Self Portrait with Small Monkey, 1945 by Frida Kahlo. Museo Dolores Olmedo Patino Mexico (Mexico City, Mexico).
Helen Barrett went to Tate Modern's new Frida Kahlo show, on display until October 9 2005, to see what the fuss is about.
Frida Kahlo's art was described by the Surrealists' champion Andre Breton as "a ribbon about a bomb". Her 87 paintings and drawings assembled for this summer's Tate Modern blockbuster exhibition showcase the Kahlo phenomenon: her physical suffering, preoccupation with death, mental trauma and political conviction – all wrapped up in a riot of colour and costume.
This combination of intrigue and style has earned Kahlo adulation and cult status in recent years. Hollywood turned her life story into a film, Madonna collects her paintings, and artists such as Tracey Emin and Cindy Sherman are inspired by her uncompromising themes. For Tate Modern, Kahlo is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.
At times, Kahlo's cult status threatens to overshadow her painting. Tate curators Emma Dexter and Tanya Barson have focused on the testimony of her work.
As Dexter explains: "Paintings have been grouped into rooms that follow the chronology of her life, interspersed with themes such as still lifes and self portraits." It's a device that allows the paintings to unfold the drama of Kahlo's short, traumatic and adventure-packed life.
My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree), 1936 by Frida Kahlo. The Museum of Modern Art, New York gift of Allan Roos, M.D., and B. Mathieu Roos, 1976. Image Courtesy MoMA, New York/Scala, Florence.
Born into the Mexican urban middle-class in 1907, Kahlo began painting at 20 following a horrific bus crash that shattered her spine and fractured her legs, pelvis, collarbone and ribs. She painted, she said, because she was "bored as hell in bed". An almost incidental pencil sketch, The Accident, recalls the horror of the incident: the bus, the moment of impact, the bodies lying in the street.
Rarely seen early work on display sees her dabbling in contemporaneous avant-garde styles such as Cubism and Futurism as well as Renaissance-style portraits. The elongated necks and bodies, lavish clothing and mannered gestures of Self-Portrait Wearing a Velvet Dress of 1926, and Portrait of Alicia Galant of 1927 recall Raphael and Botticelli.
In 1929 at 21, Kahlo married Mexico's celebrated socialist muralist, Diego Rivera. He was 20 years her senior, and a leading light in Mexico's post-revolutionary intellectual elite. Inspired by Rivera's public space murals, Kahlo began to incorporate deliberately naive, vernacular folk art into her paintings, achieving, says Barson, a "mature voice".
"Kahlo intended her work to develop a sense of national pride in the most humble creations of its peasants," adds Dexter. "What might look like very innocent still-life subjects are part of the Mexicanidad movement.”
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, 1931 by Frida Kahlo. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Albert M. Bender Collection, gift of Albert M. Bender.
Mexicanidad meant imbuing mundane objects with cultural and political significance. In Self Portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States, she appears on a pedestal between two worlds: the industrialised ‘tainted’ US, represented by towering car factories, and a fecund Mexican landscape strewn with ancient temples and artefacts.
Elsewhere, paintings such as Madonna's contribution to the exhibition, My Birth, and the disturbing Henry Ford Hospital examine Kahlo's experience of miscarriage with disarming honesty.
In the latter, disparate paraphernalia litters the scene, including a snail, to represent the slowness of the process, and an orchid, which Kahlo likens to medical illustrations of the uterus.
Kahlo develops this graphic, confessional approach with her iconic 1939 masterpiece, The Two Fridas, her best-known work.
This double self-portrait – painted following her divorce from Rivera - features Frida in traditional Mexican costume with her heart exposed, representing the woman that Diego loved, next to the unloved Frida, holding her severed heart and wearing a wedding dress splattered with blood.
The Two Fridas, 1939 by Frida Kahlo. Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City.
Kahlo's story at Tate Modern culminates in her later work, inspired by an admiration for mysticism, and starring the ambitious and extraordinarily detailed 1945 canvass, Moses.
In what Dexter describes as "a positive image of uplifting spiritual humanity" Kahlo attempts a jumbled narrative of religion and spirituality, featuring kitsch mini-portraits of unlikely figures such as Gandhi, Stalin, Napoleon and Hitler surrounding the infant Moses floating in a basket of rushes.
Frida Kahlo is the first major UK exhibition of her work in over 20 years, and reveals not only her revered exotic self-portraits but also the less well-known aspects of her work: her insights into questions of national identity, the plight of the indigenous peasant poor and Mexico's turbulent relationship with its neighbour, the United States.
The exhibition achieves a detailed narrative of Kahlo’s life beyond the myth; an uncompromising woman whose art was charged with incendiary political and personal conviction – Breton’s unexploded ‘bomb’.
All images © Banco de México and INBAL Mexico, 2005.