Frida Kahlo is as immortal a name as Homer. In spite of having lived through a decisive period in the history of the world, her personal image and her catalog as an artist are as timeless as Odysseus.
Thanks to popular culture, Frida Kahlo, who lived from 1907 to 1954, is described with labels such as “inspirational,” “revolutionary,” and even “communist.” Among the press, art historiography, and even film, some perceive the Mexican artist as queer, non-normative, and indigenous.
But how much of this is true?
Beyond the feminist component of Kahlo’s work, we often overlook the context in which she constructed her identity.
While Frida’s work centered around her body image, suffering, and the metaphysical process of transforming reality, her 150 works went beyond her peace with physical pain — some even suggest that her fascination with Mexican folk art with indigenous roots was far from genuine.
Frida was the third child of photographer Guillermo Kahlo, a German immigrant who became a naturalized Mexican citizen, and Matilde Calderón, a mixed-race woman. According to authors Gaby Franger and Rainer Huhle, Frida’s grandparents came from Pforzheim, a small town in the state of Baden-Württemberg, and both her grandparents and the rest of her ancestors belonged to the local bourgeoisie and were of the Lutheran religion.
Once Guillermo emigrated to Mexico and was widowed after the death of his first wife, he married Matilde Calderón, Frida’s mother, with whom he lived in the town of Coyoacán, in the geographic center of Mexico City, in the now-iconic Casa Azul at 247 Londres Street.
The myth of the image
For Frida, the surrealism of her paintings after polio and the accident that left her bedridden was a cathartic vehicle for coping with pain and physical deformation. In fact, her last years were marked by multiple suicide attempts after the amputation of a leg due to gangrene.
However, the indigenous imaginary that populates her works was not part of the frame of references close to her upbringing. For many, it is a cultural appropriation — and perhaps Frida was aware of it.
In the 1939 painting made in the wake of Kahlo’s divorce from muralist Diego Rivera, entitled “Las Dos Fridas,” the artist paints herself as two women, one wearing a high-necked Victorian dress like the one her mother Matilde wore to marry Guillermo, and the other wearing a wide skirt and huipil, the traditional tunic of the Zapotec indigenous women of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Oaxaca.
As Australian writer and art critic Neha Kale explains, Kahlo did not share the lived experience of the Tehuana, the indigenous women whose dresses the artist made central to her paintings and whom she chose for their associations with a matriarchal society.
While for Kahlo it was an act of political solidarity, the recontextualization of that gesture puts her “dangerously close to cultural appropriation,” Kale wrote.
“[Frida] made liberal use of her favored status, adorning herself in clothing from Indigenous cultures that exist in the present, like the Zapotecs and the Juchitán, people actively oppressed by both white and nonwhite Latinxs who collaborate with colonization, be it willingly or unwittingly,” writes the Mexican writer, JP Brammer in a March 2018 IntoMore article.
“Frida Kahlo [bridges] these different levels of Mexican culture, [bringing together] the fine arts, the culture of a European background with her love of Mexican culture or rural culture,” says the Latin-American curator Victor Zamudio-Taylor in a 2005 PBS interview. “I think it’s from the heart, but she knows that she has this gift as well as the privilege to make this choice. Other women did not.”
The construction of ‘indigenismo’
The decades of Frida Kahlo’s life coincided with one of the most influential ideologies of 20th century Mexican cultural consciousness: indigenismo, or “the browning of the nation,” as historian May Kay Vaughan summed it up.
Indigenismo was a current of opinion rooted in colonialism. By the 19th century, it had already taken the form of a state policy aimed at eradicating the indigenous and the “whitening” of the country. However, with the onset of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, this white power stance towards the indigenous was twisted into a revolution of mestizos, ranchers, and Mexican landowners.
Although many invoke the Mexican Revolution as a source of inspiration for the third stage of indigenismo, what it really did was to idealize the indigenous past from a white perspective and stoke the fires of pro-economic modernization nationalism.
The result in the popular imagination was the “co-optation and simplification of indigenous cultures to make them palatable to a mestizo hegemony.”
And Frida Kahlo seems to be a perfect example of the ideological phenomenon of her time.
While Kahlo frequently wore traditional tehuana dresses from the isthmus of Tehuantepec, Kahlo had tenuous connections to the region, once stating in an interview for Virutas de embalaje: “I have never been to Tehuantepec, […] nor do I have any connection to the people, but of all the Mexican dresses this is the one I like the most, and that is why I wear it”.
Towards a collectivized individuality
Although the authority with which we live in the present tempts us to judge the past in an anachronistic way, it is important to consider the dichotomy of “socialism and faith” that emerged from the Revolutionary ideals with which Frida Kahlo grew up.
According to German researcher Cornelia Sieber, Frida Kahlo’s paintings can be interpreted as “supplements to the Mexican cultural debate,” which, during the 1920s, followed the guiding ideas of collectivity as a concept opposed to individualism.
Frida’s late fascination with the work of Diego, an artist whose works had collective dimensions and were contextualized in approaches such as José Vasconcelos’ idea of a “cosmic race,” is not surprising.
Although Frida preferred the easel and the self-portrait, from the 1930s onwards, her self-representation coincided with the “self-staging” that Mexico was experiencing.
“In this way, Kahlo insists as painter and model on the self-referentiality and individuality of the artist,” Sieber explains. “Her portraits — while quoting the popular style — do not reveal an educational message, do not tell a story of progress, and do not extol the struggle of the people, even though Kahlo, politically, sympathizes with these aims of the muralists.”
The symbolism of the icon through the years
No, Frida Kahlo did not paint in the form of a revolutionary manifesto. Frida Kahlo painted the pain of a woman with a broken body but an unbreakable spirit.
For Araceli Rico, Kahlo is “the sick creator (who) experiences the drama of her existence in the rejection of others, striving to maintain a favorable situation for the realization of her creative work.” Frida herself assured that her painting “carries the message of pain.”
“It’s not revolutionary. Why do I keep deluding myself that it’s combative; I can’t,” Frida assured.
However, her exploration of identity, her perennial duality, and her recurring themes such as life, death, pain, love, fertility, and femininity transformed the myth of her character into an icon.
Beyond the mustache and eyebrows, a symbol of her constant flirtation with androgynous sexuality, Kahlo was one of the first artists to reject the male vision in art and represent the female experience from her own skin.
Despite the recognition of her work, Kahlo always remained in the role of “Diego’s woman” until she became a feminist heroine in the 1980s.
When her biographer Hayden Herrera published the first biography of Frida in 1983, emerging artists at the time, such as Madonna, were inspired by the Mexican artist’s “avant-gardism” and catapulted her into the world of mass merchandise.
Today, Frida’s image is on all kinds of products; her story is known in broad strokes by the new generations and, in the same way that she decided to wear indigenous dresses without having any relation to its communities, today Frida Kahlo is a timeless and incongruous symbol, another victim of mass culture and ideology.