Frida Kahlo on white bench in Nickolas Muray’s studio, New York, 1939
Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940,
Frida Kahlo, The Broken Column, 1944,
Frida Kahlo, Without Hope, 1945
Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait, 1930
Frida Kahlo, The Frame, 1938
Nickolas Muray, Frida paining The Two Fridas, Coyocan, 1939
Nickolas Muray, Frida with Nick in her studio, Coyoacan, 1941
With an unsettling desire inside, Frida Kahlo’s paintings expressed her despair and her broken heart. Beauty and pain, passion and suffering, fill every space of her insanely-coloured works – dramatic manifestos of her tragic life and feral fantasies.
Calling herself the “Daughter of Mexican Revolution”, Kahlo is the first Mexican artist whose works were collected by Louvre Museum and preserved as national treasures. In her short journey of life that ended at the age of 47, Kahlo held only two exhibitions. Thick eyebrows and agony have been symbols of this legendary Mexican painter. As passionate as fire, she turned torture into motivation.
When Kahlo visited Paris in 1938; her exotic style fascinated Elsa Schiaparelli, who later designed “La Robe Madame Rivera” for her. Fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier regarded her as “my muse” that inspired his “Homage to Frida Kahlo” collection in 1997. Even Madonna once praised her as an essential figure that represents Feminism.
Inspired by Inga traditions and Mexican portraits of the 19th century, Kahlo reinterpreted the Barbarism of the Pre-Columbus Period. Her car accident, her deformity and suffering became the subjects of her artwork.
From 1926 to 1954, Kahlo produced 66 self-portraits and 80 artworks. Her world of art is like an incubus which the audience eyes as odd, insane, hideous, but at the same time beautiful. A distorted bloody figure floating on the air, tingly, vibrant colours – her paintings tell of the uncertainty of life and her jealousy: “I paint myself, because I am often alone, because I know myself best.” This gave critics the impression that Kahlo had a strong desire to demonstrate her own narcissism.
Ribbon around a Bomb
Her works are dramatic manifestos of her tragic life and wild fantasies. Life and death, love and hate, purity and sin, tenderness and violence all somewhat developed her aesthetics. Layers of desire and blood, an extravagant palette of contrastive colours… all disturbing elements are blended into a visual image. Colours she used are both beautiful and dangerous. Andre Breton, Father of Surrealism, labeled her a surrealist and her works “a ribbon around a bomb”. Dramatic colours and conflicting structures revealed a violent and despairing power, a cruel sense of reality, and her pursuit of purity in her sadness. Kahlo, however, denied this label: “I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality.”
Bloody ritual of contemporary art
Agony widened Frida Kahlo’s journey of fantasy across borders and races. With eccentric lines, she tried to piece up her emotions, and, as a vulnerable woman, voiced politics, feminine lust and creative power.
With disturbing visual images and violent implications, Frida Kahlo unveiled the extremity of human body language, like a cruel ritual of contemporary art. She lit up factions deep inside her mind, and savagely forced them upon the audience. Despite initial criticism and sometimes scorn, Frida Kahlo used her own fragile image to confront the contemporary zeitgeist of her time.
Text: Lin Chih-Hung English translation: Amy Ho Photo Courtesy of Palm Springs Art Museum, SFMOMA