Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Trouble With Frida Kahlo?

I was just reminiscing with W.P. about a Frida Kahlo exhibition we both had the good fortune to attend when we visited London in 2005. The exhibition, at the Tate Modern, was, at that time, the largest ever of Kahlo's work outside of Mexico. We're both big fans of her work and W.P. is further drawn to her work because he was a student at U.N.A.M. many years ago, before Kahlo's iconoclastic fame.

It was tremendous for me to see so many of Frida Kahlo's paintings. I have several files of Khalos already saved but I went a step further and did a search for articles and art criticism of her work. That is where I went wrong. My enthusiasm turned to irritation and I was reminded of just exactly why, as an art lover, I detest art criticism. Almost invariably, I'm confronted with the over-intellectualization, pretentiousness and, more insidous, the sexism of the art world.

It is true that I love art. It is also true that I am not an expert on art. In fact, I never took an art history or art appreciation course in my life. Perhaps that is a good thing. I thought this article was a particularly good analysis of how the art world views and markets women artists.

The Trouble With Frida Kahlo: Uncomfortable truths about this season's hottest female artist. by Stephanie Mencimer

Feminists might celebrate Kahlo's ascent to greatness--if only her fame were related to her art. Instead, her fans are largely drawn by the story of her life, for which her paintings are often presented as simple illustration.

I must be an exception, since what I was originally drawn to was the art and not necessarily the woman. Clearly she depicted her own physical and emotional pain through her paintings. And who was that fat man she painted herself next to? I had no idea what the source of that pain was until many years later, which added to my understanding of her work but did not replace my interest in it.

Some feminist art historians have struggled against such reworkings of women artists, but Kahlo's pop-culture mania revives it with a vengeance. Kahlo certainly facilitated this process by painting herself as the quietly suffering female. In every possible sense, the mass-culture Kahlo embodies that now-poisonous term: victimhood. She was the victim of patriarchal culture, victim of an unfaithful husband, and simply the victim of a horrific accident. But that's probably one reason why she's so popular. "People like to see women as victims," says Mary Garrard, a professor of art history at American University.

Why is it that when women write or paint their personal experiences in a society that so often exploits, belittles and patronizes them, they must endure also the label of "victim" from critics? Isn't that like adding insult to injury?

Walk through the NMWA's exhibit, and you'll see that even Kahlo's still- life paintings are treated as a reflection of her personal life. The "open fruit," we're told, depict her aggressive sexuality and obsession with fertility, as do the monkeys in her self-portraits, even though she had them as pets. (Apparently her pet dog, which she also painted, carries no such connotations.)

Ugh. This really annoys me. I just want to be left alone to admire the open fruit, as open fruit. I want to bask in the color, the line, the arrangement. If "aggressive sexuality" enters my mind, then let it be my idea and not some museum curator's, quite likely a man. Similar things have been said about Georgia O'Keefe's large flower paintings, which she denounced as having little to do with her work.

If [Kahlo's] paintings were looked at closely, she would become a dangerous woman," says Lindauer, explaining that Kahlo's paintings actually challenge lots of feminine ideals. If they really took a good look at her art, she adds, "People would be less comfortable buying her fridge magnets.

Amen and thank god for dangerous women.


  1. Frida had a serious unibrow, didn't she? and the beginnings of a mustache....LOL

    I agree with you about the psychology of the paintings. If it is open fruit - I just enjoy that and don't try to ascribe meanings to it.

  2. We just had her exhibit here and although I couldn't make it, I am somewhat familar with her history. Have read her background and I wonder why so much importance is placed on her lifestyle. We traveled to Mexico several times and her artwork is displayed every where. She is truly talented.

  3. I go out of my way to find female artists because they don't receive the attention they deserve. For me, the feminist analysis is just naturally there first. However, once I decide to look at the woman's work that doesn't mean I am going to love it based on gender alone. I don't like all women artists I see. But I seriously love Frida's work. She was such a strong personality, yes but she was also a damn good artist. She explored her pain, which could imply victimhood, but I really think she explored herself and pain was just a part of her life so...

    I think Frida is dangerous because she bends gender roles as well. As a feminist, I admire her willingness to be herself regardless of whether it would be popular or pretty. She showed all the sides of her being which is really courageous I think. And her life story being part of the work is no different than any other artist. But art critics, now that is another story! It's sort of like how children who love to learn start to hate learning when they go to school, yes?

  4. To borrow a phrase, "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."

    I'd like to see a critic ascribe motivation to my artwork, hah.

    Maybe I just like the pretty colors! :)

  5. "Amen and thank god for dangerous women."

    Oh yes PS, oh yes indeed!!

  6. juanuchis, where are you hiding your art? I scanned your blog and found nothing. :-(

  7. I enjoy Kahlo's work because of its unvarnished exhibition of the artist herself. What a great set of works to show.

  8. I like to look at artwork at face value - colors, content, textures, artistic flow. When I look at a painting, I enjoy it because it pleases the eye or touches something within me. The interpretation is mine though and not necessarily that of the artist, or a reflection of the artist, for that matter. That's the beauty of artistic creations - it speaks to everybody just a little differently. Critics try to categorize it all in one little box, but artistry flows and goes wherever it wants.

  9. Kenju: Hi, there. I believe Khalo exagerated the facial hair. I'll have to watch the movie Frida (not my favorite artist bio) again to see if Selma Hayak, the actress who played Frida, had fake facial hair or stopped plucking or whatever, for the role.

    Minne: Hey. I agree. I mean, I honestly never felt that lifestyle was the focus of appreciating any art form. Woody Allen is a great director; his personal life is really none of my business. Picasso had a reputation for being a jerk to women. Joni Mitchell had asault and battery charges filed on her for kicking her maid in the shin. Get my drift?

    liberality: what a well-thought out post. I really appreciated it and read it a few times to let it sink in. So, so glad you read this post.

    Fran: Hiiiiiiiiiieeeee! I always love it when you breeze by! :-) I loved the Anne Lamott clip at FranIAm.

    Dcup! You've been a busy woman, I know from reading Politits. Thinking of you in D.C. (are you still there?)

    Sandpiper: So beautifully put! I so enjoy your comments here. I'm only just discovering your other photo blogs - the butterflies and flowers. Wow. You're a spectacular photographer.

  10. liberality: I mean 'well-thought out COMMENT, sorry.


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