Here in Mexico, images of Frida Kahlo are everywhere. She peers from the shelves and walls of tourist shops where her image is emblazoned on handbags, t-shirts, masks, and children’s toys. In the homes of friends, Frida is on tissue boxes and table cloths, refrigerator magnets and matchboxes. So ubiquitous are images of her face that I occasionally feel as if she is watching me.
On a recent trip to Mexico City, I visited the Frida Kahlo museum at Casa Azul, the home Kahlo kept with Diego Rivera, the great man of Mexican modern art.
Seeing the two artists’ works together caused me to wonder at the iconic status of Kahlo as compared to Rivera. Diego Rivera’s works are everywhere in Mexico and on everything grand, from monumental public buildings to landmark department stores. From the perspective of art for a-h-h-rt’s sake, Rivera was a far greater, far more “important” painter. Frida’s works are mainly on display as riffs and reproductions on posters, bead curtains, and postcards.
But, the very fact of the ubiquity of Kahlo’s pictures speaks to their importance as cultural artifacts. They are talismans of identity and pride – displayed not just as decoration, but as symbols of their owners’ sense of themselves as women or as bohemian and feminist, as survivors and as Mexicans, with all that implies given Kahlo’s own multi-ethnic background and contested sense of self and cultural identity.
In spite of the brilliance and technical expertise of Rivera, the smaller, much more personal works of Frida Kahlo, rendered with such seeming naivete, are by far the more popular, the more beloved. And, if the popularity of Kahlo in the election for the great icon of Mexico held during the recent bicentennial celebration (where I believe she may have come in third behind Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata) is any indication, Frida Kahlo’s influence extends far beyond the arts.
Diego Rivera was once the dominant artist of Mexico, his success a source of national pride. He was the undisputed king of the arts and a symbol of modern, industrial Latin America. But Frida has surpassed him, I believe, exactly because her art is not so grand, not about the macro, the modern, the bold statements about the brilliance of the age of industry and the greatness of the industrial working class.
Modernism has betrayed us. Scientism is destroying us. And the great age of industry has proven to hold little or nothing to lift the human spirit above the great, heaping piles of profit made of our exploited humanity.
Frida is an artist of the post-modern world. She painted about the parts of us that the homogenizing force of modernism and industry attempted to deny. She illustrated the belittled world of feelings – the struggle to see ourselves as whole, beautiful, precious, especially because of our differences and imperfections. She painted the world as herself – in fragments. In the course of doing so, she turned herself, uni-brow, mustache and all, into an icon of beauty, cultural pride, and the unsinkable, inextinguishable, undefinable stuff of which we are made.
Her oeuvre is the chutzpah of the bullied child as she rises to her feet and shakes the dust from her skirts; it is the steel that holds the transgendered woman’s head high as she enters a strange room; and in amongst the bold statements about the indomitability of the self, there is the longing for communion that causes us to struggle against the tears and dropped threads in the fabric of human experience. If Diego was the “what” of great social movements, Kahlo is the “why,” the hope.