Editorial Feature

Defining Frida Kahlo's Place In Art History

Curator Tere Arcq explores Frida's artistic influences   

Frida Kahlo is unquestionably Mexico's best-known modern painter. Much of her fame is doubtlessly due to the way in which the contemporary world has viewed the unique manner in which she built her public persona; but it wasn't always like this. During her lifetime, her work was eclipsed by the monumental figure of her husband, Diego Rivera, who was the country's most acclaimed artist at that period. It was not until the 1970s and 1980s, with the rise of feminist movements, that Kahlo's work was reclaimed.

Her artistic legacy takes the form of an exceptional biographical narrative in which, using drama and a rich symbolism, she tells the story of her intimate experiences, her pain, her beliefs, and her passions. This presents a challenge for art historians and curators: her life and works are intimately linked and her artistic contribution risks being overshadowed by her extraordinary life story. Frida's work is a fascinating blend of symbolic and pictorial systems with diverse origins that, reflected on her canvases, take on another guise, re-invigorating the dramatic aspects of her story.

Self-portrait with Small Monkey by Frida Kahlo (From the collection of Museo Dolores Olmedo)

At the side of her father, the German photographer Guillermo Kahlo, Frida learned from a young age to use a camera lens, to observe in detail the faces, gestures, and postures of clients who came to his studio, and to use a paintbrush to retouch pictures. Frida knew—and this was reflected in her paintings as well as in the numerous photographic portraits that she took throughout her life—that through photography, a person's image was immortalized and she would carefully select from all of them the one that best reflected what she wanted to show.

From the time of her birth until she married Diego, she lived between Coyoacán, Mexico City, and a few other nearby places. The inspiration for her art came, at first, from what she observed in her immediate surroundings. Certain forms of folk art, such as ex-votos (small paintings painted on metal plates, commissioned by the faithful in gratitude for miracles received and used to adorn the atriums and chapels of churches) appeared in her paintings over the years.

Votive offering dedicated to the Virgin of Talpa by Frida Kahlo (From the collection of Museo Frida Kahlo)

The intimate relationships and friendships that Frida maintained throughout her life had a profound effect on her interests. It was while studying at the National Preparatory School (now the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso) that she met her first love, Alejandro Gómez Arias. He was a member of the group called "Los Cachuchas," whose members identified with the Mexican avant-garde movement of "Estridentismo" (Stridentism), founded in 1921. This group, inspired by Dadaism, rejected rules and institutions and advocated total freedom in artistic creation.

It emerged in response to the post-revolutionary approach that emphasized art's social function. The admiration of these young people for artists such as Max Jacob, Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp, Picasso, Max Ernst, Giorgio de Chirico, and Modigliani also had an effect on Frida, and their influence can be seen in her early paintings. In one she even painted a self-portrait in a velvet dress, with a stylized elongated neck in the style of Modigliani.

Self-Portrait wearing a velvet dress by Frida Kahlo (From the collection of Museo Dolores Olmedo)

Her relationship with Diego Rivera was perhaps the most significant influence on her life and on her development as an artist. Rivera's interest in the pre-Hispanic past and the reclaiming of Mexico's history and culture transformed Frida's work and her identity. It was at his side that her passion for traditional clothing and jewelry, Mexican cuisine, and the collecting of folk art emerged.

She accompanied Rivera on his travels in search of pre-Hispanic pieces to add to his vast collection. In so doing, she discovered ancestral cultures that reconnected her with her own family history. Her mother was originally from Oaxaca and, according to the family photographs in the Blue House, the female line could be traced to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a place in which a matriarchal culture still existed. Frida appropriated this powerful image and painted herself dressed as a Tehuanan woman.

Diego Rivera watching Frida Kahlo paint "Self-Portrait as Tehuana" (From the collection of Cincinnati Art Museum) 

Rivera's mural commissions in San Francisco, Detroit, and New York opened up a whole new landscape for Frida that saw a transformation in her work. While Diego spent his days on the scaffolding of various buildings, Frida visited museums, often went to plays and films, and made new friendships with collectors, artists, writers, and intellectuals.

In New York, the works that she could visit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, especially the paintings of El Greco, Henri Rousseau, and Salvador Dalí, made an impression that can be seen in her own paintings. It was in this city that she met the artist Georgia O'Keeffe who, like her, used the traditional genre of still life as a means of representing taboo subjects such as sexuality. Frida saw fruit and flowers as speakers of a provocative language, revealing things that were hidden.

Still Life by Frida Kahlo (From the collection of Museo Frida Kahlo)

It was also through Rivera that she met André Breton, the father of surrealism and someone who would go on to play a key part in her career. It was thanks to his efforts that she had the opportunity to exhibit her work for the first time in a solo exhibition in New York in 1938, in the Julien Levy Gallery (an important venue for surrealists in America) and, one year later, in the collective exhibition entitled Mexique, shown at the Galerie Renou et Colle in Paris.

As a result, Frida found herself suddenly thrown into the surrealist world, meeting artists such as Paul Klee, Picasso, and Joan Miró. While there, she spent several weeks at the house of Marcel Duchamp, an artist whom she admired greatly and who may have inspired the exploration of her alter ego in her most famous painting, The Two Fridas, which she painted for the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1940.

The Two Fridas by Frida Kahlo (From the collection of Museo de Arte Moderno)

The sources that inspired Frida Kahlo's imagination were manifold and the Blue House was an endless resource for new studies and research. The collections of pre-Hispanic and folk art, exhibition books and catalogs, paintings by other artists she admired, miniature reproductions of paintings, and countless objects hidden away in her wardrobe all found a place in her paintings.

In this perpetual reworking of her identity, Kahlo created extraordinary pictures in which she herself became the object and the subject of her art. Her symbolic portraits and self-portraits represented a provocative rupture in the dividing line separating the public from the strictly private sphere. Kahlo surprises the viewer with her visionary power, being the first female artist to rebel against the canons of art in order to explore her psyche, full of symbols and personal stories, which inspired the imaginations of countless artists around the world.

Untitled (Self-portait with thorn necklace and hummingbird) by Frida Kahlo (From the collection of Harry Ransom Center) 
Words by Tere Arcq
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