By LIZ HAGER
A friend asked me this morning whether she should go to the Frida Kahlo show at SFMOMA. At first, I was sorely tempted to advise her—DON’T BOTHER. Even with tickets, the very first room was impossibly crowded. Moreover, it was brimming with hoards of people strapped into their self-guide cassette players, moving sluggishly, as they tend to do, in a crowd, effectively creating huge barrier zones in front of the paintings. My usual strategy of moving on and circling back did not work; there were throngs around every painting in that room. I even encountered more than one mother attempting to manouever baby strollers through the crowd. (Who thought those would be a good thing to allow in a popular show?) Viewing any of the paintings would be a challenging, if not fruitless, effort.
In that first room, I was all set to walk out of the show in utter frustration. Admittedly, I’ve had the good fortune to have seen much of Kahlo’s work previously in various places (Casa Azul, Dolores Olmedo and Tate Modern’s 2005 show), so my tolerance for overcrowding in this case was extremely low. Still, I pressed on and was rewarded with a few charming little pieces I hadn’t seen before in the less crowded rooms beyond.
By the last room, my disgust melted into reflection. Amidst the continuing evidence of mass popularity, I wondered what it was that continued to draw the masses. Was it really the art? After all, other galleries in the Museum were empty. I began to reassess my relationship to Kahlo’s work. With the Frida image resolutely placed in our mass-communicated consciousness through kitschy magnets sporting images of her paintings, iconic t-shirts and even dress-up paper dolls, I had to ask myself whether the work itself held up. Was it still providing me with new and relevant insights?
Frida Kahlo didn’t hit the US radar screen until the 1978 SF show, 24 years after she died. Certainly as a dead female artist, “launched” during the height of the Woman’s Movement, she was bound to attract attention. In addition, the personal narrative told through her work—the triumph of the human spirit over inconceivable pain—had universal appeal. Add to that unfailing human Schadenfreude—physical and emotional misery is relentlessly on display in Kahlo’s oeuvre to a degree quite unlike any other artist—and you may have the basic fuel that propelled Kahlo into cultdom (dare I suggest secular martyrdom?) But what is keeping her there?
As a gringa outsider, it was the very deliberate amalgamation of references to her country’s pre-Columbian and art traditions (retablo, ex-votos) that sucked me in—Frida as the product of noble and not so primitive cultures; Frida as embodiment of simple peasantry; Frida as beloved Virgen de Guadalupe, national symbol of Mexican-ness. She opened up a whole new world of culture that I am still mining. Further, I always found her subject matter more easily accessible than the European surrealists. Also, to me the naïveté of her folk-art style was an antidote to the often overbearing style and relentless march of socialism on display in the work of her countrymen, Rivera and the other muralists.
At the SF MOMA show, however, I found myself disturbingly and inexplicably disengaged from the auto-iconic nature of the work. Seeing the same version of her in every painting became hypnotic after a while. I stopped really seeing the details. For the first time, I had a nagging thought that an oeuvre comprised solely of self portraits from anyone less famous would be labeled narrow and self-indulgent. Was I reluctant to face that Frida’s work had passed from the realm of high art to mass iconography and I wasn’t a member of the cult?
With time, I expect that Kahlo’s work will become something like an old, undemanding friend to me. Though the intense emotional relationship has faded and we don’t see much of each other, we still have history together, and that counts for something.
Venetian Red: “What the Water Gave Her”
Denise Rosenzweig—Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress: The Fashion of Frida Kahlo
Heyden Herrera—Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo
Helga Prignitz-Poda—Frida Kahlo Retrospective