Frida Kahlo's Gaze
When Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderon died in 1954, her husband, muralist Diego Rivera, sealed up her bedroom and studio, telling his executor it couldn't be opened until after his death. When he died three years later, the executor left the room closed. Rumor emerged that she and Kahlo had been rivals over a boy during their childhood and the executor was the loser in that rivalry, but her attempt to silence the limited public memory of Kahlo failed, with the artist's reputation taking off spectacularly in the '70s and '80s. The time-capsule rooms, filled with clothing and photos and other personal objects, weren't opened until after the executor's death, five decades after Kahlo's passing.
Photographer and historian Pablo Ortiz Monasterio archived the treasure trove of 6,500 personal photographs in the rooms, many featuring Kahlo, and curated the collection of more than 200 images currently making its only West Coast stop at the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA) in Long Beach. What's on display aren't the originals—Rivera's will required the patrimony never leave Mexico—but rather digitally scanned giclees, preserving every bit of fading, water damage and age spot.
Frida's father and her maternal grandfather were both photographers. Repeatedly photographed and recorded from a young age—combined with a bout of childhood polio that damaged her body—there's little doubt Kahlo was hyper-aware of being looked at, with even early photos suggesting a knowing way of presenting herself to the camera. Other inspirations also become clear right away: Her father took many images of himself and her mother and other family members in elaborate indigenous costumes.
There's a host of famous people in the "Amores" gallery—Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, movie star Dolores del Rio, an evocative Edward Weston photo of Isamu Noguchi, cigarette stub dangling from his lip. Openly bisexual, Kahlo had several affairs, but aside from the curator's notes mentioning it, there's only a handful of pictures of handsome men—all reinforcing the heterosexual—with nothing obvious providing a visual representation of the women in her life. Her smeared lipstick graces only one photo: Rivera painting.
When Kahlo was 18, a traffic accident further wrecked her already-mangled body. The resulting immobilization (and boredom) led her to begin painting her body cast before moving on to canvas: Nickolas Muray's numerous photos of her recuperating and painting in bed (after one of the 30-plus operations she had throughout her lifetime attempting to ease pain) are a loving, erotic record of her recovery, whether bound like a baby in cervical traction or lying on her stomach, scarred lower back naked, lower body wrapped in wrinkled sheets, smiling eyes looking back at the photographer. Another photo of her injured back was clearly used as a reference for her painting Tree of Hope, which MOLAA docent Susan helpfully pointed out, using a book of Kahlo's work tucked conveniently under her arm. A series of photographs that Kahlo mutilated also tie in neatly with the hospital photos: black-and-white figures without heads or cut at odd angles to remove the unloved from the printed memory, a tidy metaphor for her rejection of pain.
Politics takes center stage in the final gallery, "Diego's Gaze," with iconic images of revolutionary figures from both the Mexican and Russian Revolutions. The Riveras were committed Communists and had a strong, if ill-conceived, admiration for Stalin (even though the two sheltered anti-fascist Bolshevik Leon Trotsky at their home in Mexico when he fell out of favor with Uncle Joe). The several pictures taken by or attributed to Kahlo are magical: the painterly Composition of proletariat woodworking tools; the rosy-cheeked doll immobile on the ground as a horse bucks and kicks in Juguetes Populares, a child-like reference to her injuries; a shot looking up at Rockefeller Center; most telling, a loving close-up of Rivera's eye.
My perception, prior to this exhibit, was that Kahlo's obsessive painting of herself was an attempt to not become subsumed by Rivera's suffocating personality. That may still be a factor, but I think the curator's posted quote from art historian Gannit Ankori about the carefully crafted persona, pre-paparazzi, of the "Mythical Frida" is far more revelatory. Frida's indigenous clothing (intended as a communist political statement rejecting bourgeois values, while reasserting ethnicity over the European dress en vogue at the time); her intentional lies about her birth date (shifting it forward a few years to symbolically tie her directly to the start of the Mexican revolution); the Earth Mother animal props (dogs, fawns, an eagle, monkeys); the protofeminist monobrow and unshaved lip . . . This is not a victim afraid of disappearing, but rather a woman taking control of the world's perception of her. The images we take, make and are drawn to are deeply subjective, but for a few minutes at MOLAA, looking at photos Frida Kahlo cherished, we can see the world through her eyes: It's a work in progress, her life a public diary sharing itself with the world.
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