Frida Kahlo: The Life of an Artist

Fri­da Kahlo has been a mar­tyr to art his­to­ry. Her twinned self-por­trait The Two Fridas sits at num­ber 87 on a list of the 100 most pop­u­lar paint­ings (behind Diego Rivera’s The Flower Car­ri­er and Cas­sius Coolidge’s Dogs Play­ing Pok­er series). She is “one of the most icon­ic and con­tra­dic­to­ry cul­tur­al fig­ures around,” Judy Cox writes: “a card-car­ry­ing Com­mu­nist whose image adorned a bracelet worn by There­sa May, a fem­i­nist who has her own bar­bie doll.”

Her cul­tur­al cre­den­tials sell. Her work is acclaimed as a lead­ing exam­ple of indi­genis­mo, as Den­ver art muse­um senior cura­to­r­i­al assis­tant Jesse Laird Orte­ga writes, “a polit­i­cal, intel­lec­tu­al, and artis­tic move­ment that cel­e­brat­ed indige­nous peo­ples in Mex­i­co.” Kahlo her­self is laud­ed as “a pas­sion­ate nation­al­ist who advo­cat­ed for the rev­o­lu­tion… and sup­port­ed farm­ers and work­ers.”

This praise sounds sus­pi­cious to oth­er crit­ics. “Miss­ing from the pub­lic dis­course about the artist are dis­cus­sions about how the ‘nation­al­ism’ that Kahlo pro­mot­ed,” Joan­na Gar­cia Cher­an argues, “both in her art and per­son­al style per­pet­u­at­ed the con­struc­tion of a mythol­o­gized Indi­an­ness at the expense of Indige­nous peo­ple.” Kahlo only began wear­ing the rebo­zos and oth­er indige­nous fash­ions she made famous when she mar­ried Diego Rivera (for the first time) in 1929.

Does Paul Priest­ly, the host of the Art His­to­ry School video les­son above, help smooth out the con­tra­dic­tions of Kahlo’s life and art? No, but to be fair, he makes no pre­tense to high­er crit­i­cism. The les­son is a basic intro­duc­tion (with a con­tent warn­ing for younger view­ers) to the well-known facts of Frida’s life, those amply cov­ered in doc­u­men­taries like Ken Madel’s Fri­da Kahlo: A Rib­bon Around a Bomb and (with plen­ty of dra­mat­ic license, of course) the Salma Hayek-star­ring biopic Fri­da.

Priest­ley’s video is a sound intro­duc­tion to Kahlo’s life, how­ev­er, pre­cise­ly because it shies away from hagiog­ra­phy or the­o­ry. He walks us through the facts of the artist’s life in brief, with clips of a woman read­ing Frida’s own words and images of her work along­side pho­to­graph­ic por­traits of her­self at every stage of life, allow­ing view­ers to see the side-by-side devel­op­ment of Kahlo’s art and her pub­lic per­sona.

In the midst of Kahlo wor­ship and icon­o­clasm, what seems too often neglect­ed is Kahlo’s com­plex human­i­ty. She was not one thing or anoth­er — nei­ther whol­ly Marx­ist saint, nor a bour­geois appro­pri­a­tor; nei­ther whol­ly fem­i­nist hero, nor trag­ic vic­tim of patri­ar­chal male hero wor­ship: she was both and nei­ther, at many times, a fig­ure twinned in her imag­i­na­tion and split in half by cul­tur­al log­ics that want to claim and pos­sess art and artists for their own.

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

Vis­it the Largest Col­lec­tion of Fri­da Kahlo’s Work Ever Assem­bled: 800 Arti­facts from 33 Muse­ums, All Free Online

Dis­cov­er Fri­da Kahlo’s Wild­ly-Illus­trat­ed Diary: It Chron­i­cled the Last 10 Years of Her Life, and Then Got Locked Away for Decades

Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of Fri­da Kahlo’s Blue House Free Online

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

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