La vida de Frida

In Frida, Kahlo shows more than her scars.

Aidan Campbell

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Director Julie Taymor’s colorful biopic of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo is hugely enjoyable. Salma Hayek, a Mexican actress who strikingly resembles Kahlo, plays the title role – and she is far better than her shampoo adverts suggest.

Most criticisms of the film have been fairly low-key – it’s ‘too biographical’, the paintings are ‘emotionally unmediated’, and so on. In my opinion, Frida ranks alongside such classic biographical art movies as Lust for Life (Van Gogh) and The Agony and the Ecstasy (Michelangelo).

It is useful to contrast the artistic lives of Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera, since the film makes so much of their relationship. Until recently, Rivera (played in the film by British actor Alfred Molina) was much better known than Kahlo. He was a larger-than-life womaniser, who created art to push the world in a revolutionary direction. He was all fatness, machismo, and tribune of the people.

It is often claimed that Rivera’s art derived from pre-Columbian Mexican artifacts. In fact, he learned how to paint like a master after extensively touring Bohemian Europe, especially the fleshpots of Paris (where he clashed with Picasso) and Italy.

Rivera’s justly famous frescos were the result of a study trip to Florence. In 1920, José Vasconcelos, minister of education in the newly installed Obregón regime in Mexico, asked Rivera to travel to Florence to study the traditions of Renaissance art. Vasconcelos was soon to launch a vast programme of commissioning murals for public buildings throughout Mexico, with Rivera as his most prominent artist.

This political art project was designed to compensate the impoverished peons of Mexico for the failure of the 1910-1919 revolution led by Zapata and Pancho Villa. Vasconcelos’ cultural project marked the first stage of its respectable institutionalisation. Rivera’s magnificent work was subsidised by the then radical Mexican state, and later became highly prized even by executives of huge American corporations like Ford, Firestone and Rockefeller. Frida has actor Edward Norton as Rockefeller, balking at Rivera’s inclusion of a cameo portrait of Lenin in a mural commissioned for New York.

Rivera’s murals inspired a whole generation of American artists working for the arts-based Works Progress Administration of Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal regime, most famously Jackson Pollock.

Born to a German-Jewish father and Mexican mother, Frida Kahlo was horrifically injured as a child after a trolley car ran into her school bus. Repeatedly bedridden throughout her life by this accident, she learned how to paint to while away the time. Her art – mostly comprising portraits of herself – derives from the Mexican primitive tradition, whereby peasant women prayed to their own hand-painted icons of the Madonna to obtain personal favours. Kahlo fused this homegrown rustic motif with a stylish European surrealism – and now many of her works are bought by pop celebrities like Madonna.

Perhaps painting helped Kahlo compensate for the pain of her wounds, as well as the emotional trauma inflicted by Rivera’s persistent philandering. But this is far from the whole picture of the woman. The contemporary image of Kahlo is as an icon of victim culture, a primitive precursor to Princess Diana. But the film transgresses this myth to give us an insight into Kahlo’s dynamic character.

When Kahlo’s asks her father to tell her the secret of a successful marriage, he slyly advises her, ‘A short memory’. She goes on to challenge her husband Rivera by competing with his infidelities (even by bedding some of his own conquests). Her most famous affair was with exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Despite her disabilities, in life Kahlo was actively committed to the pursuit of political causes and living life to the full.

She died in 1954 and Rivera followed her to the grave three years later. The fickle world of culture could only recognise Rivera’s political art before the 1990s and, in the new millennium, it now only has time for Kahlo’s more personal art. Surveying the changing artistic fortunes of Rivera and Kahlo, we can see how functional art has diminished from politically aspiring to change the world to therapeutically assuaging the damaged self. Nevertheless, Rivero and Kahlo’s art remains a wholly original Mexican contribution to human culture.

Frida is at its weakest when actor Geoffrey Rush, playing Trotsky, claims that Kahlo’s art is great because it expresses ‘the pain and isolation we all feel’. Off-screen, Salma Hayek has rebutted such suggestions that Kahlo should be cast as a casualty:

‘The most interesting thing about Frida was her love affair with life and from this comes her endurance. When she leaves her last painting, she calls it “Viva La Vida”. That is no simple cliché. Nobody who loves life so intensely can be a victim.’

Aidan Campbell is the author of Western Primitivism, African Ethicity: A Study in Cultural Relations, Continuum International Publishing Group, 1997 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and a contributor to Art: What Is It Good For?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))

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