more like­ly her editor—decided to title the arti­cle, “Wife of the Mas­ter Mur­al Painter Glee­ful­ly Dab­bles in Works of Art,” a move that reminds me of Wal­ter Keane’s patron­iz­ing atti­tude.

Kahlo Two

The belit­tling head­line is quaint and dis­heart­en­ing, speak­ing to us, like the unearthed 1938 let­ter from Dis­ney to an aspir­ing female ani­ma­tor, of the cru­el­ty of casu­al sex­ism. Davies appar­ent­ly filed anoth­er arti­cle on Rivera the year pri­or. This time the head­line doesn’t men­tion Fri­da, though her fierce unflinch­ing gaze, not Rivera’s wrestler’s mug, again adorns the spread. One sen­tence in the arti­cle says it all: “Fre­da [sic], it must be under­stood, is Seno­ra Rivera, who came very near to steal­ing the show.” Davies then goes on to again describe Kahlo’s appear­ance, not­ing of her work only that “she does paint with great charm.” Six years lat­er, Kahlo would indeed steal the show at her first and only solo show in the Unit­ed States, then again in Paris, where sur­re­al­ist mae­stro Andre Bre­ton cham­pi­oned her work and the Lou­vre bought a paint­ing, its first by a twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Mex­i­can artist.

And Mar­garet Keane? She even­tu­al­ly sued Wal­ter and now reaps her own rewards. You can buy one of her paint­ings here.

via @rabihalameddine

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Fri­da Kahlo Writes a Per­son­al Let­ter to Geor­gia O’Keeffe After O’Keeffe’s Ner­vous Break­down (1933)

Pho­tos of a Very Young Fri­da Kahlo, Tak­en by Her Dad

A Quick Ani­ma­tion of Fri­da Kahlo’s Famous Self Por­trait

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (11)
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  • js says:

    I think Davies was con­sid­ered an art crit­ic, not a news hen: http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/florence-davies-papers-7368

  • Bill W. says:

    Fri­da Kahlo, the house­wife? I vis­it­ed their home years ago, and was told by the tour-guide that it was­n’t her art that she took pride in the most…but her fan­tas­tic cook­ing skills!

  • Jules says:

    Great piece. Fri­da is my idol! I recent­ly came across a beau­ti­ful video music that pays homage to her life. If you love Fri­da, you will love this… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FaSF5dpJqew Enjoy and remem­ber, “Noth­ing is worth more than laugh­ter. It is strength to laugh and to aban­don one­self, to be light. Tragedy is the most ridicu­lous thing.” – FK

  • Tom says:

    A his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive is impor­tant… We could look at the sit­u­a­tion and say how bad it was that females had their hus­bands go to work for them, work­ing in dan­ger­ous or mind numb­ing­ly bor­ing jobs.. and when they came home they could­n’t just relax they had fixed the bro­ken rail­ing, cut the lawn, fix the car, etc.
    Clear­ly the social struc­tures of the past had good and bad aspects… and some dis­pro­por­tion­al­ly effect­ed females.. (and oth­ers males).

    Peo­ples inter­ests did not always con­form to the gen­er­al­ly accept­ed prac­tices.. males and females did all kinds of things as they still do.

    The con­text of the piece is “Vis­it­ing Homes of Inter­est­ing Peo­ple” Fri­da did not go to the USA to exhib­it her work. If she was not mar­ried to the “Famous Mur­al Painter” she prob­a­bly would have got no men­tion in the media at all.
    She was not know for her work.. she was how­ev­er very much known as a very famous painters wife.
    If she was famous artist or had an estab­lished career, then the word “dab­bled” would not have been used.

    The arti­cle by Flo­rence Davies is a short piece. Did Flo­rence know any­thing about art?.. did she care about art?
    The arti­cle is writ­ten more on the sub­ject of peo­ple than art. Still she states..
    “That she (Fri­da) is a painter in her own right and very few peo­ple know it.”
    “Seño­ra River­a’s paint­ing is by no means a joke; because, how­ev­er she may laugh when you ask her about it, the fact remains that she has acquired a very skill­ful and beau­ti­ful style, paint­ing in the small with minia­ture-like tech­nique, which is as far removed from the hero­ic fig­ures of Rivera as could well be imag­ined.”

    Two paint­ings are pic­tured in the sto­ry clear­ly acknowl­edg­ing her paint­ing. So does the title depict the impres­sion Fri­da pre­sent­ed or a patro­n­is­ing dig at women?

    Com­ment­ing on Frida’s clothes and look is com­ment­ing on her art. Her art is her life. But still peo­ple have com­ment­ed that this was typ­i­cal and belit­tling. But in the oth­er piece by Flo­rence we read about Diago’s dress and appear­ance. But peo­ple dont men­tion that.. Why?

    When Fri­da had her solo show she showed in a gallery that exhib­it­ed Duchamp, Gia­comet­ti, Tan­ning, Ernst, Magritte, Kahlo, Ray, Cor­nell, and Arshile Gorky. Clear­ly by that stage she did not con­sid­er her­self a “dab­bler” any more.

    The show went from Novem­ber 1–15, 1938, at the avant-garde Julien Levy Gallery in New York City.

    Appar­ent­ly the press was delight­ed with the paint­ings and Fri­da was the “flut­ter of the week in Man­hat­tan.”

    So did female artists sud­den­ly gain some accep­tance or was it that female artists were respect­ed?

    There are all kinds of assump­tions about all kinds of things. Many peo­ple dab­ble with art it is a very com­mon descrip­tion. It is not a neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tion or belit­tling. The oth­er descrip­tion is “Sun­day Painter”. These do not mean that the per­son was not ful­ly engag­ing with what they were doing at the time. It sim­ply implies that it was not their pro­fes­sion or that art was not lit­er­al­ly their career.

    I know of some­one who vis­it­ed Frida’s house, who was told by the tour-guide that it wasn’t her art that she took pride in the most…it was her fan­tas­tic cook­ing skills.

    Soci­ety was not as back­wards as you may think at the time. Female artists, per­form­ers, philoso­phers, musi­cians, ath­letes, explor­ers, avi­a­tors were quite known and vis­i­ble.. not as many as males doing the same but still there.

    Look at Raya Dunayevskaya or Antoinette Konikow the Amer­i­can physi­cian, fem­i­nist, and rad­i­cal polit­i­cal activist. Konikow is best remem­bered as one of the pio­neers of the Amer­i­can birth con­trol move­ment and as a found­ing mem­ber of the Com­mu­nist Par­ty of Amer­i­ca,

    Con­text is very impor­tant.

    I just think that peo­ple (in web land) have tak­en this arti­cle out of con­text and over­looked the his­toric gem that it is and the his­tor­i­cal facts about her life at that par­tic­u­lar time, in favor of por­tray­ing it as some sig­ni­fi­er of social injus­tice… as if she was this famous renowned painter that was con­scious­ly belit­tled as such because she was female.

  • Susan says:

    My fan is bro­ken

  • A Simple Lesbian says:

    I want to play with her uni­brow

  • The other dumass says:

    i dream about that uni­brow every night they dont make women like these any­more

  • A Simple Lesbian says:


  • A Simple Lesbian says:

    Amen, Broth­er!

  • Phil Mahooters says:

    Her mus­tache tho…

  • Anya Neeze says:

    What a won­der­ful lady

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