Illustrating the Life of Frida Kahlo in a Beautiful Vacuum – A Review of Frida, the Film

Frida Working on Las Dos Fridas_Nickolas Muray
Frida Working on Los Dos Fridas. Photo taken by Nickolas Muray.

Last week Salma Hayek wrote about the horror of trying to get the film Frida, her passion project, made under Harvey Weinstein. While he did not sexually assault her or demand sexual favors as he did dozens of other women in the industry, he abused her in many ways before, during, and after the making of the film. It seems as good a time as any to share that I wrote a review of the film for my Latin American Art History course in October. It remains one of my favorite movies, even as I have critiques of it. My review could not, due to space constraints and needing to answer specific questions for the assignment (including discussing it in conjunction with a specific reading), address every possible “issue” with the film. Hayek wrote about the particular scene of Frida in Paris with Josephine Baker, and how Weinstein was the reason for that full frontal sex scene that caused her, as an actress, to have panic attacks. As a queer person who appreciated that Frida’s queerness was not hidden in the film, that scene has always seemed gratuitous and excessive. Now we know why, and what it cost to the actress to do it. The film is terrifically important and valuable, but as with all films only so much can be properly contextualized in a short span of time, and the hope is it opens people to do further research on the life and work of Frida Kahlo. It is most unfortunate, and yet unsurprising, that Hayek has had to endure trauma in order to bring this film to us. 

Here is the text of my review:

In her article “’Her Dress Hangs Here’: De-frocking the Kahlo Cult,” Oriana Baddeley writes:

“This ‘appropriateness’ of Kahlo’s aesthetic to contemporary debate has tended to remove her work from its historical context, to stress the collective and the cross-cultural… More problematic is the way in which such a dislocation has led to the acceptance of her ‘Mexicanness’ as mere decoration of the essentially feminist themes of her work…”[1]

Baddeley is referring to the commodifying and co-opting of Frida Kahlo’s Tehuana clothing as inspiration for contemporary women, devoid of its original intent and context, and allowing for a superficial understanding of Kahlo’s life and work that requires no care for the modern Mexico Kahlo was living in and reacting to. Kahlo has become a feminist icon for her independence, open bisexuality, and how she truly lived by the credo later popularized by 1970s feminists that “the personal is political.” But contemporary invocation of Kahlo, primarily by non-Mexicans, tends to center the aesthetic as if it is cross-cultural exchange available to all, rather more than the radical politics she espoused.

Julie Taymor’s 2002 film, Frida, based on Hayden Herrera’s 1983 book that is widely considered the definitive biography of Frida’s life and work, participates in the tradition of cult development with emphasis on the superficial aspects of Frida that are removed, to some degree, from their true context. It is a visually remarkable film that lovingly eulogizes Frida Kahlo, bringing her to a new audience and creating intrigue about her as a person and artist. It also contributes to the ongoing gentrification of her style and imagery without offering a significant understanding of the cultural and historical context in which she was living and working so that fans can properly understand the depth of her work. It is a film of great aesthetic and emotional value, but true fans will want to delve deeper.

The film begins in Frida’s teen years, showing her as a mischievous schoolgirl who teases Diego Rivera while he is working on a fresco at the National Preparatory School of the University of Mexico, just prior to the bus accident that changed her life at 18 in 1925.[2] The film ends with her death in 1954. It condenses a hefty tome (Herrera’s biography) that covered her entire life and context into the intense 30 years of her life and relationship with Diego Rivera, and presents it in less than two hours. According to the film it was her marriage, divorce, remarriage, and everything in between with Rivera that encouraged her politics, helped her to define her own identity and style, and led to her most complex art.

Prior to meeting Rivera, Frida was already deeply interested in radical politics, including socialism and communism. The movie shows this through her discussion with her boyfriend on the bus just before the accident. The film also shows her challenging gender norms and connecting with her supportive father in her early years prior to accident. The accident is shown as the turning point, and important influence on her life and work. It was while recovering in bed for months on end that she began to paint, something her parents encouraged by providing her tools to accommodate her limited mobility. By the time the grown Frida approaches Rivera seeking his guidance for her art, she has already demonstrated the strength of her character and resolve by teaching herself to walk despite medical claims that she would not, teaching herself to paint, and determining that she will have to work to support herself. This gets to the heart of the film’s thesis: Frida Kahlo was a badass, a revolutionary for her time, and a far more interesting and committed artist with a political/social lens than most of the male artists who prided themselves on their own revolutionary politics while continuing to engage in patriarchal and hypocritical behavior (this is lightly touched on in the film through the rivalry between Rivera and David Siqueiros). While Rivera supported and strengthened her political beliefs, and it may be argued that through him she found greater access to the Communist Party and Leon Trotsky, she was already on that path without him. Throughout her life, the film shows her taking risks that were not considered the norm for women of her time, culture, and social class. She balanced being a disabled and chronically ill woman with being independent and forcing others to engage her on her own terms, while producing a remarkable amount of challenging art.

The film attempts to show these complexities of Frida’s life and work, but most often falls back on romantic and superficial matters, implying that her work came only from personal suffering rather than the intense political beliefs she possessed. In the film her clothing choices are merely aesthetic, with no effort made to discuss them as anything more than a superficial choice designed to impress Rivera and help her to stand out. In fact, her clothing choices were shocking in their time for their embrace of Indigenous identity and how that was tied to a proletarian social and economic class as well. They are not just pretty clothing for the sake of prettiness, as Baddeley discusses in her article. Kahlo’s clothing choices represented the post-revolutionary Mexico – embracing Indigenous beauty and strength, empowerment of the “lower” social and economic class (the workers and peasants, who were disproportionately Indigenous), and the collectivity of a socialist community.[3]

Baddeley discusses how “In those paintings where Kahlo wears European dress she is passive, weak and unable to control her own destiny, but in the Tehuana costume she is strong, powerful, hopeful.”[4] This is mirrored in the film where it shows Frida in a dark suit, clipping her hair off, then drunk and screaming through her apartment for everyone to leave when her life feels out of her control after she first left Diego for sleeping with her sister. Her painting Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1942) was the artistic result of that scene in the film and demonstrates Baddeley’s point. The film does not, however, directly address the deeper political implications of this distinction as Frida representing the colonized body of Indigenous Mexico, but does imply some degree of feminism in her choices.

The film showcases Diego as Frida’s primary influence, but there are others such as her father and Trotsky who also impacted her political and artistic outlooks. It was her father who encouraged her to be herself and to be independent despite that going against the social norms of Mexico at the time. The influence of Trotsky is, perhaps, overplayed in the film while leaving out how short their affair was and creating a much more romanticized ending to what was in fact more cruel (on Frida’s part) than portrayed. Throughout the film Diego’s complicated and adversarial relationship with the Communist Party is mentioned repeatedly but Frida’s membership, which preceded her relationship with Diego, is never addressed.

The film expresses repeatedly that Frida’s work is explicitly tied to her emotional state, so that while the film traces her life through her art, it is traced through her relationship with Diego. While showing her affairs with Trotsky, Josephine Baker, and others, the film does not show her producing work during or related to those affairs. It is well known that Kahlo had lengthy and emotional relationships with women such as the singer Chavela Vargas, so if her work is almost exclusively tied to her emotions and relationships, one would expect to see work related to those other affairs and endings. The film does a disservice to her by portraying her work as exclusively a series of emotional reactions to her tumultuous relationship with Diego. Certainly there are other highly emotional instances, such as her mother’s death, that would have impacted her work if that were the only impetus. It also disregards the larger feminist and revolutionary context of her work.

While she addressed content such as her surgeries (Tree of Hope, 1946 and The Broken Column, 1944) and miscarriages (Henry Ford Hospital, 1932) in her work, as well as explicitly confronting lineage (My Grandparents, My Parents and I, 1936) and identity (My Nurse and I, 1937 and The Two Fridas, 1939), these were also revolutionary topics for the time and had little to do with Diego directly. As a woman to put these issues in front of the public was shocking. The way that she tied these personal issues with the history and roots of Mexico (Two Nudes in a Forest, 1939), its larger needs (The Bus, 1929), industrialization and Mexico’s relationship to the U.S. (Self-Portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States, 1932), and socialist leanings (Moses, 1945 and Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick, 1954) makes her work strikingly different from the work of the male artists around her. Although the film shows her minimizing the value of her work and receiving no recognition for it, this was not entirely true either. She did, in fact, show work in the U.S. and Paris during her lifetime. The film limits both the scope of her works, its influences and intent, and the recognition she received during her life, as these choices help to perpetuate the myth of suffering, tragically beautiful artist.

Baddeley’s article challenges that myth, tracing the way Frida’s style has been co-opted by fashion and popular culture since Herrera’s biography brought Kahlo back into the public imagination. Baddeley focuses most on the emphasis upon Frida’s sartorial choices, which have become mere “fashion” and inspiration for people with no connection whatsoever to Mexico, Indigenous culture, or revolutionary politics. The film encourages the idea that Frida was colorful and intriguing in her clothing, but without ever explicitly naming her choices as personal or political or making much effort to contrast her to others around her at a time of the modernization of Mexico when women were moving from conventional conservative dress to embrace modern options. While Frida exemplified the modern Mexican woman – indeed, she was still radical even by modern standards – she chose to delve further into the past for her clothing choices, bringing Indigenous identity to the forefront not to be fashionable but to stake a claim to the inherent Indigeneity of modern Mexican culture and demand respect and revolutionary love for the most marginalized of her society. She was appealing to the revolutionary ideals of collectivity and fraternity, placing herself as a visual representation of the people being left behind despite those ideals post-revolution. Baddeley explores how those choices have been removed completely from their revolutionary context, and without naming the film (the article was written a decade prior), it is easy to see the film continued to do what Baddeley was critiquing.

In relation to Mexican art history, the film provides a beautiful story that should encourage viewers to learn more. While it is a romantic storytelling, Frida’s life is provocative. The film techniques that place Frida inside her paintings, combining seeing her working on the paintings and her directly experiencing them, is interesting and brings the paintings to life. The use of craft, including collage and sugar skull/calavera animation (seen post accident in what appears to be Frida’s dream before she wakes up in the hospital, and seen again at the end when her 1940 painting The Dream is animated to represent her death) adds an additional layer that showcases traditional Mexican art forms. The film juxtaposes Frida’s work with Diego’s large scale industrial murals, but does not show what other art was being made in Mexico or elsewhere during the time period covered, so that it is difficult to contextualize Frida’s artistic choices with the larger movements and interests going on around her. This contributes to the hyper-personalized interpretation of her work and undervalues her influences and political statements that lend additional context to the work.

For those with little to no knowledge of art, Mexican culture, or history Frida does provide an entrance to the broader complexities of her work. The film is colorful, visually engrossing, and emotionally moving. Finding an emotional connection to the artist can encourage people to want to know and understand more. The film could not possibly cover all areas of her life in such a short period, and knowing it is based on a biography may encourage viewers to read the book as well as to consider other sources that offer additional insights into Frida’s life and work and the context in which she was living and working in.

[1] Oriana Baddeley. “Her Dress Hangs Here: De-Frocking the Kahlo Cult.” Oxford Art Journal 14, no. 1 (January 01, 1991): 10-17. doi:10.1093/oxartj/14.1.10. P. 14.

[2] Diego Rivera, and Gladys March. My Art, My Life: An Autobiography. New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1991. P. 72-77.

[3] Oriana Baddeley. “Her Dress Hangs Here.” P. 16.

[4] Oriana Baddeley. “Her Dress Hangs Here.” P. 14.

Sources

Baddeley, Oriana. “Her Dress Hangs Here: De-Frocking the Kahlo Cult.” Oxford Art Journal 14, no. 1 (January 01, 1991): 10-17. doi:10.1093/oxartj/14.1.10.

Herrera, Hayden. Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo. New York: Harper & Row, 1983.

Rivera, Diego, and Gladys March. My Art, My Life: An Autobiography. New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1991.

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