Frida Kahlo was an ironic and devilish person, and so she might be intrigued by the thought that, for this writer, at least, her finest single work is in an outward respect her least typical. Kahlo is known, of course, for her many unsparing self-portraits, images where she can confront us with tears on her cheeks or exhibit herself as a bedridden patient or victim. They present a woman who, facing us as well with her distinctive and unforgettable dark, unbroken, single eyebrow and clear suggestion of a mustache, and often wearing clothes or accompanied by details that are redolent of her native Mexico, exudes a smoldering fury—an expressionist tension that, until recent decades, was rarely encountered in the work of women artists.
The Suicide of Dorothy Hale, however, a painting dated 1939 which shows exactly that, a woman killing herself, has a New York City setting and has as its protagonist a formally and elegantly dressed woman who is not remotely like any other figure in the painter's work. At the traveling Kahlo retrospective currently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, an exhibition geared to the centennial of her birth, in 1907 (she died in 1954), no other picture had the degree of experimentation, the luminosity, or the graphic clarity of this painting, either. Dorothy Hale was a socialite and something of a friend of Kahlo's who had lost her husband and become psychologically adrift and financially desperate. She committed suicide by jumping from her apartment in the Hampshire House, on Central Park South, and from the incident Kahlo made a picture that is as witty and ingenious as it is mordant and disturbing.
In the painting, which, like most of her work, is fairly small, the white skyscraper appears like a mirage emanating from the kind of deadpan perfect blue sky, covered with deadpan perfect cottony clouds, one would find in a contemporaneous work by Magritte. Near the top of the building, in part of the painting that recalls images of people jumping from the World Trade Center, we see a tiny, dark, plummeting figure. In the center of the picture a more clearly visible person falls twistedly before us, while at the bottom, on a ledge which could be a sidewalk, Hale lies dead, her eyes open and staring at us. Her body seems unscathed although blood seeps out from under her onto the frame, which has been painted so as to be a continuation of the scene. Blood also seems to form the words in the strip at the bottom of the picture that tell us, in Spanish, what we are looking at and who painted it.
Brilliantly conceived as a design and as a way to present, in a single image, a number of events taking place over a passage of time, Kahlo's picture keeps our eyes continually moving over its entire surface. Even better is its pulsating, wonderfully tricky sense of space. With the "story" of the scene continued onto the frame and with Dorothy Hale's foot realistically jutting out, and even casting a shadow, over the strip at the bottom of the picture, where the writing is, the painting keeps toying with different kinds of flatness and with ways of projecting itself into the "real life" realm of the viewer.
In its psychology, The Suicide of Dorothy Hale is little different from Kahlo's better-known pictures of herself. Like them, it demands that we attend to a person who is (or just was) in a state of physical pain and crisis. Yet there is an adventurousness about picture-making itself in this work, a sense that painting is a language Kahlo is reinventing for her own needs, that is absent from her art in general. At the Philadelphia show one encountered an artist who, after a lively if uneven stretch in the 1930s, when she was getting her bearings, settled thereafter, in the dozen or so years that remained of her career, into a kind of impersonal, utilitarian representational approach—a spirit that leaves many of her pictures feeling thin and illustrational.
The irony of the situation is that Kahlo's need to make art was unusually personal. Most of her pictures were about experiences she had, or were commissions from, or conceived as gifts for, specific people. Her rising importance in the last quarter-century or so, when she has gone from being an artist chiefly of interest to fellow Mexicans to being "the most famous female artist in history," as she is described in the catalog of the Tate Modern's 2005 Kahlo exhibition—the first retrospective that museum has given to a Latin American artist—is due to the overwhelming nature of her life story and to the way she seemingly made her art and her life, with its round of physical crises and her decidedly individual way of dealing with them, inseparable.
And even if her work leaves a viewer hungry for a more commanding or inventive use of the materials of painting, the way Kahlo's biography and her pictures come together is undeniably mesmerizing. Kahlo wasn't an "outsider" artist in the sense that her pictures were not made during a period when she was institutionalized, nor were they the product of a person who suffered severe emotional or social incapacities. But she is kin to outsider artists in that art-making for her was, as Hayden Herrera has noted in her groundbreaking and authoritative Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo (1983), a solace. It was a way to say to herself and to her world, in the face of literally crushing blows, "I am still here."
She was visited by bad news already at age six, when she was attacked by polio, leaving her with a withered right leg. The main catastrophe arrived when she was eighteen, in 1925, and riding on a bus in Mexico City with her boyfriend. When a tram slammed into the bus, the wreckage resulted in damage to her spinal column and right leg that, although initially she had many years of relative freedom of movement, never healed. In time she would endure over thirty surgical operations, in Mexico and the States. She would undergo lengthy periods in traction, become dependent on painkillers and alcohol, need to be outfitted in large plaster corsets, and eventually lose her right leg below the knee. Perhaps the most devastating effect of the crash was that it left her unable to bear children. The early years of her marriage were gruesomely marked by miscarriages and abortions.
Yet the particular spirit of Kahlo the person—and to a lesser extent of her art—derived from the vivacity with which she resisted her fate. The daughter of a Mexican mother and a German father, an immigrant to Mexico who became a photographer to support his family, Kahlo was, as every writer about her eventually points out, a bundle of contradictions. She played them out dramatically, beginning with her very appearance. If her face had unsettling traces of masculinity, her complexly twined, often ribbon-bedecked hair, her goodly amount of jewelry, and her floor-length, sweeping skirts and shawls, based on the traditional clothing style of the women of the Tehuana region of Mexico, were almost militantly feminine.
According to legend, Tehuana women were the real figures of authority in their society, and Kahlo's wearing of such outfits was a demonstration of strength and will. Appearing this way in Mexico meant that she was continuously announcing her leftist identification with the underclass (she was in fact an ardent Communist at times), while the same clothes, when she was abroad, might be more purely a hassle or an embarrassment. (In New York, kids ran up to her on the street and asked where the circus was.) Yet Kahlo took to wearing long skirts in the first place to hide her withered leg; and her wearing clothes that symbolized women being in control was belied by her slavish and often bruised relationship with her husband, Diego Rivera, the Mexican muralist painter who was twenty years older and almost comically taller and heavier than his wife.
Rivera's love for Kahlo was unquestioned, as was his admiration for her work. But his refusal to be monogamous was flattening. (His low point was the affair he conducted with Frida's youngest sister, Cristina, around 1934, causing one of the Riveras' bigger dustups.) Kahlo seemingly thought of her husband as her mainstay no matter what, yet she herself had many lovers, of both sexes, including women who had slept with Rivera. She had affairs with Isamu Noguchi and the art dealer Heinz Berggruen when both were young and even, during the spring of 1937, with Leon Trotsky, who had been given asylum in Mexico not long before, in part through the intercession of Rivera, a member of the Mexican Trotskyite Party.
Reading Kahlo's flowingly opinionated, cajoling, sarcastic, and slangy letters (they form a highlight of Herrera's biography), one can see how she made an enormous number of people, of many ages and backgrounds, believe they had a special—a lover's—relationship with her. Self-obsessed as she may be, she often makes us see and feel the person she writes to, and she can train her wiseacre's style on herself, as when she wrote from the States to a friend back home, "Some of the gringachas even imitate me and want to dress as 'Mexicans,' but the poor things look like turnips and the honest truth [is] they just look absolutely dreadful, which doesn't mean I look good myself, but at least I get by."
In the early 1930s, when she was in her mid-twenties, Kahlo began making paintings about her own experiences using the small sizes and miniaturist detailing of Mexican retablos, or ex-voto images. Often painted on tin, these pictures show saints, say, performing miracles or the Virgin Mary answering a prayer. Retablos, which go back in date to the eighteenth century, generally present the tiny actors of the scene in rather bare places, and the pleasingly awkward and abstract nature of the pieces is enhanced by the written commentary that is often part of the images, words that describe what is happening in the scene.
Kahlo's insight was to see that she could take this folk art form in any direction. In the crisp and lovely My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree) (1936), where she is a chubby child towering over a toy version of the house she grew up in, and her forebears float in the sky, painted as they would appear in stiff studio photographs, her subject is both memory in itself and the jumbled process by which we create a past for ourselves. In A Few Small Nips (1935), she used the crude, stageset-like properties of ex-voto images to present a shocking news story of the moment about the murder of a prostitute. The way the same images can show an event in progress enabled her to dramatize the death of Dorothy Hale.
Kahlo's feeling for retablos had a lot to do with a larger quest during the 1930s by Mexican artists and writers to identify with their country's pre-Columbian and colonial past. In her affinity for miniaturism and her desire to make an art about her own past or her fears, she was also on the same track, although not moving at the same speed, as a number of artists associated with Dada or Surrealism, including Dalì, Max Ernst, and Yves Tanguy. Kahlo generally maintained that she wasn't a Surrealist and that her pictures were about her experiences, not her fantasies or dreams. She said that when André Breton, Surrealism's chief priest, arrived in Mexico in 1938 and pronounced her a Surrealist it was all news to her. Yet Rivera was writing about Surrealism by 1932, when she was making her first mature paintings.
More importantly, Kahlo's small pictures of the time could be called less brilliantly inventive versions—country cousins—of works that Dalì, in particular, had been making for a few years already (a relationship repeated, one can think, in the two artists' respective mustaches). When, in Henry Ford Hospital (1932), Kahlo presents herself on a blood-stained bed and alludes to a miscarriage, or when, in A Few Small Nips, we see a naked, slashed-up woman on a bed and a thug with a knife standing beside her, or even when, in the elegantly designed and cool-toned Itzcuintli Dog with Me (circa 1938), Kahlo sits sedately before us with a joint attached to a roach clip on one of her fingers, we are not all that far from Dalì's equally tiny dreamscape-type paintings in which, peering in, we might see one figure who has soiled himself, another with an erection, and a woman with a vagina for a face.
Working with the retablo form, Kahlo was, in one sense, creating her own homemade Surrealism. But the larger point is that her work was formally and temperamentally in sync with that of some of the liveliest young artists of the late 1920s and 1930s, artists who, though connected with Surrealism, were essentially looking for ways, in the wake of Cubism and more purely abstract styles, to continue to make a vital representational art. That she was ready to be stimulated by a more experimental art milieu than any she knew in Mexico is suggested by the fact that The Suicide of Dorothy Hale was begun when Kahlo was in New York for her 1938 show at the Julien Levy Gallery, her first solo exhibition anywhere. Making a work that is almost as much an object as a painting, she happened to be in tune with Joseph Cornell, who was fashioning some of his first mature boxed-in dioramas around this time and even made a box about her.
Kahlo would always be at home with small sizes and fine detailing. But from the late 1930s on she stopped pushing forward with what retablos gave her: a sense that a painting could call attention to itself as a constructed, artificial entity. She turned increasingly to a sort of all-purpose realistic manner, and much of her energy in the 1940s went into conventionally scaled self-portraits where she is seen from roughly the chest up. In images where she is frequently accompanied by one or more of her many pets and vegetation presses in behind her, she looks out with a grim wariness. In one 1940 example she wears a thorn necklace which has punctured her skin and drawn blood.
These self-portraits are her signature pieces, the works that give most people their idea of Frida Kahlo. There is a kind of literary tension in them in that the monkeys and other creatures around her aren't a friendly-looking crew, and a viewer can wonder whether these animals are the exotic woman's security detail, asking us to keep our distance, or are demonic beings who are keeping her, as it were, under house arrest. Aside from this storytelling ambiguity, little is going on in these pictures. The paint application is dry, docile, and the same all over. Our eyes aren't made to jump—to readjust to changes in scale, texture, or space—as we take in the works, and Kahlo's expression from one painting to the next is remarkably unvaried.
Altogether there is a sense of fuzziness and banality, and an obviousness of color, to her later work. Much of this must have been due to Kahlo's health, which was always an issue from the time of her accident and had alarming downturns in the mid-1940s. The increasing pain she lived with, as well as her long stays in hospitals and the effects of medications and other substances taken to alleviate her distress, cannot have helped her artistic drive. She continued to make paintings about her wracked condition and about a sort of sexualized Mexican cosmos, a realm of suns, moons, toy skeletons, lactating or ejaculating plants, faces discernible in clouds. Among her last efforts were still lifes of fruit done in bright, tropical colors, works that aren't a lot different from a kind of generic folk art.
For most of her admirers, however, descriptions of where Kahlo the artist stands in relation to her contemporaries, let alone criticism of the formal properties or shortcomings of her pictures, are probably beside the point. In the handsomely designed catalog of the present show—as well as in the Tate's catalog and in that for the Kahlo retrospective held last year at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City—the relationship between, say, Surrealism and the purely Mexican sensibility of her work is often commented upon. But precise ways in which she resembles this or that Surrealist are left unsaid. Nor is it noted that, in her concern with specifically Mexican themes, she might be called a regional or provincial artist—whereas Marsden Hartley, for example, a much more powerful painter, who was working in the same years with specifically American imagery (such as Maine coastal life and Abraham Lincoln's face), is routinely classed as regional.
On the other hand, there are good reasons why, when Kahlo was first becoming widely known beyond her homeland in the 1970s, she struck many people as being a different order of artist. One reason was certainly feminism. In an era when women were thinking and acting with a militant intensity about the roles society had long assigned them, Kahlo's pictures, with their basis in a stoic, unflinching account of one woman's battles with physical pain (and by implication psychic distress), had the effect of a newly unearthed treasure. It was as if no artist before her had been as candid about a woman's body or about specifically female experiences.
Kahlo's growing new renown was fed, too, by an upheaval in thinking about art in general. In the 1970s, many artists (and not just feminist ones) saw the whole edifice of modernism, with its sense of one generation extending the achievement of the preceding generation, and with artworks in the process becoming ever more attenuated, as badly in need of a rethinking. At a moment when making a painting could seem like merely making one more product, the thought that an artwork might be, rather, a many-sided and open-ended investigation into a subject had a profound allure. And here in addition Kahlo was pertinent, not only because her pictures were like so many documents charting a medical condition but because the symbolical, even regimented, way she clothed herself, which answered a psychological need and also identified her political loyalties, could be taken as an element of her artistic process. She seemed to say that everything to do with one's body is a suitable subject for art—a notion that has been stimulating artists for decades now.
But the veneration of Kahlo has become far-fetched. Although Herrera is alert to the sensuous properties of an artwork, the effect of most of the writing in the American, English, and Mexican catalogs is that Kahlo's pictures seem like little more than illustrations, there to support a range of interpretations. For one commentator, she even appears to be less significant as "an artist chiefly of women's experience" than as "a committed Third World cultural nationalist and revolutionary." Her self-portraits are routinely likened to those of van Gogh and Rembrandt. Carlos Fuentes, in the Bellas Artes catalog, sees her, along with Cervantes, Borges, and Velázquez, as a pillar of the "Hispanic spirit." The many photographs of Kahlo and of her life with Rivera, in turn, are treated as if they were one more crucial component of her contribution. (There are about a hundred in the present show, where, engagingly, they occupy its first two rooms.)
What one takes away from Kahlo's art, however, is a less wide-ranging or exalted experience. She found a way to show a certain emotion, at once accusatory, nervy, furious, a little adolescent, and, as Fuentes says, funny. She is giving the world the finger, whether in The Suicide of Dorothy Hale, where she does it with a masterful complexity, in some of her folk art– like self-portraits of the 1930s, where she can be raw or charming about it, or even in her less spirited self-portraits of the following decade, when illness was getting the better of her. It was an emotion, in any event, that she never quite lost, as it is there in the last words of her diary when she wrote, "I hope the exit is joyful—and I hope never to come back."