After I visited Casa Azul, the birth and death place of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo last year, I complained that I felt somewhat irritated by all the focus on Kahlo’s love life, and specifically, her marriage to artist Diego Rivera.
I’d heard of Kahlo long before I heard of Rivera — she was part of the brand new Women’s History Month curriculum that launched when I was in elementary school in the 1980s, while I only learned about Rivera in college. So when I visited Casa Azul and found so much emphasis on Kahlo’s marriage and her husband, it seemed anachronistic and belittling. It would be like visiting, I don’t know, a museum dedicated to Margaret Thatcher and finding that much of the focus was on her marriage and on her husband, Sir Denis Thatcher. (That’s not a completely apt comparison, but you get the idea.)
So when I returned home from Mexico City, I resolved to research Kahlo some more. I got what’s considered the definitive biography of Frida, and a few more books besides. I ordered the Salma Hayek biopic from Netflix, and although it took me five months, I finally watched it. And I liked it, although I could see after all of that why Casa Azul would choose to highlight the Frida/Diego relationship. It was muy picante.
But I’ve found a great deal of satisfaction in a new book on Frida Kahlo called Face to Face: Frida Kahlo, written by the artist Judy Chicago and art historian Frances Borzello. In Chicago’s introduction, she points out exactly what had irritated me at Casa Azul: that considering Kahlo only in terms of her biography and especially her relationship with Rivera is, at the least, incomplete. “… by viewing her paintings in relation to Rivera’s behavior, her works are demeaned, turning them into reactive rather than active creations,” writes Chicago.
Face to Face: Frida Kahlo is a corrective. It considers Kahlo’s entire oeuvre, and puts it into the larger context of art history. “Frida Kahlo signals the moment where women artists begin to break their historic silence about women’s experiences,” writes Chicago. “Her depiction of Rivera as infantile should be recognized as an early and courageous example of what would later become a new avenue of expression for women artists as they began to convey their long suppressed rage against men.”
With lavish and lush illustrations, Chicago and Borzello explore Kahlo’s both own artistic influences and tease out her influence on artists that have followed in her wake.
I wish this book had been published last year so that I could have read it before my trip — it provided so much of the context I was missing at Casa Azul.
Alison J. Stein
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