By Alex Distefano
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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 springhence 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."
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 dolla 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 Fridathat'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 yearsmost 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."
Braverman says she chose Kahlo as a protagonist because "she was a painter, a morphine addict, the first woman psychoanalyzed in Mexicoshe's a prototype of female modernity. The trick was to invent a voice for the inner Frida, and to find a literary style as poetic and dangerous and prophetic as the paintings are. I felt I was an anthropologist discovering the subterranean Frida."
The most controversial element of The Incantation of Frida K. may be its portrayal of Diego Rivera as an almost monstrous figure with "the heart of a butcher." But Braverman insists that her Frida and Diego are not at warthey are entangled in a symbiotic relationship. "He cajoles her and he keeps her alive," she says. "At one point in the book he tells her, 'I give your agony focus.' "
Like Sylvia Plath, that other goddess of the angsty teen-girl set, Frida is sometimes lamented as a female genius overshadowed by her repressive, adulterous husband. But Taymor sees her movie as a love story, and has no sympathy for Diego detractors. "If people criticize the movie by saying our Diego is too niceI would fight with that, because if you admire Frida, you could never present her as a woman who would just be abused. He was a giant, ugly man, so obviously there had to be a lot in Diego for her to want to be with him all those years," she says heatedly.
"Frida took on a marriage knowing that this man's capability for fidelity was pretty slim," Taymor continues. "But the way she resolved her frustration was phenomenal. This woman didn't sit in the corner and mope; she took on her own sex life. What I find so fabulous and disturbing is that they never stopped loving each other through all that. . . . At the end when she was at her worst, her health was failing and she was alcoholic and addicted to drugs because of the painhe came back to her."
Taymor, known for her avant-garde puppetry and for directing the stage version of The Lion King and the movie Titus, seems like the perfect filmmaker to bring Frida to the screen. The two artists share a visual sensibility that combines fantastical and folkloric imagery with tactile realism. "I was very attracted to the notion of how to realize her paintings in a surreal way," Taymor says. She brought in lyrical-goth animators the Brothers Quay to reenact Frida's post-accident hallucinationsa scene that some believe is at the heart of a dispute between Taymor and Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein.
"The movie will be amazing if Harvey Weinstein keeps his hands off of it," says Herrera, whose biography was the basis of the screenplay. "If you're hiring a genius like Taymor, you can't then say, I want to cut these 10 seconds or whatever it is. And she's as fierce as he is. She is the most focused person I've ever worked with." Currently in Brazil recording the film's soundtrack, Taymor won't comment on the rumors except to say, "We got tremendous scores in the previews. And we found males and females like the movie almost equallycan you believe it? Because it's not just her art, it's about her life."
Everyone has their own take on Kahlo's magnetic appeal. Braverman says that her Frida "is a thrill seeker, a delinquent, a revolutionary. . . . She spent so much of her life in solitary confinement in hospitals that I think Frida lived posthumously. In my book she is fueled by the myth she's creating."
According to Taymor, "She made herself an icon. She took her imperfections and made them the ultimate. She made her eyebrows and her mustache much more prominent than they were in real life; she emphasized what we would consider the ugly parts and made them beautiful. I think that appeals to many people because it tells them you can make something extraordinary out of ugliness."
Once the film hits the screen this fall, moviegoers will likely begin nursing their own personal Frida fantasies. "Frida Kahlo would have loved all this attention," Herrera says with a chuckle, "because she painted self-portraits partly to get people to acknowledge her." And she probably would have been thrilled to see petite Mexican starlet Salma Hayek decked out in frilly skirts and chunky jewelry, her face garnished with unibrow and mustache. Says Herrera, "There's one scene in my book where she's walking down the street with one of her doctors and they pass a pretty woman. Frida says, 'I'll smoke that one myself.' That's probably what she would have said about Salma."