Frida Kahlo at SFMOMA

“Goddesss,” the Art fans in the serpentine line leading up to the Frida Kahlo exhibit seemed to be thinking, their caffeinated chatter and designer-specs setting them apart, barely, from the Cineplex crowd, in line for the latest blockbuster. I wonder, in fact, how many Frida Kahlo fans were made by Selma Hayek’s “Frida”? My sense is many. It’s hard to see Frida – and not Selma as Frida – on the self-portrait shirts everyone working at the museum is wearing. 

It doesn’t take long, once inside the exhibit, to understand the fuss: what eyebrows! what jewelry! what intricate braids in her hair! Though that’s flagrantly unfair…  There is a startle, however, in having to reconcile Frida the fashionista, her flawed-angel face plastered across hand-bags and playing cards, with the death-taunts and spiritual rhapsodies that throb and pang and pulsate through her work. I kept standing before paintings and thinking “she’s nuts”. Not that she’s a head-case, she’s just so fangs-down and fearless about pain – at first her physical pain (if you haven’t seen “Frida”, her spine was badly injured in a bus accident when she was 18) and then her psychological pain that buds and flowers brilliantly, dangerously, from her broken body. That iconic face is really a warrior’s shield.

The paintings in “Frida Kahlo at SFMOMA” are laid-out in a harmonious wail – totally anguished and yet uncontrollably beautiful. All her colors – her reds, yellows, purples – appear less like “paint” and more like faded transfers from the source. She seems, at times, preoccupied with the surrealistic flourishes of Salvador Dali – little mindfucks, things connected but out of place – and, at others, the jungle-leaves and wildlife fetish of Henri Rousseau. Other influences are even more obvious – the apparitions and resurrections of Catholicism, the clay and cacti of the Mexican countryside, the adornment everywhere of the bric-a-brac of Modernism. I wonder what kind of painter she would have been without the severity of her suffering – though it’s a moot point. Her awareness in suffering was her Life Force, her ultimate inspiration. Without it, she could have been anyone.

The most outstanding painting in the exhibit is also one of the largest: “The Two Fridas “. It is, as promised, of two Frida Kahlo’s – here, sitting next to one another in a stormy-skied desert. The Frida on the left is the bride in white; the ghost; the nurse; the mother; the cavity of her heart physically exposed as the hand in her lap pinches off a vein with surgeon’s pliers. She holds the hand of the Frida on the right, the sad, strong Artist; the fabulous peasant; the broken, childless woman with the dead-on gaze, the heart of her Soul hung like a sash from her neck, a criss-crossing necklace with a bold pendant. I mean, fuckin’ A – this isn’t the kind of painting that gets printed on a t-shirt. It’s better left in the museum as hardcore evidence of the psychological abyss. It’s power, standing before it, is in how clearly and thoroughly it captures Frida’s duality, raising the pitch of empathy until it shatters into your own duality, haunted as we all are by the dreams we have for ourselves. Not a lot of unibrow giggles in front of “The Two Fridas”…

My favorite part of the exhibit, though, wasn’t a painting. It was a minute-and-a-half long loop of a silent Super8 movie shown in a sitting room towards the end.  In the movie, Frida and her husband, the painter Diego Rivera, sit and point, talk and laugh, kind of hang out, really. What I liked about it was not just that it brought her to life but that it brought her to life, in this little glimpse, as the rawest, smartest, most tender, most mesmerizing incarnation I could have imagined. When Diego’s hand comes in to frame to touch her hair and then it lingers there and she holds on to it, giving it the quickest kiss and holding it against the side of her face, somehow the prism of presence that was so intensely jarring throughout the paintings on display, let’s out the warmest, clearest light. She loved and was loved – there is no question.

Leaving the show (and it’s last stop – the gift store), you walk out past the lumbering python of a line, all the bobbing, anxious faces, their little nebulas of conversation about farmer’s markets and websites and weekend soirees. I remember how when Camden Joy wrote about dropping his walkman that was playing Souled American when he walked in to a Burger King, he said he felt like everyone was staring at him as though he were a seal clapping it’s flippers. I felt like I left “Frida” in exquisite, overwhelming, consciousness and walked out past a bunch of clapping seals…

Frida Kahlo at SFMOMA

2 thoughts on “Frida Kahlo at SFMOMA

  1. Wednesday, July 14, 1954

    Frida Kahlo, Artist, Diego Rivera’s Wife
    EXICO CITY, July 13 — Frida Kahlo, wife of Diego Rivera, the noted painter, was found dead in her home today. Her age was 44. She had been suffering from cancer for several years.
    She also was a painter and also had been active in leftist causes. She made her last public appearance in a wheel chair at a meeting here in support of the new ousted regime of Communist-backed President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman of Guatemala.

    Frida Kahlo began painting in 1926 while obliged to lie in bed during convalescence from injuries suffered in a bus accident. Not long afterward she showed her work to Diego Rivera, who advised, “go on painting.” They were married in 1929, began living apart in 1939, were reunited in 1941.

    Usually classed as a surrealist, the artist had no special explanation for her methods. She said only: “I put on the canvas whatever comes into my mind.” She gave one-woman shows in Mexico City, New York and elsewhere and is said to have been the first woman artist to sell a picture to the Louvre.

    Some of her pictures shocked beholders. One showed her with her hands cut off, a huge bleeding heart on the ground nearby, and on either side of her an empty dress. This was supposed to reveal how she felt when her husband went off alone on a trip. Another self-portrait presented the artist as a wounded deer, still carrying the shafts of nine arrows.

    A year ago, too weak to stand for more than ten minutes, she sat daily at her easel, declaring: “I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.”

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