In addition to being an artist, Frida Kahlo is an icon. Eclipsed by her husband Diego Riviera while he was alive, Frida Kahlo is today a nearly universal pop icon, as evidenced by her 850,000 posthumous followers on Instagram.
The exhibition Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving, which opened at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, is the largest retrospective of the Mexican artist to date. It comprises the artist’s paintings, but also her clothes, her drawings, her films, and over 150 photographs. This is also the first time that personal objects belonging to Frida Kahlo, and held at Casa Azul (her “blue house”) where she died in 1954, are being shown in the United States.
There are few of Frida Kahlo’s paintings on display (only eleven), and it is the photographs that constitute the core of the exhibition. Kahlo’s father, Guillermo Kahlo, was a photographer, and photography thus occupied an important place in her life. While Frida painted self-portraits, she had also become a muse to a great number of photographers, including Edward Weston, Lola Alvarez Bravo, Imogen Cunningham, as well as her lover, the photographer Nickolas Murray. It is these photographs that earned Frida Kahlo’s notoriety outside of Mexico, even before she was famous as an artist in her own right. Kahlo has become today almost a trademark (there are those who speak of “Fridolatry”), and her images can be found on countless object.
Representing an icon
Every photograph reveals a facet of the artist and allows us to understand the different ways in which she is perceived and represented. Her father Guillermo’s photographs, especially those depicting her as a young woman, show the bourgeois milieu in which she was raised. However, in those early images, we also notice that Kahlo already played with notions of self-representation. This is particularly true in one family photo where she wears a man’s costume, breaking with the image of a model girl and stirring some “gender trouble.” Later photographs, by Lola Alvarez Bravo and Lucienne Bloch, shot in lush black and white, portray Kahlo in everyday surroundings, nearly melancholy. These in turn contrast with Nickolas Murray’s images which offer staged, nearly pictorial portraits of the artist. This is precisely the iconic Frida Kahlo, the artist turned a work of art; by the same token, color photography is elevated to the status of art. Throughout the exhibition, photography plays a dual role, at once participating in the creation of an icon and offering an intimate look at the artist.
To understand Frida Kahlo and her art, we must, however, break down some walls. We must see her as an emancipated woman, and not just the wife of the famous Diego Riviera; and we must look beyond the aesthetic symbolism of an icon. Behind those walls, there is existential and physical pain. As the title of the exhibition suggests, drawing on one of the artist’s sketches, the external appearances conceal a body that had been hurt and suffered—which might explain why Frida Kahlo worked so hard to compose and sublimate it. In the images in the exhibition, we can discern a play of concealment and disclosure of suffering. Kahlo contracted polio at the age of nine and was confined in a corset in the wake of a serious accident. Both her paintings and the photography played a part in constructing an impression of the invincibility of her body. Frida Kahlo’s image is that of a woman for whom art extends far beyond the canvas, to every object around her and to herself.
By Claire Debost
"Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving"
From February 8 to May 12, 2019
Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, New York 11238-6052