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Self-staging as an artistic strategy

PHOTO / Frida Kahlo was at the center of a sophisticated international circle of artists, actors, diplomats and film directors. In Mexico, she was early on a tehuana – a symbol of an empowered woman who represents a different ideal of women than that rooted in traditional marianismo. But can we also see the female stereotypes 'whore' and 'madonna' in one and the same person?


Who was Frida Kahlo#? The question has been brought up again after the new publication of Frida Kahlo. Her photos in 2021. The book, which was first published in 2010, contains around 500 photographs from Kahlo's archive. This archive, which also contains Diego Rivera's photo collection, consists of around 6000 photographs and was opened to the public in 2004, 50 years after Frida Kahlo's death. The photographs provide a unique insight into Kahlo's life and the times in which she lived.

Image editor is the Mexican photographer and curator Pablo Ortiz Monasterio. Coordinator and initiator of the release is Hilda Trujillo Soto, director of Casa Azul and Museo Diego Rivera Anahuacalli. Each of the book's seven chapters – the book is divided thematically – is equipped with an essayistic introduction. The contextualization of the pictorial material is largely left to the reader himself – the book therefore has the feel of being a private photo album.

Doktor Juan Farill Og Frida Kahlo I Hennes Atelier I Casa Azul 1951. Photo: Gisele Freund.


The first chapter, "The Origins", will reformulate the mother's importance in Kahlo's life. The introduction is written by the Japanese author Masayo Nonaka, who is known for his books on Mexican surrealist art. Matilde Calderon y González, Kahlo's mother, came on her mother's side from a Spanish family. Spaniards who were born in Mexico were called criollos. Her father's mother was of indigenous background. In other words, Kahlo's mother was Mestizo, a term applied to an individual of both European and Mexican ancestry.

The book's second chapter is devoted to "The Mysterious Father", Wilhelm Kahlo, who in 1890 came to Mexico from Germany, aged 18. He took the name Guillermo, the Spanish form of Wilhelm, and married a Mexican woman. She died in childbirth in 1898. Married the same year William Kahlo again with Matilde Calderón, and in 1901 he opened a photography studio in Mexico City. Until the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution, he received several major documentation assignments, including photographing the country's churches. In the book, he is represented almost exclusively with his self-portraits, an interest Frida Kahlo would carry on in her painting.

In his marriage to Matilde Calderón, Guillermo Kahlo had four daughters. Frida, who was the second youngest, was born in 1907. Although Guillermo Kahlo was a Protestant and a man of enlightenment, the daughters received a Catholic upbringing.

Frida Kahlo, who is said to have been closer to her father than her mother, considered herself a child of the revolution. In the book's last chapter, "Political Struggle", the heroes of the Mexican Revolution pass by, above all Emiliano Zapata, but also Pancho Villa, Antonio Villareal and José Vasconcelos, the cultural figures of the Mexican Revolution leader. Many women participated as solders during the revolution, but the new constitution of 1917 did not extend the right to vote to women. On the other hand, after the revolution, the focus was on education, also for women, and in 1922 Kahlo became a student at the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, a preparatory school for higher studies.

Frida Kahlo Painting A Portrait Of Guillermo Kahlo, Her Father 1951. Photo: Gisèle Freund

An empowered woman

During her studies, Frida Kahlo was inspired by radical ideas. She had short-cropped hair and an androgynous appearance. In the 1920s, it was not unusual for women to challenge current norms through both dress and behaviour. But after a serious bus accident in 1925 Frida had to put her studies on the shelf. Her future prospects no longer looked as bright.

After the revolution, Mexico City had become a pilgrimage destination for artists and intellectuals from all over the world. In a photograph from 1928, Kahlo is pictured together with the Italian photographer Tina Modotti, who in 1923 had settled in the Mexican capital together with the American photographer Edward Weston. In 1928, Kahlo also became acquainted with Diego Rivera, one of Los Tres Grandes within the Mexican mural painting. They married in August 1929. Kahlo was Diego Rivera's third wife. She had just turned 22. He was almost 44 years old.

It was around the time of her marriage to Diego Rivera that Kahlo began to dress like one Marianisms, which was considered the "true" feminine ideal. The change coincided with the couple settling in the USA in autumn 1929.

Elf-Portrait With The Portrait Of Doctor. Farill 1951 41.5×50 Cm Privat Eie, Mexico

How Diego Rivera, who was a communist and leader of El Sindicato de Obreros Técnicos, Pintores y Escultores, was commissioned to paint murals in the City Club, the lunchroom of the San Francisco Stock Exchange, remains a mystery. It may be connected to the fact that the relationship between Mexico and the United States had improved afterwards The Cristero War, the attempt to push through anti-clerical legislation in Mexico was stopped in 1929. In the same year, strikes were banned, the land reform program ended, and Mexico stopped supporting rebels such as Nicaraguan Augusto César Sandino, who is pictured in the book in an undated photograph with two of his commanders.

Rufino Tamayo Adalgisa Frida Kahlo Louroval Fontes Og Olga Tamayo Ca. 1945.

During her stay in San Francisco, Kahlo met Edward Weston and members of the California-based group f/64. Among the group's members was Imogen Cunningham, who took several portraits of her. One of the portraits is represented in the book. In June 1931, Rivera was invited to hold a retrospective exhibition in the newly opened Museum of Modern Art in New York. After the exhibition, Rivera was commissioned to paint frescoes with modern industry as a motif by the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Edsel Ford, director of the Ford Motor Company, approved the project. One of the book's photographs shows a detail from the decoration, which gave it its title The production of poisonous gas bombs.

The analogy with the suffering Christ is obvious.

Riveras fresher, Detroit Industry, created enormous controversy when they were opened to the public in March 1933. For Rivera was Detroit Industry a career highlight. After the assignment in Detroit, he was invited to paint Man at the Crossroad in Rockefeller Center in New York. He painted a diptych with the revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin and scenes from life in a socialist society contrasted by the decadence of capitalism represented by John D. Rockefeller sr. with a glass of martini in hand surrounded by society ladies. Diego Rivera was ordered to remove the figures, which he could not accept. The dispute ended with the entire decoration being painted over, and after a short time Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo had to return home to Mexico due to lack of money.

Frida Kahlo Lander I New York, 1938

The breakthrough

After returning to Mexico City in December 1933, the couple moved into a newly built house that consisted of two houses connected by a suspension bridge. The houses, which reflect the status hierarchy between the spouses, were designed by Juan O'Gorman, Latin America's first functionalist architect. Juan O'Gorman is depicted in several photographs in the book.

Kahlo, who was not satisfied with her role as Diego Rivera's muse, had made progress as a painter during her stay in the United States. The marital conflicts ended with Diego Rivera beginning a relationship with Kahlo's younger divorced sister. The shock caused Kahlo to put the painting aside for a period. She cut off her hair and stopped dressing like one Tehuana. In 1935 she moved from Diego Rivera and traveled to New York. A photograph from New York shows Kahlo with the political activist Ella Goldberg Wolfe, who was married to one of the founders of the Communist Party in the United States.

Lev Trotskij Og Hans Hustru Natalia Sedova I Casa Azul, Ca. 1938

The breakthrough for Kahlo came with the solo exhibition in the Julien Levy Gallery in Manhattan in New York in November 1938. She appears as a world star as she steps out of the American Airlines plane in New York. She carries a bag and has several books on her arm. The picture is staged. The photographer must be Nickolas Muray, known from Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. Everything indicates that it was also Muray who had taken the initiative for the exhibition. A photograph in the book shows that the American painter Georgia O'Keeffe and her husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, were present at the vernissage. Kahlo had begun a relationship with Murray in New York after the breakup with Diego Rivera. Muray took a number of portraits of Kahlo and is himself depicted in several photographs in the book.

Rivera painted a diptych of revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin and scenes from life in a socialist society contrasted by the decadence of capitalism represented by John D. Rockefeller Sr. with a glass of martini in hand surrounded by society ladies.

A photograph of André Breton with a dedication to Kahlo is dated July 29, 1938. Breton, known as the father of surrealism, was impressed by Kahlo's art and invited her to exhibit in Paris. During his stay in Mexico City in 1938, Breton wrote the manifesto For an independent revolutionary art together with Lev Trotsky. The exiled Russian revolutionary leader had come to Mexico in January 1937 after being expelled from Norway. He and his wife Natalia Sedova were allowed to live in Casa Azul, Kahlo's childhood home in Coyoacán outside Mexico City. A curiosity in the book is a photograph of Lev Trotsky in a crowd on Red Square in Moscow dated May 1, 1928. The photograph, which must have belonged to Diego Rivera, is probably misdated. At that time, Trotsky is said to have been in internal asylum in Alma Ata in Kazakhstan. A famous photograph of Trotsky's arrival in Mexico, where he was received on the dock in Tampico by Kahlo and the American Trotskyist leader Max Shachtman, is not included in the selection of photographs in the book.

Heavily filtered

One of the book's chapters has been given the title "Broken Body". Kahlo underwent several abortions and a large number of operations due to the injuries after the bus accident in 1925. The analogy with the suffering Christ is obvious. But parallel to the story of suffering, Frida Kahlo's career is gaining new momentum. After being betrayed by both Diego Rivera and Nickolas Muray, Kahlo had to fend for herself financially. She participated in several collective exhibitions. In January 1940 she was represented at the international surrealismexhibition in Mexico City. Later that year, she traveled to the United States after Diego Rivera. They married for the second time on Diego Rivera's 54th birthday on December 8, 1940.

Diego Rivera In Sitt San Angel Workshop Mexico City Ca

The photographs in the book cement an image of Kahlo as the centerpiece of a sophisticated international circle of artists, actors, diplomats and film directors. After the introduction of the sound film, many Latin American actors and directors moved from Hollywood to Mexico City. In 1943, Kahlo poses in front of the twelve-cylinder Lincoln-Zephyr Coupe.

James Oles, who is a specialist in modern Mexican art, writes in the introduction to the chapter "Love" that all information about Kahlo is heavily filtered. The selection of photographs in the book supports this view. For example, Kahlo's social and political involvement is toned down. Kahlo's own art of painting is also noticeably absent. In the book, celebrity is at the center. Likewise her alleged leagues og love is. At the same time, emphasis is placed on her connection to the family and the home Casa Azul, which she took over from Trotsky in 1939. The female stereotypes 'harlot' and 'madonna' in one and the same person?

Kahlo's own art of painting is noticeably absent.

Basically, Kahlo was one Aspasia. She became famous through her marriage to Diego Rivera. Perhaps it was also Diego Rivera who encouraged her to dress like one Tehuana. It shed light on Rivera and gave the couple publicity. Eventually, the Mexican costume became Frida Kahlo's signature. Self-staging became her artistic strategy. Today, Kahlo is about to be reduced to one cult figure, a Mexican national icon. Her home, Casa Azul, has become a tourist attraction.

The book is available at

Randi C. Solheim
Randi C. Solheim
Permanent freelancer in MODERN TIMES.

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