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Frida at Tate Modern

Frida Kahlo

Tate Modern, London

9 June to 9 October

Admission £10 (£8 concessions, under-18s free)

Reviewed by Suzanne Muna

"I PAINT because I need to, and I paint whatever passes through my head without any other consideration" – Frida Kahlo. If you intend to visit the Frida Kahlo exhibition at Tate Modern, try to go at a time when the gallery is less crowded. Kahlo’s body of work, with its complex, carefully constructed images and fine detail, needs time to be absorbed.

Although Kahlo paints from a feminine perspective, it is entirely without the sentimentality normally expected in the narrow definition of women’s art. In Henry Ford Hospital (1932), Kahlo describes her sense of pain and loss at being unable to carry a pregnancy full-term simply through the slow and brutal act of miscarriage. Thus, whilst often dealing with ‘female’ themes, Kahlo makes no concessions to the pressure to conform as a ‘woman artist’ stereotype.

In many ways the harshness of Kahlo’s work derives from the constant physical pain that she endured, the many times in her life when she was incapacitated, bedridden and hospitalised.

Kahlo contracted polio aged six, which left her right leg withered and disabled. At 18 she narrowly survived a bus accident that fractured her spine in three places, her right leg in eleven places, her pelvis and collarbone, damaged internal organs and crushed her right foot, which was eventually amputated in the year before she died. Speaking later in her life, Kahlo said: "I drank to drown my pain, but the damned pain learned how to swim". Kahlo began to paint to stave off boredom whilst in a full body cast recuperating from the accident.

Time and again, Kahlo graphically paints her physical pain, but she also uses it to describe collective suffering. In A Few Small Nips (1935), Kahlo paints a dead woman on a bed, naked but for one shoe and stocking, her body slashed and bleeding, while a man, fully dressed, stands calmly at her side. The painting was inspired by a real-life murder story - the defendant told the judge that it was only a few small nips - but it also stands as wider commentary on the gender inequalities within Mexican society, as well as echoing the hurt she herself endured at the hands of her husband, Diego Rivera.

Kahlo was a mixed race Mexican artist. Her father was a Hungarian Jew, born in Germany, and her mother was of Spanish and Native American descent. Kahlo explores her mixed heritage in many of her paintings. One of her most famous works, The Two Fridas (1939), shows a double self-portrait with the figures holding hands. The picture was painted during the period of her separation and divorce and one of the figures has an exposed and bleeding heart. However, the two figures, one wearing traditional Mexican costume and the other clothed in a colonial wedding dress, also represent the duality of her origins.

The imagery Kahlo uses is an eclectic blend from ancient Aztec to modern Mexican, religious metaphor and fantasy, and penetratingly observed reality. The most complex of her paintings, Moses (1945), is split into three sections with a sun, a foetus and Moses in his basket forming the central register. On either side, Kahlo paints imagery from all the main religions, ancient artefacts from Mexican, Aztec and Egyptian culture, as well as portraits of modern figures such as Mahatma Gandhi, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler. Revolutionary masses flank the babies, as in post-revolutionary Russian art, and the picture itself was inspired by an essay by Sigmund Freud. It is one of the larger pieces and certainly one of the most detailed and complete documents of her inspirations and influences.

Kahlo depicts herself at the centre of many of her canvases, indeed most of the work is self-portraiture. Over her body and sometimes through it, flow plant forms and other imagery intended to express ideas both internal and external. In Thinking About Death (1943), Kahlo fills most of the canvas. At the centre of her forehead is a circle in which a tiny skull floats on clouds. Kahlo is surrounded by foliage but a single stem grows from her right shoulder and merges into the background. Thus Kahlo is rooted like the plants, and the different elements – her own body, the skull on her forehead and the vegetation behind her – are interlinked references to the cycle of life and death.

Kahlo lived at a time of social struggle and change for South America. For almost 25 years she painted against a backdrop of political turmoil and was herself an activist, briefly joining the Communist Party in 1927 when she married revolutionary artist Rivera, but resigning just two years later when he was expelled. Kahlo identified strongly with the Mexican revolution, adopting 1910 (the year it began) as her birth year, although she was, in fact, three years old at the time.

In the 35 years preceding the revolution, Mexico was ruled by a small elite under General Porfirio Díaz. The national insurrection in 1910, sparked by a series of strikes, forced him to flee the country. That Kahlo was an activist defines her as a child of the revolution. Before this time, women were severely constrained by the Mexican Civil Code introduced in 1884 by Díaz. Women’s lives were restricted to domesticity, family and church, and they remained oppressed and largely without political voice.

Through the revolution the position of women changed dramatically. They became prominent activists, thinkers, writers, and artists, despite the unquestionable inequalities they still had to overcome. The price women paid in their struggle for equality was often to die or be imprisoned alongside the men, and then be largely forgotten in the writing of history. Nonetheless, the roles they took on were wide-ranging: fighting on the front-line as soldaderas, tending the troops, formulating education reform and better social and working conditions, campaigning for the collective cause and for women’s freedom.

Political struggle took its toll on Kahlo’s personal life – she left Mexico for a while after the assassination of Leon Trotsky, with whom she had an affair. It also drove her to explore and reflect politics in her art. Paintings such as Pithayas (1938), Still Life with Parrot and Flag (1951), and Still Life (1951) use native fruit, birds and artefacts to make political statements on Mexican nationalism and independence. Other works satirise political figures, such as San Baba (Santa Claus – 1932), in which a prominent political figure is shown in the guise of Father Christmas, distracted from his job by a narcissistic desire to have his hair done. This political facet of Kahlo’s work marks her out as a rarity – a female artist whose work not only includes political references, but whose range embraces social, political and personal themes.

Kahlo broke another taboo: in the depiction of her bisexuality. Although she twice married Rivera and had many affairs with men, she also had affairs with women. She spoke of her bisexuality openly, saying of one lover: "She didn't make love to me that time, I think on account of her weakness. Too bad". Generally, she referred to it more obliquely in her work. The most direct reference is in her painting, Two Nudes in a Forest (1939), which shows a pale skinned woman with her head on the lap of a darker skinned woman. The figures are watched by a spider monkey, a symbol of lust, yet the painting also has two other titles (Earth Herself and, My Nurse and I) perhaps from a desire to maintain ambiguity.

Kahlo’s work may not be instantly accessible to the Western eye, and is frequently uncomfortable to look at. In Girl With Death Mask (1938), a young child stands in the centre of the picture, the softness of the subject, her body and dress, jars with the large, rigid death mask covering her face. The contrasted imagery, the deathly white face and black expressionless eyes certainly make this one of the most disturbing of many unsettling images in the exhibition.

It sometimes seems that the pain of the whole outside world is internalised and embodied by the artist herself. This is a powerful collection of important work by a fascinating artist. The pain and the sense of constant searching that run through her paintings will resonate with many viewers, especially women, and this exhibition represents a welcome raising of Frida Kahlo’s profile in the UK.


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