A Very Different Frida

The silent suffering of Mexico’s feminist icon from another perspective

One of Kahlo‘s less typical paintings, “Sun and Life,”1947 | Photo courtesy of Kunstforum

Visitors to the Frida Kahlo Retrospective at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin had to queue for up to eight hours before they were allowed into the exhibition, as reported by the German daily Die Welt. In Vienna, the hype around the Mexican painter is everywhere, as shops display books that touch on many aspects of her life: From her letters and El Diario, to various novels about her love for Diego Rivera, to books about her clothes (Frida’s Kleider), and favorite Mexican cuisine (Frida’s Fiestas).

Despite all these marketing efforts, the line in front of the Bank Austria Kunstforum is significantly shorter than in Berlin on this Thursday morning. This might be due to the beautiful autumn weather, but Florian Steininger, curator of the exhibition, says he is more than satisfied with the success of the exhibition. The goal of the retrospective, according to Steininger, is to put the focus on Kahlo as a painter, showing her takes on Surrealism and Neue Sachlichkeit. The retrospective shows 50 paintings, 90 works on paper, 120 photos and a few other objects. The show has been criticized by reviewers in Germany for putting too much focus on her famous self-portraits and for presenting an interpretation of her work that deals primarily with her personal life, but does not seek to find more political or feminist interpretations. However, the exhibition offers a deeper insight into less known aspects of Kahlo’s art.

The biggest room is indeed dedicated to the self-portraits, which admittedly generate the most interest. The exhibition offers some famous portraits, like The Broken Column. Another highlight of the exhibition is a group of surrealistic works, including some well-known paintings like Henry Ford Hospital, where Kahlo suffered a miscarriage during a stay with her husband in Detroit. Another theme is mythology  – a prominent topic in Kahlo’s work, as she combined traditional Mexican motives with Christian symbolism.

Also, the cult of celebrity is never far away in the display of some of her clothes – the bright colors and mosaic patterns of traditional Mexican folk costumes that have become her signature – and in the many photographs of the artist at work or posing for the camera. Others show the countryside where Kahlo grew up. The excellent audio guide contributes to this fuller picture of who she was – along with thorough explanations, it adds scenes from the movie Frida starring Salma Hayek, background on Mexican culture, and footage of Kahlo and Diego Rivera during private moments.

However, hardcore Frida fans may also discover new sides of her work. The exhibition includes portraits of her friends and acquaintances, often affectionate, but also with biting humor. There is also a circle of abstract drawings, which Steininger calls “exceptional.” Olga Campos, a friend of Kahlo’s who worked as a psychiatrist, encouraged Frida to express her feelings during a therapy session. These drawings show a very different artistic face from the colorful and carefully composed self-portraits so well known to the public.

Many of Kahlo’s paintings allude to her suffering – the horrific bus accident in her student days that broke her spine, causing numerous fractures to her right leg and foot,.Her side and vagina were pierced by an iron bar, which resulted in many miscarriages and left her unfulfilled, longing for a child; and her troubled relationship with Diego Rivera, whom she divorced after his affair with her own sister and remarried a year later. The open portrayal of her inner conflicts, the physical and emotional pain as well as this troubled relationship led to her rediscovery in the 1970s through the eyes of the women’s liberation movement.

“Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird” | Photo: Kunstforum

While this helps explain why so many women are so drawn to her work, men often do not relate to her art in the same way. Indeed, the overwhelming number of visitors in the exhibition are women – friends, even mothers with their babies. The expressive portrayal of her own conflicts and suffering led a writer in Die Welt to wonder why Kahlo’s spiritual kitsch proved so much more popular than the paintings exhibited in the portrait gallery round the corner.

However, the conflicting interpretations presented in the exhibition – for instance between the paintings’ accompanying text vs. those offered in the audio guide – do more justice to the connection between the inner and the outside world that becomes visible in Kahlo’s art. The painting A Few Small Stabs for example is often seen as one of the few that does not allude to the artist’s personal life. It shows the murder of a woman by her husband – a real case in Mexico – who told the judge that what he did was “just a few small stabs,” interpreted as portraying Mexican machismo and violence against women.

At the same time, however, the nails that pierce the woman’s body, like the nails in Frida’s own tortured torso in the famous Broken Column, which depicts her fractured spine, are also interpreted as symbolizing the pain caused by Diego’s constant betrayals and infidelity. Even the red blurs of color on the frame (the use of a frame is atypical for Kahlo) and the punctures caused by a dagger are interpreted as a kind of revenge on Diego in effigy, as well as a further reach for realism.

With this analytic reflex to connect every aspect of Kahlo’s paintings to her personal life, the truth may be more complex, and her work is more ambivalent than it may seem. On a corset she had to wear to support the fractures of her spine was painted a Hammer and Sickle over the heart, and a fetus above her belly.

In fact the constant allegation that Kahlo’s works are too personal and emotional seems repetitive at times. In the end, most artists’ feelings and life story are visible in their work –van Gogh, Picasso or Schiele among them.

Or, as Kahlo herself said in a letter to her dentist Dr. Samuel Fastlicht, accompanying a painting simply titled Self-Portrait: “I do like it, because it is the exact expression of my emotion and that’s what any sincere painter is interested in.”


Bank Austria Kunstforum
Through Sept.1 – Dec.5
Opening Hours:
Mon.-Sun. 10:00-19:00;
Fri. 10:00-21:00
1., Freyung 8
(01) 537 33 26

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