Legend has it that at the cremation of Frida Kahlo, the corpse sat suddenly bolt upright as it was carried into the flames. Its hair caught alight to create a blazing wreath around the head. And whether this bizarre but triumphant image is true or apocryphal doesn’t seem to matter. What it more importantly reflects is a vivid sense of a life that, like some fantastical modern take on the Christian story of resurrection, would flare up and find its most gloriously imaginative version in a posthumous world.
Kahlo, born in 1907, the daughter of a German immigrant father and a mestiza mother and brought up in Coyoacán (a municipality now engulfed by the sprawl of Mexico City), found fame fairly late in her lifetime. Compared to the murals of her then far more celebrated husband, Diego Rivera, her small but eccentric pictures went largely unrecognized. However, in the wake of her death, aged 47 in 1954, her reputation soared. She has become, arguably, the most instantly recognizable female artist of all time.
André Breton, who at one point was keen to recruit her to his surrealist cause (she was not persuaded), described her as “a ribbon around a bomb”. But he could hardly have foretold how dramatically she would one day explode into public consciousness.
The Coyoacán home where she would remain all her life — La Casa Azul — counts among her nation’s most popular museums. Her face has adorned banknotes and postage stamps; jigsaw puzzles and satchels; teacups, macrame hangings, cushions and socks. Her life has inspired dozens of biographies and novels (not least the best-selling The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver), as well as several movies (including Hollywood’s 2002 Academy award-winning Frida, in which she was played by Salma Hayek), operas, ballets and plays.
Madonna and Beyoncé have dressed up as her. Fashion designers have riffed on her style. Her recipes have been published. She has her own look-alike Barbie. You can even buy Kahlo-inspired clothes for your pet dachshund. (The dachshund was, apparently, her husband’s favorite dog — although her preferred canine, the Mexican xoloitzcuintli, being hairless, would probably benefit rather more from the costume.)
“I am my own muse, I am the subject I know best,” Kahlo famously pronounced. The woman with the world-famous monobrow who, dressed in traditional Tehuana costumes, bedecked with bright jewelry and with raven hair twisted with ribbons or crowned with tropical flowers, stares out unsmiling from dozens of self-portraits, turned herself, through the paintings in which she portrayed her sufferings, into an art historical icon.
Her Own Muse
This fall Taschen publishes Frida Kahlo:The Complete Paintings. This is a hefty monograph in which all her authenticated pictures — some from private collections, others previously lost or never posthumously exhibited — are printed in large-scale (sometimes double-page) color plates. Frequently they are accompanied by photographs, sketches or the art historical images that inform them. Occasionally, when the iconography is complex, there is a diagrammatic key.
Readers, with the help of accompanying essays and detailed descriptions, are invited to follow, picture by picture, not just Kahlo’s biography, but also the trajectory of her artistic career. Reproductions of letters and pages of her personal diary reveal the world as she saw it through the lens of her pain and her passions.
This is a landmark publication. You can’t pop into your nearest museum and find a Kahlo painting. In the mid-1980s Mexico pronounced her works to be part of its national cultural heritage. Their export was banned.
Madonna and Beyoncé have dressed up as her. She has her own look-alike Barbie. You can even buy Kahlo-inspired clothes for your pet dachshund.
Even if you were as rich as her most famous collector, Madonna — which prima donna would not admire Kahlo’s superlative image manipulation? — it is unlikely that you could secure one. It is only extremely rarely that they come to the market. And even if, over the last 15 years, there have been a few big Kahlo shows outside of Mexico, all have proved so popular that it was hard to look properly amid the bustle of blockbuster crowds.
Kahlo fans must find an alternative. One came this year when Google Arts & Culture partnered with 33 international museums to create Faces of Frida, an interactive online show. Featuring more than 800 images and including a magnifying tool to zoom in on detail, it embraces not just Kahlo’s paintings but also photographs, journals, letters, pieces of clothing and virtual tours around places in which she lived and worked.
The Taschen book is not quite as comprehensive, but it will suit the technological Luddite far better. And given that Kahlo’s images are, technically speaking, not particularly striking — she tended to start in the top left-hand corner and then cover the surface, patch by methodical patch, in a color-by-numbers style — there is not a great deal to be gained from the actual picture than can’t be found in a picture book of this caliber.
Here, in a single massive volume that sets out (in the words of its editor, Luis-Martín Lozano) “to reaffirm the importance of documenting, studying and analysing every one of the paintings”, is your very own Frida Kahlo museum in a full-color monograph.
She is the only artist who gave birth to herself, a friend of hers once declared. Between 1926, when she painted her first self-portrait, and her death she produced almost 150 paintings of herself. She once compared them to a calendar: a visual journal recording the progress of a painter who turned herself into the heroine of her own story.
This tale is well known. As a tomboyish teenager, Kahlo was trapped in a horrific trolley car collision. Her spinal column was smashed; her ribs, collarbone and pelvis were broken; her right leg was shattered; her foot was dislocated and crushed. “And a steel handrail,” writes Hayden Herrera, her most vivid biographer, “literally skewered her body at the level of the abdomen; entering on the left side, it came out through the vagina.” “I lost my virginity in that accident,” Kahlo subsequently quipped.
Her body was pieced back together like some papier-mâché model by doctors. She reassembled her character in a similar way. She created an image to protect her like a carapace — like one of the plaster corsets that would be set round her torso and that, while immobile for months, she would decorate. It is this elaborate character that the paintings reveal.
In My Nurse and I, for instance, an indigenous wet nurse, her face covered by a pre-Columbian mask, becomes a mythic embodiment of Kahlo’s Mexican heritage. My Birth offers an unflinching gynecologist’s-eye view of Kahlo’s arrival as she slops, half-strangulated, onto a blood-soaked sheet.
The Broken Column presents a harrowing depiction of her shattered body; Self-Portrait with the Portrait of Doctor Farill is a tribute to the medic who reconstructed her life. Henry Ford Hospital describes the lonely agonies of a miscarriage and The Little Deer, “one of the most disturbing images to have emerged from Kahlo’s imagination”, the accompanying essay informs us, draws on the cervine imagery common in Mexican folklore to connect the suffering of the human being and the hunted animal.
In The Love Embrace of the Universe … (1949) a healing planet cradles Kahlo in her arms as she in turn lovingly rocks the baby-husband whom she first met when she was 18 and he more than twice her age. But in Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, Christ’s crown of thorns becomes a necklace, the spikes gouging her flesh, as she captures the agonies she suffered when the portly, philandering Rivera (a tryst with whom, Herrera writes, was to many a young American “as much of a must as a trip to the pyramids of Teotihuacán”) finally abandoned her. In Mexican folk tradition hummingbirds were charms to bring luck in love. The pet monkey on her shoulder — a symbol of the Devil— had been a gift from the husband who was now divorcing her.
Depicting herself, over and over, weeping, pierced, broken, bleeding, Kahlo transformed her image into an icon of the sort that the peasant culture of her Roman Catholic nation would have well understood. It also speaks to our contemporary society. Kahlo, unique, rebellious and contradictory, has become a cult figure with an all but fanatical following. Those drawn to victims and masochists were perhaps the first to be lured. But her determinedly nonconformist vision is, in reality, far bolder.
Kahlo has been taken as a brave role model by those with disabilities. As the world’s most famous Latina, she has become a standard bearer in the fight against racial discrimination. She was adopted as a figurehead by the burgeoning 1970s feminist movement. Her name was invoked by the #MeToo movement (you could even apply a Snapchat Frida Kahlo filter to your own face). And her modern attitudes to sexuality, coupled with a frank readiness to explore them, have solidified her status in today’s LGBTQ world.
Yet who was the real Kahlo? Among the many vivid accounts of her funeral is one by a friend who declared that, as her catafalque approached the crematorium, “everyone was hanging on to her hands. They threw themselves on top of her, yanked at her fingers to take off her rings, because they wanted to have something that belonged to her.” Kahlo’s reputation has remained, ever since, up for grabs. Yet when her body was drawn out of the fire, it was reported, the ashes retained the silvery shape of her skeleton for just a few moments, before being dispersed and borne away on the air.
We cannot get a grasp on the true Frida Kahlo. But with this new Taschen book we can try by going back to the beginning, to those mysterious paintings that, beneath the mad froth of subsequent Frida-mania, made her so popular in the first place.
Frida Kahlo: The Complete Paintings, by Luis-Martín Lozano, Andrea Kettenmann, and Marina Vázquez Ramos will be published on September 6 by Taschen
Rachel Campbell-Johnston is the author of Mysterious Wisdom: The Life and Work of Samuel Palmer and the novel The Child’s Elephant