Lorena Duarte is a poet and writer living in the Twin Cities. She has a degree in Hispanic Studies from
Harvard University and taught a class on Kahlo for the Walker ArtCenter in conjunction with their current exhibit.
Whenever I think of Frida Kahlo, and her current status as pop icon, I think of Sylvia Plath’s remarkable poem, “ Lady Lazarus”:
“ The Peanut-crunching crowd / Shoves in to see / Them unwrap me hand and foot —— The big strip tease. / Gentleman , ladies / …There is a charge / For the eyeing my scars, there is a charge / For the hearing of my heart— / It really goes. / And there is a charge, a very large charge / For a word or a touch / Or a bit of blood / Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.”
There is this incredible, ravenous quality about the consumption of Frida Kahlo and Plath’s lines kept running in my head this past weekend as I waited over half an hour to see the Walker Art Center’s current Kahlo exhibit. Though largely white, the crowds nevertheless seemed to represent a wide range of folks, from young artsy-punky types, to stroller-pushing families, to distinguished silver bouffants and gold buttoned blazers. She seems to have seduced us all. Personally, I think Frida would laugh at all the fuss. But it is problematic, this consumption – for several reasons. First and foremost, is that a great deal of the furor around Kahlo is not related to her painting, it is biographical in nature. Who was she sleeping with? How many operations did she have? How many lovers?
That seems to me to be terribly disrespectful, if not unexpected, considering our scandal-worshipping culture. If you take a moment to learn a little about Kahlo’s influences, intentions and innovations, her paintings are extraordinary; social commentary, mixed with indigenous and Catholic iconography, each one is a gem of mixed and hidden meanings.
And while her portraits I think are fair game for our examination, there are other aspects of her life, her diary for example, that are not so straightforward. While I adore the Diary, in fact, I am using it for a class I am giving at the Walker, it causes me consternation. Here, Frida loses her masks; all the control and self-mastery that are evident in her self portraits are gone. All her fears and foibles are there for our taking, and we take them indiscriminately. It is terribly conflicting, on the one hand, the Diary is a great source for a deeper understanding of this complex woman, on the other hand, would I want someone reading my diary and dissecting it in class?
But of course this is Frida Kahlo who we’re talking about, and as with anything to do with her, nothing is black and white. We can’t simply talk about her as a victim of crass commercialization by a sensationalistic, consumer-driven society.
She created herself an icon. Like her paintings, which are so careful and intentional, so was she about her life, her dress, her image. She knew she caused a fuss wherever she went by her manner of dress, her rowdy behavior. She loved to cause commotion, and seemed to revel in shocking and offending people (the more pompous, the better). So perhaps she wouldn’t mind being on coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets and t-shirts. Perhaps. Still, I would proceed with caution, and a good deal of respect.
Frida fits our stereotypes of so many things: the suffering artist, the femme fatale, the bohemian, the radical, it is really no wonder that she has become such an icon. I just hope that in the end, people will not ignore the art for the character that created it.
I’ll end with Ms. Plath again, and not just because I’m a poet, but because it so perfectly suits: Frida is herself a Lady Lazarus, a woman who rises from the dead and haunts, lives among, has her revenge upon, and enchants the living:
“ I am your opus, / I am your valuable, / The pure gold baby / That melts to a shriek. / I turn and burn. / Do not think I underestimate your great concern. / Ash, ash— / You poke and stir. / Flesh, bone, there is nothing there— / A cake of soap, / A wedding ring, / A gold filling. / Herr God, Herr Lucifer / Beware / Beware. / Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.”