Monday, January 07, 2008

Frida Kahlo

There is a show of paintings by Frida Kahlo at the Walker Art Center right now. My brother and I went to it, when he was in town. Going to a museum with my brother is a bonding experience, since we grew up in art museums. In fact, we grew up in the old Walker.

After we saw the show, which was full of people, including people who did not look like the usual Walker audience, we sat down and talked about Kahlo.

My brother felt her work was too didactic: the pierced bodies and the floating uteruses.

I said, what kind of criticism is that? Look at Western art. Most of it is didactic. Look at all the crucifixions. Some of them work as art. Others don't. I reminded him of the Roger van der Weyden crucifixion in the Philadelphia Art Institute, a favorite work for both of us.

We talked a while about why some works of art are so powerful and others aren't, then got back to Kahlo.

I think what my brother meant was, to him her work seemed too obvious and maybe manipulative. He was bothered by the lack of facial expression in her self portraits, which display so many emblems of suffering -- thorns, arrows, her body split open, her organs floating outside her.

Why the lack of expression?

I thought it was because the suffering was physical and chronic. People who are constantly in pain can't cry or complain all the time.

What bothered me about the show is that the labels told us almost nothing about the political and artistic context. Kahlo was more than a suffering woman. She was a fine artist, in the middle of an important artistic movement, and the wife of one of the founders of the Mexican Communist Party, who was also an ally and friend of Leon Trotsky. Did she have no opinions about art or politics?

She was in physical pain. She couldn't have the children she wanted. Her husband was apparently a jerk. Was that the sum total of her life?

If so, why did she get a show at the Walker? Lots of women suffer. The art is what makes her important; and her art comes out of Mexican art at the time, which was inextricably intertwined with politics.

I guess the question I'm asking is, if the show seemed manipulative to my brother, who was doing the manipulating? Kahlo or the show's curator?

There is a big retrospective of her husband Diego Rivera's work opening in Mexico City right now. I'd like to go see it. I will certainly buy the catalog. Patrick and I both fell in love with Rivera frescoes in the Detroit Art Institute. If you put the frescoes together with Kahlo's painting of her miscarriage at Henry Ford Hospital, her bed on a wide flat plain with the industrial skyline of Detroit in the distance, you have an interesting double statement.

What does it mean? The triumph of industry and very personal human pain and loss.

Revera's art is far more heroic than Kahlo's, full of powerful figures, workers working, who act rather than simply endure; but he certainly knew that there was plenty of pain and loss in human history.

I wonder how much you can pull their work apart. He was certainly present in the Walker show, a huge part of her life; and she appears in his art.

Having said this, it's perfectly possible he was a jerk.

And it's possible she was rather too focused on her own suffering. But chronic pain is hard to ignore. I found much of her art moving and beautiful.


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