F for Frida

Writer Carlos Monsiváis penned a text dedicated to Frida Kahlo on the centenary of her birth in 2007, presented here by the Museo del Estanquillo.

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in their Home in Coyoacán (1941/1941) by Emmy Lou PackardMuseo del Estanquillo

F for Frida

There is no point opposing secular canonization as, ultimately, it is the only way to approach a work without forgetting the person who created it. Here, "mythologizing" and "demythologizing" are somewhat alien to the mix of the aesthetic and the vital. Frida Kahlo is an icon, a legend, a myth, and a powerful artistic reality. She is the Saint Joan of a small society full of extreme characters; the virgin of abortions; the Eve kept in the infernal paradise of the operating table; the lover who paints or tattoos the face of her inconceivable beloved on her forehead. Frida represents an era of Mexican national art and transcends it. She is the symbol that "stands on its own 2 feet"; the Frida painted by Frida, produced by Frida to populate her surroundings with Fridas.

Frida Kahlo with a Doll (1997/1997) by Teodoro Torres and Susana NavarroMuseo del Estanquillo

Here, life and work are one and the same. Her works are a detailed autobiography into which she pours her strictly real desperation and anguish, with a form devotional in its own way: a testimonial, a naturalistic fantasy (take it or leave it), allegorical and simple to the point of baroque overflow. And, in its own way, the agony within her work serves as an aesthetic criterion: the alchemy of suffering also engenders beauty.

Diego and I (1997/1997) by Teodoro Torres and Susana NavarroMuseo del Estanquillo

An F that Will Not Go Away

When presented with the now extensive photos and reproductions of Frida Kahlo's paintings, even onlookers with scarce knowledge know what to expect: they are the complementary expressions of an immense creator marked by pain and turbulence; the representations of a great protagonist, from decades ago, of her place in history. Whether they say so or not, anyone who looks at her photos, oil paintings, or drawings is certainly aware of the connections between Frida and her individual observations; between Frida and her industrial metamorphosis.

Frida and Roots (1997/1997) by Teodoro Torres and Susana NavarroMuseo del Estanquillo

Have we now seen too much of this great artist; this symbol of moral dissidence and political radicalism who paints the fruits of the earth and physiology, and pours her dreams and suffering into her self-portraits, the darings of the cosmic couple, and scenes in which funerary elements are part of the everyday chaos? Of course we have, and yet apparently we have not, because Frida's "resurrections" break down any sense of repetition. Whatever anyone may say, images of Frida can be found everywhere in the deluge of biographies, book and magazine covers, calendars, dolls, puppets, plays, films, television programs, T-shirts, postcards, paintings that include nods to her works, postmodern analyses, adoring declarations from Madonna ("Frida is the greatest inspiration of my life"), overwhelming auction sale prices... the list goes on. Frida is adopted by feminists all over the world, Mexican-Americans, visitors and tourists to iconic sites, and supporters of unique personalities in this era of mass reproduction. She is also an exceptional reminder of the way in which art becomes secularized.

Frida and her Heart (1997/1997) by Teodoro Torres and Susana NavarroMuseo del Estanquillo

The F in Affliction. "You, like a window lashed by a storm…"

Pellicer's verse admirably summarizes Frida's experience living from operation to operation and from martyrdom to martyrdom, rising above her frailties and relapsing into them, embroiled in illness: her other dramatic vision of the world. How does Frida rationally and irrationally view her trips into hospital and onto operating tables through her senses and feelings? She acquires another vital group of friends in the doctors who advise her, care for her, subject her to destructive examinations, prescribe and change her medicines, speculate, and suggest. Defenseless and anguished, yet courageous, Frida painted herself with her doctor by her side. Her 1945 painting, "Without Hope," reveals just what her ordeal meant to her.

While Frida lived an extreme existence, at war with a physicality she so dearly loved, her medical friends offered her a third formative and didactic space: the daily difference between life and death. For hours and hours, between her worsening circulatory problems, surgery on her right foot and spine, amputations, and grafts, Frida experienced the most mortifying delirium, often unable to tell whether she was awake or in a nightmare. The painting that depicts her next to the portrait of her friend Dr. Farill encapsulates this devastating experience. The palette that she uses is her own heart, and her paintbrushes resemble bloody scalpels: obvious symbols that are transformed by their sincerity. The doctor, looking out from the serenity of the painting, is her protector. Their friendly relationship does not mitigate her pain but does make it fathomable on some level.

Frida with a Toad-frog (1997/1997) by Teodoro Torres and Susana NavarroMuseo del Estanquillo

F for Frida and Diego: The Little Deer and the Toad

Frida and Diego. Diego and Frida. Beyond the lawsuits, deception, reconciliation, and mutual professions of devotion, Kahlo and Rivera lived out a great harmonious mismatch rivaled in the 20th century only by María Félix and Agustín Lara. Here are Frida and Diego, gentleness and the mountain, tortured tenderness, and a monument to themselves. In the many versions of these photographs, the couple take on an almost foundational role. They are like the Adam and Eve of revolutionary nationalism, radical art, life lived to the full, or our need for iconic couples, and this absurdity is not far from reality.

Aged 42 and with apparently limitless fame, the controversial, rotund, and ubiquitous Diego was a leading inspiration in the "Mexican Renaissance." He attracted journalists and tourists, as well as the (admiring) phobia of the bourgeoisie, who associated communism with unspeakable practices and reprehensible outcomes. Rivera returned triumphant from Europe, painted murals in the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria building, declared himself a Bolshevik (even worse than a revolutionary peasant), and reclaimed the aggressive grandeur of the revolution for the art of painting. Diego brimmed with anecdotes and politics; he was contentious and often made the news with his murals, easel paintings, lies, celebrity relationships, and scandals around his work, life, and his love for scandal.

Frida Kahlo with a Diego Rivera Mask (1997/1997) by Teodoro Torres and Susana NavarroMuseo del Estanquillo

Diego's limelight was not the result of him seeking out publicity, but rather something simpler and yet more complex: the certainty that he was center stage—because that is what he was missing. His carefree nature drew attention to him wherever he went, and made waves abroad as well. He accepted having a crowd around him because discretion and secrecy were impossible for him. Even without Diego's extreme lack of privacy, Frida was, in her own right, a notorious symbol of the relatively small capital city of this supposedly new country. Her characteristics were unique: an invalid who created a swarm of movement around her; a painter whose work enticed without aesthetic approaches getting in the way; a woman radicalized by feelings and intuition; a nationalist who planted her patriotic sentiments firmly in a utopia; a woman with a traditional appearance and wildly unorthodox habits.

Frida Kahlo with Braid (1997/1997) by Teodoro Torres and Susana NavarroMuseo del Estanquillo

The F in Mexicanness

"Tree of Hope, Remain Strong." Frida dressed and covered herself in earrings shaped like temples, labyrinths, or miniature hanging gardens, beautiful shawls, and pre-Hispanic-inspired rings that looked like they had come from a goldsmith museum. Frida particularly loved Tehuana dresses, and with good reason. For a long time, and as corroborated by the testimonies of numerous travelers, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec has represented a legendary myth: that of Paradise Lost, and a realm of innocence, frugality and exuberance. In Tehuana dress, she was a strong woman of the Bible and a matriarch, lacking any hypocrisy and normalizing sexuality in a world that could not even bring itself to talk about it.

Frida Kahlo with a Doll (1997/1997) by Teodoro Torres and Susana NavarroMuseo del Estanquillo

Through her attire, Frida made herself a veritable proclamation with the "dolphin colors" of her petticoats, her traditional Huipil ponchos adorned with golden thread, and her braids decorated in tribute to fantastical architecture with colored ribbons and earrings.
Through a simple, considered approach to the exuberance of her clothing, Frida wanted to make visible the national essence destroyed by modernity, giving back everyday meaning to a generational loyalty that cities no longer allowed.
She accumulated traditions all over her body, but tradition that is held up as a challenge is cut short and, devoid of the context that made it possible and necessary, it begins all over again.

Frida Kahlo (1930/1930) by Canon VlacktenMuseo del Estanquillo

F for Photography

"If you look closely, Frida Kahlo looked like her photos." In the years following her death, Frida received the kind of recognition that usually precedes being forgotten. Her paintings didn't sell for much, little was published about her work, and she was often judged by those highlighting the naivety of her work and formidable personality. This is how it was until suddenly, in the 1980s, the deluge of admiration began. It all came at once: the details of her love life, the exhibitions (more abroad than in Mexico), Paul Leduc's movie with Ofelia Medina, the movie with Salma Hayek, the stream of visitors to The Blue House in Coyoacán, the books by Raquel Tibol, Marta Zamora, Hayden Herrera, and Rauda Jamís, and the complete works put together by Helga Prignitz-Poda, Salomon Grimberg, and Andrea Kettenman. Agreement was quickly reached: Frida was much more than a unique figure and unexpected artist who obsessively painted self-portraits in the absence of another subject. Frida was a true portrait of her time, and yet her work transcends the portraits of the era.

In this flood of admiration, one thing was clear: the symbol of Frida was dazzlingly modern and relevant because it was not just about the paintings (although a lot of them have been reproduced) or about faith in socialism, the female condition, or love of a revered figure. It was about all of these.
At the height of Fridamania, Frida was a symbol of herself: a face in which you believe you have seen an apparition questioning its own miraculous origins; the coming together of paintbrushes and a love of life in the operating theatre. Frida refers to Frida, and this circular creation makes her unique. She is the statue of herself, her own daughter; the propagation of unique traits in an era of mass reproduction.

Frida Sitting (1997/1997) by Teodoro Torres and Susana NavarroMuseo del Estanquillo

F for Fridamania

Fridamania is a trend, but one that Frida Kahlo (and her work, ideas and life) transcends. The artists who use Frida Kahlo as inspiration may or may not adapt her to a postmodern perspective or treat her as an intertextual resource. But in using her at all they are praising the fearlessness with which she seized her representation of pain and endurance of it from mysticism, and her bold appropriation of the ironic adoration of mysticism from popular tradition. Fridamania is a cult and business whose providentialist remains prove the obvious: the saints of this era will no longer come from virginities defended at the expense of jumping into the unknown, or celestial acts which heal the sick and healthy alike. They will overwhelmingly come from lives with an organic blend of art, resistance to oppression, occasional self-destruction, selfless giving to others, originality, and existential radicalism. The saintly, bisexual, delirious, and promiscuous lover Frida Kahlo winds her way between exclamations, valuations, and trends, and remains unscathed, just as she was at the beginning, split between pain and the need to transcend sorrow in the sacrificial whirlwind of love and painting.

Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace (1997/1997) by Teodoro Torres and Susana NavarroMuseo del Estanquillo

Her work and behavior, which society at the time (not the widest of circles) made a great commotion about, judging them to be sinful, came hand in hand with the artistic use of her persona. Diego painted Frida, an epic in her own right, into his murals. In "Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park," Frida is already part of Mexican history. And Frida's own self-portraits prove her longevity. Her reasoning could have been as follows: "I paint myself, therefore I exist. I paint myself so that time will respect me beyond my own suffering. I paint myself, and the paintings become my mirror, and the extension and metamorphosis of my image."

My Nurse and I (1997/1997) by Teodoro Torres and Susana NavarroMuseo del Estanquillo

The F in a Finished Text

Frida in murals, Frida in her paintings, Frida in anecdotes. These are the seeds of the kind of mythological explosion that can only occur when various elements converge: her status of "unique woman" taken up by feminism; the historic defeat of Stalinism and Maoism (Frida's two great mistakes); and the salvaging of symbols and repetitions that preserve an age of extraordinary originality, unchanged. No matter the combination, Frida remains. Is the tragedy that, after so much time outliving herself, she has become the opposite: the spirit of continuity in life and art, and a single character harboring a multitude of others?

Credits: Story

Obras realizadas por Teodoro Torres y Susana Navarro, Premio Nacional de Ciencias y Artes 2007

Texto: Carlos Monsiváis

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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