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9 Preface Christian Gether 12 Performing Herself Through Art Stine Høholt 26 Auto-History: Frida Kahlo’s Political Imagining Griselda Pollock 42 Frida Kahlo: A Different View on Mexican Art Laura González Matute 56 ALLO-PORTRAITS: Inventing Deconstruction Mieke Bal 68 The Dove and the Elephant Helga Prignitz-Poda 88 Biography Charlotte Linvald 106 List of Works

Nickolas Muray, Frida on White Bench, New York, 1939. Courtesy of the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of Mexican Art (116)



The strong gaze, the distinctive eyebrows, the downy upper lip, the dresses, and the elaborate hairstyles: these are the characteristic features that we immediately associate with Frida Kahlo (1907–1954), and which she used in her art to describe herself and her troubled life. Today Kahlo is recognized as one of the most important artists of the twentieth century on a par with artists such as Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso. She is inscribed in art history as the greatest and most famous female artist who, by using herself in a new and uncompromising way, has been an inspiration to women all over the world. ARKEN’s exhibition FRIDA KAHLO—A Life in Art reveals how Frida Kahlo creates and stages her identity through art. An extremely colorful personal life has meant that Kahlo’s works are often seen as direct representations of her own life. But the works are more than mere testimony of private events and personal experiences. Based on self-portraits and representations of her dramatic life, Kahlo examines the boundaries between work and biography, art and life. Kahlo’s art is at once relentlessly self-revealing and profoundly theatri­cal. FRIDA KAHLO—A Life in Art provides insight into Frida Kahlo’s life and art, focusing on her use of self-staging as an artistic method. With presence and intensity, Kahlo’s works raise universal questions about the construction of personal identity in such a radical way that she speaks to something in everyone. It is particularly her iconic self-portraits that

have contributed to the cult-like worship of Frida Kahlo one sees today. A true “Fridamania” was manifested in the film Frida, starring Salma Hayek in the title role, a phenomenon which has been incorporated into popular culture throughout the Western world. This catalogue features articles by a number of internationally renowned scholars and art historians. Among others Griselda Pollock, one of the founders of feminist art history, and Mieke Bal, a pioneer in the semiotic analysis of art. The catalogue thus represents a significant contribution to Frida Kahlo research. Each author explores new theories on Kahlo’s imagery, inspiration, and cultural, contemporary, and personal history. By going beyond the usual biographism and mythologizing of the “icon Kahlo,” we move closer to a nuanced understanding of this unique artist. Based on the major events in Frida Kahlo’s life, Helga Prignitz-Poda analyzes her complex imagery as she discusses the connections between Kahlo’s aesthetics and those of Diego Rivera (1886–1957). Stine Høholt introduces the exhibition’s focus on Kahlo’s self-presentation with a point of departure in the imagery’s play with gender codes and references to her Mexican heritage. Griselda Pollock sheds new light on the biographical reading of Kahlo’s practice through a critical analysis of the self-staging approach of her artistic strategy. The conventional biographical readings of Kahlo’s art are broken down in an analysis by Mieke Bal, who identifies the viewer ... Read more in the printed catalogue 7

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait MCMXLI, 1941. Courtesy of the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of Mexican Art (10)

Performing Herself Through Art Stine Høholt

What is real and what is staged when an artist performs her life in art? Both art of the past and contemporary art present us with this question—consider the Dutch artist Rembrandt, or the body art of the nineteenseventies in which the artists used themselves as the artistic medium. In later years, particularly British artist Tracy Emin caused a stir with her authentic, self-staging works that have challenged the boundaries between private life and art, to the general consternation of the tabloid press. Standing between Rembrandt and Emin is one of art history’s mythic figures: Frida Kahlo. Kahlo’s artistic practice raises the question of how to distinguish what is real from what is staged, the artist as person from the creative artistic self; in short: how to separate life and work.

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940 Courtesy of Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin (8)

This text will introduce the ideas behind ARKEN’s exhibition FRIDA KAHLO—A Life in Art. The exhibition provides insight into Kahlo’s oeuvre through painting, drawing, and collage. Pages from the artist’s diary, historical film footage, books, traditional Mexican garments and ornaments deepen the understanding of Kahlo’s self-representation and particular interest in mexicanidad (Mexicanness). A special section of the exhibition sheds light on how Kahlo, throughout her life, used herself as subject matter, documenting her existence in a visual stream of portraits taken by leading contemporary photographers like Nickolas Muray, Lola Álvarez Bravo, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Tina Modotti, 8

Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Juan Guzmán, and others. Kahlo invited the photographers into her life, and the numerous photographs combined with her other works contributed to the creation of her public image. In the following I will investigate Kahlo’s use of self-staging as an artistic strategy. The exhibition emphasizes Kahlo’s place in the Mexican Renaissance, an artistic and political movement of the first half of the twentieth century concerned with the creation of a new, proud national identity after years of colonization and dictatorship. Thus her husband, the artist Diego Rivera, is represented in the exhibition by paintings and drawings, and we draw parallels to other contemporary artists like María Izquierdo, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco. The Self-Portraits Frida Kahlo painted on the periphery of the Western art scene in post-revolutionary Mexico. She lived to be just forty-seven years old and during her short life she painted, approximately, a mere one hundred and fifty works. About sixty-five of these works were selfportraits. In Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940, a frontal self-portrait, the artist levels a hypnotic gaze at the viewer. She has a cat on her left side, a monkey on her right, and is depicted in front of the Mexican jungle. Her complexion is dark, with an Indian glow, and she is dressed in a white blouse. Apart from the staring eyes, what is most striking in the picture is the thorn necklace that is dripping blood. The symmetry of

the face and the composition of the portrait are reminiscent of Western representations of Christ: the hummingbird that she wears hanging from her neck is the traditional symbol of the Holy Ghost; Christ’s Crown of Thorns has become a bloody wreath of thorns. The painting, however, is more than just a traditional representation of Christ. In a Mexican context the crown of thorns that tears open Kahlo’s neck (and draws blood) refers to the Aztec priests who mutilated themselves with agave thorns and stingray spines. The dead hummingbird is sacred to Tenochtitlan’s supreme deity, Huitzilopochtli, god of the sun and war and representing for the Aztecs the soul or the spirit of the warrior fallen in battle.1 Thus not only did the artist, by means of the self-portrait, engage in a traditional Christian discourse on the Passion, she also placed herself in a Mexican cultural framework. Drawing on the work’s cultural and spiritual markers of “the original Mexico,” the self-representation visualizes the colonized other, Mexico’s historical sacrifice. When faced with a portrait like Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, it is not very hard to understand why Frida Kahlo’s art has been intricately linked with her personal story of suffering, wherein she is the suffering woman redeeming her artistic triumph through pain and passion. Already in 1939 the Surrealist artist André Breton described Kahlo’s art as “a ribbon around a bomb.” 2 Her husband Rivera followed

the same line of thought four years later in the article “Painting Her Own Life” (1943), in which he wrote, “Frida is unique in the history of art, ready to tear open her own breast and heart to arrive at the biological truth and express how this feels to her.”3 Until today the reception of Kahlo’s self-portraits have—with a few exceptions 4—pursued a biographical path. The self-portraits have been interpreted as fragments of a life story that is more colorful than a pulp novel: a dramatic traffic accident followed by lifelong chronic pain and equally painful treatments, unhappy love (for that special someone), countless extramarital affairs with prominent cultural personalities, miscarriages, speculations about her being a victim of Munchausen syndrome, a political revolutionary with a circle of acquaintances who killed and got killed for the cause. The biographical approach is the obvious choice when it comes to Kahlo. It is, however, evident that her production cannot be reduced to mere illustrations of one of art history’s more colorful biographies. The works are more than that. Kahlo’s art is at once ruthlessly selfrevealing and profoundly theatrical, fictional accounts of a life lived. The staging becomes evident when Kahlo writes ironically somewhere, “Did you know that I’ve never seen a jungle? So how am I supposed to paint a jungle background full of insects?”5 And seeing how Kahlo ages in the photographs while remaining comparatively youthful in her painted self-portraits ... Read more in the printed catalogue 11

1 Janice Helland, “Culture, Politics, and Identity: Frida Kahlo” in The Expanding Discourse: Feminism and Art History, ed. Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard (New York, 1992), p. 405. 2 André Breton, “Frida Kahlo de Rivera” (in French), foreword to Frida Kahlo (Frida Rivera), exh. cat. Julien Levy Gallery (New York, 1938); translated in English in André Breton, Surrealism and Painting, trans. Simon Watson Taylor (New York, 1972), p. 144. 3 Diego Rivera, “Painting Her Own Life,” October 1943, quoted in Christina Burrus, Frida Kahlo: Painting Her Own Reality (New York, 2008), p. 129. 4 For example, Margaret A. Lindauer, Devouring Frida: The Art History and Popular Celebrity of Frida Kahlo (Hannover, 1999); and Gannit Ankori, Imaging Her Selves: Frida Kahlo’s Poetics of Identity and Fragmentation (Westport, Conn. and London, 2002).

Anonymous, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera at a Rally, 1940s. Courtesy of Throckmorton Fine Art (72)

Nickolas Muray, Frida with Olmec Figurine, Coyoacรกn, 1939 Courtesy of Throckmorton Fine Art (117)


Charlotte Linvald


Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderón is born on July 6.


The Mexican Revolution breaks out. Kahlo later claims to be born this year, as “a child of the revolution.”


Kahlo starts school. She begins working in the photography studio of her father Guillermo Kahlo.


Kahlo enrolls at the prestigious Escuela Nacional Preparatoria (National Preparatory School) in Mexico City. Here she meets her later husband, the artist Diego Rivera, for the first time. She changes her name from “Frieda” to “Frida” and joins the intellectually and politically engaged student group Los Cachuchas.


When not attending school Kahlo begins to study under the printmaker Fernando Fernández. On September 17 she is involved in a serious traffic accident that leaves her severely injured. She is forced to abandon her studies, but intensifies her painting during the long period of convalescence.

Guillermo Dávila Frida Kahlo Outside Diego Rivera’s Studio, 1935 Courtesy of Throckmorton Fine Art (80)


Kahlo becomes a member of the Communist Party. She also gets involved in a circle of leftwing artists and writers, where she re-encounters Rivera.


Kahlo and Rivera are married on August 21. She leaves the Communist Party in sympathy with Rivera, who is expelled due to ideological infighting.


Kahlo and Rivera make their first trip to the United States. In the years that follow the two of them will travel repeatedly to New York, Chicago, Detroit, and San Francisco, among other destinations. Kahlo suffers her first miscarriage. Read more in the printed catalogue


Anonymous, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera Kissing after Second Marriage, 1940 Courtesy of Throckmorton Fine Art (71)


Lola Ă lvarez Bravo, Frida Kahlo with Dogs and Idol, 1944. Courtesy of Throckmorton Fine Art (61)

Strong, seductive and dramatic: Frida Kahlo is one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. By raising profound questions of identity her compelling self-portraits have become powerful icons of modern art. The fascinating life and work of this unique artist is inexplicably entangled. But her work is more than documents of her personal life. Strikingly intense Frida Kahlo’s work is also heavily staged. FRIDA KAHLO – A LIFE IN ART presents original perspectives on the artistic qualities in Frida Kahlo’s life and work. Through essays by internationally acclaimed experts and critics new light is cast on an icon and her extraordinary imagery. This beautifully produced book is a must have for anyone interested in this enigmatic artist.

Contributors: Mieke Bal Stine Høholt Charlotte Linvald Laura Gonzáles Matute Griselda Pollock Helga Prignitz-Poda

Buy the catalogue at ARKEN or order it at:

112 pages, 68 illustrations

Extract from catalogue: FRIDA KAHLO - A life in art  
Extract from catalogue: FRIDA KAHLO - A life in art  

Read an extract from the FRIDA KAHLO - A life in art catalogue. The catalogue costs 99 DKK / 13,5 EUR and can be bought at ARKEN SHOP or by...