Frida Icon

The Return of the Kahlo Cult

Every era chooses its own heroes, and Frida Kahlo was the perfect feminist heroine for the '80s. Hayden Herrera's Frida, the first biography of the then obscure Mexican artist, was published in 1983, just as Madonna and Cindy Sherman were parlaying experiments with female self-representation into a mainstream spectacle. At the same moment, interest in Latin American magic realism was booming, and Kahlo's audacious, fantastical self-portraits placed her at the intersection of these otherwise unrelated trends. Kahlo, who died in 1954, was a crippled, bisexual Communist who painted visceral images of miscarriage and menstruation and was overshadowed by her more famous husband, Diego Rivera. Yet in the last 20 years, she's joined the rarefied ranks of artists like Picasso, whose work is as ubiquitous as wallpaper. More than just a poster girl for artsy adolescents or a Latina role model, Kahlo is now a coffee mug, a key chain, and a postage stamp.

Suddenly a fierce new wave of Fridamania is upon us that is conjuring up a new Kahlo, customized to suit 21st-century desires. This spring brings the publication of Kate Braverman's The Incantation of Frida K., a provocative novel based on her life, and the opening of "Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and 20th Century Art," an exhibition at El Museo del Barrio featuring 10 of her paintings. There's also the inescapable buzz surrounding Frida, the forthcoming Miramax film starring Salma Hayek and directed by Julie Taymor.

The race to make a movie of Kahlo's life has been frantic, with Frida admirers like Hayek, Madonna, and Jennifer Lopez all hatching rival projects. (Both Lopez's version, to have been produced by Francis Ford Coppola, and Madonna's, which reportedly would have starred Marlon Brando as Rivera, are out of commission for the moment.) Miramax's Frida has been postponed until October amid gossip about wrangles between the director and Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein, but it was originally slated for release this spring—hence the media blitz that included a photo spread in Vogue and an odd Times piece on entertaining: "Kahlo often decorated her table with flowers that spelled out special greetings. Of course, in Kahlo's case, one might say 'Viva Trotsky,' as one of her floral arrangements did in 1937 when her favorite Communist visited."

Defiance and self-possession: Diego on My Mind (1943)
image: Frida Kahlo
Defiance and self-possession: Diego on My Mind (1943)

Kahlo's story lends itself to mass marketing because she consciously forged her own "brand," painting herself over and over with that trademark unibrow and the traditional Tehuana costumes she wore to reclaim her indigenous heritage. Her life was also crammed with movie-ready melodrama and tragedy. There's the trolley accident that shattered her teenage spine and sent a handrail through her pelvis, leaving her unable to bear children; the tempestuous marriage to Rivera, a world-famous artist and compulsive adulterer; her own numerous affairs, most notoriously with Leon Trotsky. Frida translated this raw material into paintings that pulse with voluptuous agony and eccentricity.

None of Kahlo's bloodier work is on display at the current Museo del Barrio show. But if you stand in the center of the gallery surrounded by all those Fridas, you can't help but feel singed by her look of defiance and self-possession. Diego on My Mind (1943) is a beautiful but chilling image of Frida shrouded in a shawl with a lattice of tiny threads radiating out from her face like roots grasping for water; embedded in her forehead is a tiny image of Diego. And Self-Portrait With Bed (1937) has Frida sitting on a bench alongside a creepy, pot-bellied baby doll—a stand-in for both Diego and the child they could never have. Although her canvases often reference Rivera, they also exude a stony solitude. "Loneliness is the key to her subject matter," biographer Herrera points out. "A feeling of abandonment and separation and disconnectedness runs all the way through her work."

Frida was once celebrated as the queen of pain. But now that female misery is unfashionable (kicked out the door with so-called "victim feminism"), the current resurrection of Frida Kahlo seems like a reaction against the blandness of post-feminism. Female icons like Madonna and Courtney Love have ditched transgression for yoga, replaced by numb nymphets like Spears and Aguilera or proficient starlets like Witherspoon and Diaz. And so Frida has been called back into service to incite some rebelliousness.

Julie Taymor, Frida's director, thinks Kahlo's reputation needs an update. "People always think of her as the tortured artist, like Saint Sebastian with the arrows going through him," she says. "I think what turns us all on is the humor and foul mouth and free sexuality of Frida—that's what makes her interesting to do as a film."

"Frida begs to be liberated from the confines of biography," writer Kate Braverman explains. In The Incantation of Frida K. (Seven Stories Press), a hallucinatory novel loosely based on the artist's life, Braverman does just that. The author of several previous experimental novels including Lithium for Medea, she acknowledges that her Frida is the ultimate unreliable narrator. Doped up on morphine and nearing death, the artist appears bitter but transcendent.

Several writers have fictionalized Frida's life over the years—most recently Barbara Mujica, whose novel Frida (published in paperback this spring by Overlook Press) is narrated from the perspective of sister Cristina Kahlo, who had her own affair with Diego Rivera. Mujica plays the facts pretty straight, whereas Braverman's harrowing book takes such imaginative liberties that it's likely to piss off some of Diego and Frida's faithful fans. Incantation embellishes Frida's story with kleptomania, opium-den hopping, seedy sex with sailors, and lots of lesbian love affairs. After numerous miscarriages, she resolves her sorrow by carrying an imaginary daughter around in a ring box: "I let her crawl around the grooves in my palms, slide along my life and health lines. I put her in an ashtray so she could watch me work."

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