„I’m not ill, I’m broken”, Frida would say of herself

The world became obsessed with the “woman with the moustache”. A few decades after her death, she became an icon of pop-culture. How come a Mexican artist – original, yes, but not brilliant after all – is compared to the greatest masters of all time? She simply met the needs of the contemporary public.

Sensation: Frida Kahlo in Warsaw’s Łazienki Królewskie (Royal Baths Park)!
Of course, I went to see the exhibition.
Everything was done to make an event out of the presentation of three paintings. It has to be admitted that both the interior design concept and the outdoor arrangements are interesting and ambient. What’s perhaps even more important – the authors have taken into account to guests of all ages.

For the most beautiful Warsaw park is usually visited by families with children. It’s them to have fun – in Podchorążówka [Officer Cadets School] a space has been created for an educational and playful zone, which is by the way also eagerly used by moms and grannies, dressing up as Kahlo’s look-alikes, just like the kids. Needless to say, flower wreaths and long frilly dresses are the most popular.

All in all and as far as Poland is concerned, the current exhibition will surely attract record-breaking crowds.
Maybe it will match the enthusiasm with which Tamara Łempicka’s monographs were received?
It’s worth mentioning that an extremely interesting exhibition “Corsets Off. Camille Claudel and Polish Women Sculptors of the 19th Century” – is also on show at the National Museum in Warsaw. There are a good many spectators, yes – as in this case, the figure in question has become popular thanks to its complicated and tragic vicissitudes, which always translates into a pop-culture buzz – but the French sculptor definitely loses out to the Mexican.

Coming back to the latter…

The career of the woman with the moustache

It’s hard to imagine that one can make “an icon” out of suffering. But that’s what happened in the case of Frida.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE Her talents were noticed at an exceptionally early age due to polio. Bedridden for many years, she adopted the retouching skills of her photographer father, which she later applied to her meticulous compositions.

She also benefited from the teachings of the one who was to become her husband – Diego Rivera. The famous artist recalled his first encounter at the painting “training ground” as follows: “I was painting high up on the scaffolding when suddenly there were loud cries and banging on the door. Then a girl of about ten or twelve burst in”.

That was Frida. She sat for several hours at the foot of the scaffolding, watching Rivera work and greedily watching his way of working.
Zdjęcie Diego Rivery i Fridy Kahlo wykonane przez ich przyjaciela Leo Matiza. Fot. PAP/Newscom
Throughout her life she remained in Rivera’s artistic shadow. She had only two exhibitions, including one in New York in 1938. The main subject of her work was her own face, recreated from a mirror image. Of the more than 200 paintings she left behind, about 150 are self-portraits.

And suddenly – ta-da! – the world became obsessed with the “woman with the moustache”.

A few decades after her death (in 1954), she became an icon of pop-culture.
How come a Mexican artist – original, yes, but not brilliant after all – is compared to the greatest masters of all time?
She simply met the needs of the contemporary public.

The fashion was initiated by Hayden Herrera’s excellent biography, published in 1983. Then came other more or less credible biographies and memories, films, plays, and musicals.

Eloquent proof that “Frida is still alive” is the constantly updated portal “Frida – the latest news”. It’s hard to believe that someone who died almost 70 years ago can evoke so much emotion - and the exchange of opinions among internet users about Frida is extremely heated.

Women, step out!

For many years, it has not been men-artists who have been in the centre of attention, but creative women. Almost as a rule, their biographies abound in unusual events – because in order to gain prestige and position in the field of art, they had to have the strength to break with the traditional image of a woman, defy customs, and impose their own patterns of conduct. In other words, they lived in conflict with family, community, and sometimes with the law.

Here are the heroines that are talked about: Tamara Łempicka, Frida Kahlo, Artemisia Gentileschi, Zofia Stryjeńska, Katarzyna Kobro… The list can be extended ad infinitum.

In addition, the West has become bored with its own culture and aesthetic heritage, all kinds of exoticism in the visual arts are welcome. And Frida’s painting is a mixture of surrealism (although she denied it, claiming that she didn’t look for inspiration in dreams, but in her own life), Indian myths, Mexican folk tradition. And personal symbolism.

Fridomania has also been fuelled – quite accidentally – by a civic movement aimed at drawing attention to the problem of harassment of women. #Metoo!

Women from different countries felt a connection with Kahlo – those who saw themselves as victims of the patriarchal culture, male dominance in art or felt maltreated by an unfaithful husband.

The relationship of the “elephant and the dove” has been discussed and analysed by many. Including – the French Nobel Prize winner J.M.G. Le Clézio (book “Diego et Frida”, Polish edition 2009).

It was there that I found an interesting detail about the artist’s emotional dependence on her husband. Towards the end of her life, stupefied with painkillers and drugs, Kahlo turned her affection for Diego into a cult. She wrote him a litany: “... DIEGO dans mon urine DIEGO dans ma bouche – dans mon Cœur, dans ma folie, dans mon sommeil…” [DIEGO in my urine DIEGO in my mouth – in my heart, in my madness, in my dreams…”]

I’m broken

Her second love was homeland.

She identified with Mexico with all her appearance, folklore costumes, the décor of Casa Azul. For patriotic reasons, she falsified her date of birth. She claimed to have been born in 1910 (actually three years earlier) – the year of the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution.

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Both of Frida’s loves can be seen thanks to the Warsaw presentation. Her affection for Diego can be seen in the film shown in Łazienki – a short snapshot from 1941, for which they both posed on the patio of their house.

Her forty-seven years of life were marked almost entirely by illness, physical suffering, and excruciating treatments reminiscent of medieval torture. At the age of five, she contracted polio, but initially coped very well with the disability left by the disease: she “stuffed” her shorter and thinner leg with special footwear, and wore thick stockings. Besides, she hid the imperfection with long, layered skirts. A road accident in 1925 turned out to be truly dramatic.

Almost no one believed she would make it out alive. Frida Kahlo managed to escape death at the cost of much suffering. She underwent 32 surgeries, was bedridden for years, and ended up in a wheelchair. Attempts were made to straighten her spine with stretching mechanisms or corsets, which left bloody traces on the body. In addition, after some time, there was muscle atrophy in the leg deformed by polio. Gangrene set in and the limb had to be partially amputated. The almost constant pain led her to turn to drugs, painkillers and alcohol. “I’m not sick, I’m broken”, Frida said about herself, referring to her state of health.

Mental suffering was added to the physical torment. Diego Rivera, 20 years older than her, was one of the incorrigible womanizers, he betrayed Frida, making no secret of it. They even divorced and then remarried.

Kahlo dreamed of a child, although in her case pregnancy was associated with great risks. However, she took it, which ended in a miscarriage. She was the first woman in the world to paint this taboo subject. And when – in 1932!

Another thing is that Frida was not so completely innocent – she herself had numerous flirtations and love affairs, with representatives of both sexes.

Lookalikes and disguises

I mentioned costumes à la Frida, available in the Officer Cades School. Also at the opening of the exhibition “The Colour of Life. Frida Kahlo” in Łazienki, there were many women dressed and made up in the image and likeness of the heroine.
It was not the first such case.

The face, hairstyles, clothes of the “icon of suffering” in a way provoke imitation. Significantly, men are also willing to participate in dressing up (admittedly, I have not observed it in our country). Few physiognomies are as distinctive and popularized by pop culture as Frida’s. A painful wrinkle on her forehead, thick monobrow and a moustache, of which she was proud and did not intend to disguise.
When did this disguising start?

Probably during the famous exhibition at London’s Tate Modern in 2005.
It was set very effectively, on four levels of the gallery, with a recreated Frida’s atelier in the Blue House (Casa Azul in Coyoacan, a suburban district of Mexico City, where she spent the last years of her life, and now – the artist’s museum).

At that time, apart from Frida’s painting output, her outfits were shown.
As a result, Frida look-alike competitions were organised, with fashion designers trying to outdo each other with ideas for Kahlo-style creations.

It is also worth recalling the performance organized in Mexico City on the occasion of the artist’s 100th birthday. Then, in 2007, at the Zocalo Plaza (the main square in Mexico City), a meeting of 105 Fridas. Naked, with black braids pinned up in a crown and bushy eyebrows. First, the nudes stood at attention, then they lay down on their backs, then curled up in a fetal pose. The finale of this “performance” took place in the Blue House.

The happening was directed by Spencer Tunick, an American activist-photographer. Candidates for lookalikes were selected by Tunick from among 18,000 girls who took part in the casting – which eloquently reflects the artist’s popularity.

To cash in on Frida

It was obvious that the interest in the artist would be exploited by commerce. Already in the 1990s, Frida’s paintings reached millions (in dollars) at auction. Madonna is a great fan and collector of the Mexican artist’s paintings, and she also declares a psychic kinship with the painter. In the next decade, Kahlo’s works reached (pricewise) the level of first-class artists such as Picasso, Pollock, Warhol.

In 2000, Volvo used her self-portraits to advertise their cars in Ibero-American countries. A year later, Frida’s likeness appeared on the cover of the Time magazine. At the same time, a fight broke out between Madonna, Jennifer Lopez and Salma Hayek for the lead role in the painter’s film biography. As you know, the latter won.

So what if the picture directed by Julie Taylor was criticized by the surviving friends and acquaintances of the artist, as well as the creators who considered themselves her successors?

It didn’t hurt the popularity of the movie. The soundtrack certainly contributed to its success.

Here it is worth paying attention to the singer Lila Downs. Born in 1968, half Mexican, quarter Scottish, quarter English, she was raised partly in Oaxaca, partly in the USA. After her studies, she returned to Mexico, learned to weave and … started singing in clubs, amateurishly. It turned out that not only does he have a sensational hearing and vocal abilities – he can use seven different keys!

What’s more, she is deceptively reminiscent of Frida, without any special similarity treatments. She has similar braids of impressive length and wears Mexican outfits.

Downs also had a “metaphysical” connection with Kahlo through the aforementioned film. Her voice can be heard as many as five times, and the poignant final song “Burn in Blue” was nominated for an Academy Award.
Frida also became a gastronomic enterprise. Numerous cookery books were published with her recipes (she was said to be a great cook, and although she lived mainly on tequila and cigarillos, Diego's corpse suggests that she had culinary talent). Her name and face appeared on the labels of tequila, recommended as a truly Mexican beverage.
Many restaurants specialising in Mexican menus have been named after the artist: you can find restaurants with Frida’s image in Los Angeles, New York, Puerto Rico, Seattle, of course in Mexico City, and even... in Warsaw, in Nowy Świat St.

Creations next to art

On Kahlo’s 100th birthday, the contents of the chests, stored for more than half a century in the Blue House in Coyoacan, were made available to viewers for the first time, according to Frida’s will. Among the revealed treasures there were photos (over 5,000), a collection of documents (over 22,000), books and magazines, and various trinkets, such as a napkin with a kiss imprinted with lipstick. A large part was the wardrobe: skirts, petticoats, blouses, dresses, scarves – a total of 179 items. They say they still smell of the owner’s perfume and… tobacco. Plus a slightly gruesome exhibit – a healing corset that was used to straighten her broken spine.

In a way, the photos were also part of her work. She prepared carefully for the photos: she chose hairstyles, clothes, jewelry (how much did it have to weigh! For a healthy woman – an effort, for a sick spine – nothing short of heroism).

Besides, even in everyday life, even for painting and cooking, Frida was also dressed as if for the stage. In the photographs, she assumed poses in which she presented herself in the best possible way. Always disciplined, upright, with her head held high. Few photos show her physical disabilities or illness.

Is it any wonder that Frida Kahlo still fascinates, inspires and… provokes you to face her? At least visually.

– Monika Małkowska

TVP ТИЖНЕВИК.  Редактори та автори

– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki

The exhibition “Colour of life. Frida Kahlo” – the Royal Łazienki Museum, open until September 3, 2023.
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