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Arts/Lit
 Aug 24 - 30, 2017 
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Culture Shock

Frida Kahlo Through the Lens

Her “battlefield of suffering” illumined in 241 photos from her private collection

By Maggie Grimason

Frida Kahlo and Juan Farill, 1951
by Gisel̀e Freund courtesy of Frida Kahlo Museum
Frida Kahlo with the doctor Juan Farill, 1951
Tucked beyond the galleries, corridors and the vast stage of Popejoy Hall are the offices of the staff of the UNM Museum of Art. There, in Director Arif Khan's office, we sat with Curator of Education and Public Programs Traci Quinn, who opened the book Frida Kahlo: Her Photos to page 21. The catalog accompanies the exhibition of the same name opening soon at the museum. Khan and Quinn had the page number memorized after many months of preparation and critical talk about the significance of Frida Kahlo the persona, Frida Kahlo the artist and what these photographs say about each. On page 21, Curator of the exhibition Pablo Ortiz Monasterio writes about Kahlo's relationship with the camera: “She … learnt to look into the lens to put across what she wanted and managed to reinvent her own image through photography. I like to think that the stack of photographic portraits in which Frida's life is recorded constitutes another one of her masterpieces. The painter once wrote about her strategy in front of the camera. 'I knew that the battlefield of suffering was reflected in my eyes. Ever since then, I started looking straight into the lens, without winking, without smiling, determined to prove I would be a good warrior until the end.'”

We wouldn't have Kahlo's art without her anguish. To enjoy her work is to peek into another's darkness and, in turn, to acknowledge our own. For many, this makes us feel intimate with her without knowing her at all, despite distances of time and geography. For some, this feeling of connection drives them to her biography—a life story as colorful and widely consumed, perhaps even more so, than her singular, equally colorful art. “Many people know who she is more based on her life than on an individual piece of art,” Khan said, “For them, it is about this larger-than-life person and all the adversity she went through in her life—whether it was physical trauma, relationships, political leanings … A lot of people see her as inspirational.” And that status as a figure of inspiration and heartrending transcendence is often reliant on the way she presented and preserved herself as Frida Kahlo in portraiture.

Countering that narrative of suffering, Hilda Trujillo, the director of the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City wrote via email, “I hope this exhibition will produce an enrichment of [the] perception of Frida Kahlo … no longer [with] the stigma of the suffering woman, but as a strong woman.” And one whose charm, intelligence and joy in life attracted important figures of the time to The Blue House. “We cannot understand the current recognition that Frida Kahlo has internationally without knowing who her friends were and how [she] developed her life and work in post-revolutionary Mexico, a period that gave rise to a new Mexican identity and together with this, new notions regarding politics, art and culture.” Leon Trotsky, Henry Cartier-Bresson and André Breton were some intellectuals who spent time at Casa Azul, as did numerous photographers who captured Kahlo's image, like Florence Arquin, Gisèle Freund, Nickolas Muray and Lola Álvarez Bravo. Taken as a whole, these photos “create visual narratives of moments in the life of the artist and those who participated in her personal, intellectual and artistic universe,” according to Trujillo. This serves to create a record of a vital point in world history, as well as Kahlo's personal trajectory and role in it.

Frida Kahlo, 1944
by Lola Alvarez Bravo courtesy of Frida Kahlo Museum
Frida Kahlo, ca. 1944
Reflecting on Kahlo's distinct positioning, Khan observed that “the exhibit really shows her ability to construct her own image … a lot of people understand that—especially with Instagram and all—they know that a photograph is never just a neutral thing.” What Khan touched on seems very true—most of us are very studied in how to present ourselves in photography. When we talk about this in the context of Frida Kahlo, whose image has been massively commodified, we have to consider something else entirely. Khan mused, “Is this positive for her reputation as an artist or not? Is it helpful, knowing so much about someone? Does that help you appreciate the art more? Or does it make you fail to analyze her as a painter, her skill and ability as a fine artist?”

Her face is everywhere—earrings, pajamas, totes, t-shirts, umbrellas, water bottles. “If we hung a picture of her face, not even her name, in front of the museum, people would come, she's that recognizable,” Quinn posited. That ubiquity gives Kahlo admirers pause—can the sheer force of capitalism and consumption neutralize her, this fierce Marxist, feminist, queer, Mexican artist? “She was a communist, so it is really interesting to wonder—how would she feel?” Quinn continued. “People are selling her face and making money off of it. That's a really interesting tension that we would love for people to explore. We're not providing answers, but what can we bring to the conversation when people come through the door?” Exploring some of Kahlo’s convictions and the dimensions of her personality through the exhibition will likely illuminate parts of her character for visitors who were previously unaware of what she stood for—which is much more than a cool accessory.

“I think it is valuable … to think about: What is fame? What is notoriety? What is success? … Her constructed image—how can that be interpreted, and how was it in or out of her control?” Khan asked. What Khan and Quinn hope this traveling exhibition achieves is to further critical conversations that shine light on the complexity of the artist. “These photographs,” Khan said, gesturing to the comprehensive catalog, of which, the formal exhibition only features about 200 photos from, “this is what Frida and Diego kept, so you get a sense of them and what they valued.” Trujillo had emphasized that point as well, writing in her email, “These are images of the artist's real moments.” Perhaps that is what makes them resonate so, lending them vitality. Trujillo noted that “Frida related to these photographs as if they were alive,” altering them, tearing or folding them, leaving a smudged lipstick kiss on a print of Rivera. In a very tangible way,“they are testimonies of Frida Kahlo's life,” Trujillo summarized.

Frida Kahlo, 1946
by Nickolas Muray courtesy of Frida Kahlo Museum
Frida stomach down, 1946

In her work, Kahlo was able to continually realize and remake the power of pain—giving language to those who feel it, too. In her life, she stands as a figure of immutable strength—and on her face, that “battlefield of suffering” is reflected back to the viewer her conviction and force of character—that, too, must be a testimony of her life.

Frida Kahlo: Her Photographs opens on Friday, Aug. 25, at the UNM Museum of Art with a reception from 4-7pm. Food inspired by Kahlo, or drawn directly from her cookbooks, will be served by My Sweet Basil and music by DJ Halcyon will fill the galleries. The show runs until Dec. 2, and in the meantime the museum will host a number of events, including guided tours every Saturday and a talk by the exhibition's curator, Pablo Ortiz Monasterio. Stay attuned to the upcoming events by visiting unmartmuseum.org.

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