Cult Offering: Frida Kahlo at SF MOMA

By LIZ HAGER

Frida Kahlo, Moses, 1945,
oil on board, 61×75.6cm
(© Diego Rivera & Frida Kalho Museums Trust).

A friend asked me this morning whether she should go to the Frida Kahlo show at SFMOMA.  At first, I was sorely tempted to advise her—DON’T BOTHER. Even with tickets, the very first room was impossibly crowded. Moreover, it was brimming with hoards of people strapped into their self-guide cassette players, moving sluggishly, as they tend to do, in a crowd, effectively creating huge barrier zones in front of the paintings. My usual strategy of moving on and circling back did not work; there were throngs around every painting in that room. I even encountered more than one mother attempting to manouever baby strollers through the crowd. (Who thought those would be a good thing to allow in a popular show?) Viewing any of the paintings would be a challenging, if not fruitless, effort.

In that first room,  I was all set to walk out of the show in utter frustration. Admittedly, I’ve had the good fortune to have seen much of Kahlo’s work previously in various places (Casa Azul, Dolores Olmedo and Tate Modern’s 2005 show), so my tolerance for overcrowding in this case was extremely low.  Still, I pressed on and was rewarded with a few charming little pieces I hadn’t seen before in the less crowded rooms beyond.

By the last room, my disgust melted into reflection.  Amidst the continuing evidence of mass popularity, I wondered what it was that continued to draw the masses. Was it really the art? After all, other galleries in the Museum were empty.  I began to reassess my relationship to Kahlo’s work. With the Frida image resolutely placed in our mass-communicated consciousness through kitschy magnets sporting images of her paintings, iconic t-shirts and even dress-up paper dolls, I had to ask myself whether the work itself held up. Was it still providing me with new and relevant insights?

Frida Kahlo didn’t hit the US radar screen until the 1978 SF show, 24 years after she died.  Certainly as a dead female artist,  “launched” during the height of the Woman’s Movement, she was bound to attract attention.  In addition, the personal narrative told through her work—the triumph of the human spirit over inconceivable pain—had universal appeal.  Add to that unfailing human Schadenfreude—physical and emotional misery is relentlessly on display in Kahlo’s oeuvre to a degree quite unlike any other artist—and you may have the basic fuel that propelled Kahlo into cultdom (dare I suggest secular martyrdom?) But what is keeping her there?

As a gringa outsider, it was the very deliberate amalgamation of references to her country’s pre-Columbian and art traditions (retablo, ex-votos) that sucked me in—Frida as the product of noble and not so primitive cultures; Frida as embodiment of simple peasantry; Frida as beloved Virgen de Guadalupe, national symbol of Mexican-ness.  She opened up a whole new world of culture that I am still mining. Further, I always found her subject matter more easily accessible than the European surrealists. Also, to me the naïveté of her folk-art style was an antidote to the often overbearing style and relentless march of socialism on display in the work of her countrymen, Rivera and the other muralists.

At the SF MOMA show, however,  I found myself disturbingly and inexplicably disengaged from the auto-iconic nature of the work. Seeing the same version of her in every painting became hypnotic after a while. I stopped really seeing the details.  For the first time, I had a nagging thought that an oeuvre comprised solely of self portraits from anyone less famous would be labeled narrow and self-indulgent. Was I reluctant to face that Frida’s work had passed from the realm of high art to mass iconography and I wasn’t a member of the cult?

With time, I expect that Kahlo’s work will become something like an old, undemanding friend to me. Though the intense emotional relationship has faded and we don’t see much of each other, we still have history together, and that counts for something.

Wider Connections

Venetian Red: “What the Water Gave Her”

Denise Rosenzweig—Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress: The Fashion of Frida Kahlo

Heyden Herrera—Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo

Helga Prignitz-Poda—Frida Kahlo Retrospective

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4 Responses to “Cult Offering: Frida Kahlo at SF MOMA”

  1. Great essay on Kahlo and thanks for the equally astute comment on my blog. I thought about including my frustrations with the tiny crowded rooms, the idiots with those headsets and Yuppie Mommies with strollers but couldn’t work it gracefully into the essay. I am glad that you brought these issues up. I never understand why popular traveling shows (i.e, Picasso and Modernism for instance) are crammed into the tiny rooms while there are huge empty galleries in the floor below. I also will never understand why huge baby strollers are allowed in a crowded venue. When I went to see the Picasso show last year, a woman was pushing the biggest stroller I’ve ever seen around the tightly packed display cases. I must have had a disapproving expression on my face because she got all self-righteous and rude about her right to be where ever she wanted to be and priceless art be damned. As far as the success of Frieda’s popularity goes, well her work reflects an obsession with blood, torture and horror – a good think in today’s artistic climate. She’s got her image on everything from t-shirts to coffee mugs to mouse pads and she has this great mythos around her life. Even today’s students, with their abysmal ignorance of art history, can get their minds around her life (to some degrees).
    Great blog!

  2. Nancy, To give you an idea of how ridiculously far the Frida phenomenon has gone, I direct you to the book: Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress—The Fashion of Frida Kahlo. The Chronicle Book’s sales copy nicely pushes the book into the realm of the surreal (but then again with Frida isn’t that the point?) :
    “sales of Frida books number into the hundreds of thousands—and yet no volume has ever focused on one of the most memorable aspects of her persona and creative oeuvre: her wardrobe. Now, for the first time, 95 original and beautifully staged photographs of Kahlo’s newly restored clothing are paired with historic photos of the artist wearing them and her paintings in which the garments appear. Frida’s life and style were an integral part of her art, and she is long overdue for recognition as a fashion icon.”

    And this from the restoration team makes it sound like a religious experience.
    “Touching the garments, unfolding them for the first time, we had the sense of somehow profaning objects of reverence, an emotion we had to force ourselves to overcome in subsequent sessions to maintain objectivity as we performed the work.”

    If people are treating her clothes this way, what’s next? Relics—a lock of hair, a fingernail, heck, why not a whole finger—preserved in the Church of St. Frida?

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful, complex response. I’m sure I”ll be reflecting on this for quite some time.

  4. Ciao Liz, I was just checking in to see what’s up for November in SFO, and to see what you are up to. Your blog is such an inspiration. If only, one day, I could write as you. Have you thought of holding workshops for the wannabe Liz? I agree, with your comments on Frida, what is up with that feeling of very strong, rooted, thick, moistness of her? I saw her home, and art in Mexico City, probably 10 years ago. The vision has not left me. Yet.

    Pat & I are in SFO for the foodbuzz blogger fest….November 6-9…we must meet at least for a glass of wine…are you showing at the Atelier? xxx
    Claudia

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