Frida Kahlo in Paris

Curator Didier Schulmann explores the artist’s tumultuous time in the French capital

By Google Arts & Culture

On March 17, 1939, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Wassily Kandinsky describes his first impression of Frida Kahlo in a letter to his friends Anni and Josef Albers:

"We currently have an exhibition of Mexican art on display. There are pieces of ancient Mexican art, sculptures, very interesting […] then a lot of popular art, and finally a large number of paintings by Diego de Rivera's wife, which have a strong surrealist tone. She was there in person, in Mexican dress – very charming. It seems that she always dresses like that. There were many rather eccentric looking ladies – the Montparnasse spirit – but none could rival the Mexican dress. "[1]

The Frame by Frida Kahlo (From the collection Centre Pompidou)

Kahlo’s self-portrait The Frame (1938), whose story began with André Breton's trip to Mexico during the summer of 1938, was among this "large number of paintings." Breton’s encounters with Leon Trotsky and Rivera led him to Kahlo and her paintings. In November of the same year, he wrote the catalog text for Kahlo's first solo exhibition in New York. A few months later, at the end of winter 1939, Breton organized a Mexican art exhibition for which Frida had 18 paintings sent from her New York exhibition. However, she was disappointed with how her work was handled: she expected a modest one-woman show but found her work buried among a jumble of more than 150 disparate pieces. Naive art and votive paintings rubbed shoulders with popular art of all kinds, Pre-Columbian items and photographs by Manuel Álvarez Bravo, among which The Frame was a little lost.

The Frame by Frida KahloCentre Pompidou

Frida Kahlo's letter to Nickolas Muray (From the collection of Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

Frida Kahlo, Paris, France letter to Nickolas Muray, New York, N.Y. by Frida KahloArchives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

André Breton by Man Ray (From the collection of Museo Frida Kahlo)

On March 17, 1939, Frida Kahlo wrote to friends from where she was staying – the Parisian home of Marcel Duchamp and his partner Mary Reynolds: "Since I came back, things have not been going well for me. I was in a foul mood because my exhibit was not ready. My paintings were quietly waiting for me at the customs office because Breton had not even picked them up. You don't have even the slightest idea of what kind of old cockroach Breton is, along with almost all those in the surrealists' group. In a few words, they're a bunch of perfect sons of… their mother […] It was all set back by a month and a half while the date of this famous exhibition was being confirmed. And this all involved arguments, insults, discussion, gossip, lots of anger and trouble of the worst kind. Finally, Marcel Duchamp (the only one of the artists and painters here who has his feet on the ground and his brain in the right place) managed to organize the exhibition with Breton. It opened on the 10th of this month at the Pierre Colle Gallery which, I am told, is one of the best here. There were lots of people on opening night, many congratulations for chicua, among them, a big hug from Joan Miró and great praise from Kandinsky for my painting; congratulations from Picasso, Tanguy, Paalen, and from other "big shots" of surrealism." [2]

André Breton by Man RayMuseo Frida Kahlo

Friday Kahlo's letter from Paris to Nickolas Muray in New York (From the collection of Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

Frida Kahlo, Paris, France letter to Nickolas Muray, New York, N.Y. by Frida KahloArchives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Friday Kahlo's letter from Paris to Nickolas Muray in New York (From the collection of Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

In another letter to her American lover, three weeks before the opening of the exhibition, Kahlo had already made her feelings about her Parisian companions clear: "You have no idea the kind of bitches these people are. They make me sick. They are so damn ‘intellectual’ and rotten that I can’t stand them any more. It really is too much for my character. I'd rather sit and sell tortillas than have anything to do with those ‘artistic’ bitches of Paris. They sit for hours in the cafés warming their precious behinds, and talk endlessly about culture, art, revolution, and so on and so forth, thinking themselves the gods of the world, dreaming the most fantastic nonsense, and poisoning the air with theories and theories that never come true."[3]

Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Contents in Frida's letter from Paris to Nickolas Muray in New York (From the collection of Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

On March 25, 1939, the exhibition closed and Frida returned to New York, but The Frame remains in Paris. Despite Frida Kahlo's disillusionment, the piece was purchased by the French state, and on May 22, 1939, the Musée du Jeu de Paume was informed that the “Painted self-portrait by Mrs. Frida de Rivera” had been added to their collection. She became part of the inventory of the Jeu de Paume on July 4, 1939, under number 929. This was to be the final entry of a painting into this museum before the Nazis used it as a storeroom for looting Jewish collectors. The self-portrait did not resurface until almost 40 years later, at the end of the 1970s, when the Palais de Tokyo Musée National d'Art Moderne collections were transferred to the Centre Pompidou.

Today, The Frame travels the world from exhibition to exhibition and the Centre Pompidou is still the only museum in Europe to hold a piece of work by Frida Kahlo.

___________

[1]Letter published in “Kandinsky-Albers, une correspondance des années trente”, Les Cahiers du Musée national d'art moderne-Hors série Archives, November 1998, page 129.
[2] Letter to Ella and Bertram D. Wolfe published in English in “The Letters of Frida Kahlo - Cartas Apasionadas - Compiled by Martha Zamora”—San Francisco 1995, page 95
[3] Letter dated February 16, 1939 to Nickolas Muray, quoted on page 319 in the French translation [1996] of the biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera.

Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

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