Thursday, March 20, 2008


Blockbuster art exhibits are the most brutal way imaginable to view anything & the Frida Kahlo exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is no exception. You need timed tickets to enter & even then you end up in a long single-file line that snakes through museum’s main lobby like the airport security line from hell – we were literally exchanging backrubs with strangers just to pass the time on Sunday. Once you are in the show, things don’t speed up all that much. If you want to look at the paintings – the show pretty much has all of the canonical ones – you basically need to wait to move to the front of the crowd around each picture as people move on. If the paintings weren’t so terrific, it just wouldn’t be worth all the standing on hard concrete.

Kahlo is that most unique of phenomena – the first-rate artist who became a “crossover” hit & an icon to the women’s movement right as second-wave feminism was rising to its heights. I can’t imagine, for example, anything like the same mob scene for a retrospective of Diego Rivera, Kahlo’s two-time (& two-timing) husband, tho the muralist was the most famous Mexican artist even when she first met him in art school & his Detroit Industry mural is easily the finest single painting in the United States by any artist ever. Thus, while the complementary audio program talks endlessly about Kahlo’s symbolism & some of her sources, the narrative actually discusses her actual craft as a painter exactly once, in the very last of its 24 little lectures, explaining why there are no paintings from the last three years of Kahlo’s life when her reliance on painkillers had finally become an addiction and “she lost control of her brushstroke.” This at the end of a program in which we’ve gotten to hear such fluff as Pattie Smith comparing Frida’s relation to Diego to her own relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

In fact, Kahlo is a muscular painter whose fine strokes leave her canvases – and her masonite boards & her sheets of tin & aluminum – almost perfectly flat. Rather than a celebration of the hand that would emerge out of modernist abstraction, Kahlo translates this invariably to the image portrayed. Two of the very best paintings in the entire show are not her iconic self-portraits, but a painting of marigolds and a portrait, done on commission, of Doña Rosita Morillo, both executed in the mid-1940s, both freed largely from the angst that is so often portrayed elsewhere in her work. They are flat out great paintings and it’s worth the hassle of the museum’s presentation just to see them.

But, in fairness, Kahlo is also the most political of painters, more so than Rivera, more so than, say, Ben Shahn or Leon Golub. Her sense of capitalism is closer to Bosch & Brueghel than her contemporaries (this shows especially in one of her few European-influenced pieces, a collage she made while accompanying Rivera on his disastrous trip to New York to paint a mural for Mr. Rockefeller). Her feminism is serious & conscious & decades ahead of the women’s movement. Thus, in “A Few Small Nips,” the image at the top of this note, painted in 1935, Kahlo not only presents the stabbing death of a young woman, but her killer’s claim that it was only “a few small nips.” The spatters of blood extend beyond the metal on which the scene is painted to the work’s frame. Inside the frame, they are pictorial and representational – the walls are not covered – but outside it, they directly engage (challenge / accuse) the viewer.

Unsurprisingly, Kahlo has become the matron saint of chronic pain. As I told Krishna (who used to keep a poster of Kahlo’s Broken Column above her bed when we first met), I have a hard time reading a painting like Column, with its piercing nails spreading far beyond the shattered image of a spine, without thinking that Kahlo must have had reflex sympathetic dystrophy – chronic pain syndrome. Between her childhood polio, the horrific trolley & bus crash she was in at the age of 18 – Kahlo was impaled by a handrail & her pelvis was shattered – the lifelong surgeries that followed, her multiple miscarriages that resulted from a pelvis that was unable to support a pregnancy & her husband’s blatantly wayward ways – they married, divorced, remarried & came close to divorce again as Rivera tended to fuck anything in a skirt, including Frida’s sister – Kahlo has proven to be the perfect symbol for a particular feminist aesthetic. In this sense, she’s not unlike Sylvia Plath, tho their differences I think are more telling than the obvious parallels. Unlike Plath, who took her life right at the point where she was emerging as a mature poet, Kahlo persevered. If she thought about suicide – and it’s obvious that she did – she put it in a painting. If he slept around, she did too, famously, counting the likes of Trotsky among her conquests.

But a photograph of her in traction by Nick Murray – one of her lovers – is itself as painful in its own way as any of her hallucinated images. The photographs, from some family photo albums that have never been displayed before, are themselves a fascinating part of the exhibition (and notably less crowded around than the paintings). It’s worth noting, for example, that the exotic animals that give many of her self-portraits a surreal edge were in reality her pets. This is a woman who kept not just monkeys & parrots, but an eagle. Another photograph in which Kahlo is nude from the waist up has been torn in half, but carefully so as to render it a head shot – the text on the wall luridly (and without any supporting evidence given) suggests that Rivera must have been furious at this documentation of her affair with the photographer. But her gaze here, as in so many of the photos & in so many of her self-portraits as well, meets our eyes. Unlike Plath, this was someone absolutely determined to survive & prevail. It’s ultimately a very different message. In one of the last works, she portrays her self as a sitting Madonna, holding a naked infant that just happens to be the grown Rivera. One can certainly see the anger represented – to have married someone 21 years her senior only to have to treat him like a baby – but even more significant is the degree to which this work shows Kahlo in control, of her art, her images & her life.

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