Today is the birthday of Frida Kahlo, born in Mexico on 6 July 1907, and Google USA has decorated its homepage in honor of this socialist feminist icon.
Kahlo was one of the most fascinating portraitists of the 20th century. Her subject was herself, but her character, adventures, sufferings and talent made her more than worthy of her own scrutiny.
Kahlo’s paintings hang in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and have been exhibited at Tate Modern in London, yet critics love to take her down a peg. The surrealist movement, with which she was broadly affiliated, liberated many female artists to explore identity and sexuality, but Kahlo was the most forceful of all. Her vision overtly draws on the violence of ancient Mesoamerican art, with the blocky strength of an Aztec carving, the intensity of a Mayan myth. So why is she so often dismissed by art snobs?
Her fame grew dramatically in the 1980s and 90s, as she was collected by Madonna and celebrated as an iconic female artist. It is always tempting, when an artist is celebrated as an inspiring, accessible hero, for superior types to sneer that the emperor has no clothes. In Kahlo’s case, the insidious suggestion (muttered by mostly male critics) is that the painter had no talent. A gift for self-publicity, a passionate charisma, sure – but her art, it is claimed, does not live up to the legend.
And yet it does. Self-portraiture is an exercise at once traditional, going back to Dürer and Rembrandt, and modern, speaking directly to the paradoxes and uncertainties of identity in a changing world. Kahlo’s intense examination of her own face, her own life, her own dreams anticipated the comparable art of Tracey Emin or Sophie Calle in this century. Kahlo is a painter whose rainforest palette, bold lines, and unblinking gaze exert a formidable, rare power. Her anniversary is well worth celebrating; her art endures like a stone face in the forest.