Frida Kahlo, edited by Elizabeth Carpenter Reviewed by Miriam N. Kotzin


No question: Frida Kahlo is a phenomenon, so much so that  “Frida Earrings” can be found on e-bay. The 2002 movie, Frida, capitalized upon and further promoted the cult of personality and “Fridamania” that had begun three decades earlier.   This stunning catalog, Frida Kahlo, was edited by Elizabeth Carpenter of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and produced in connection with the centennial show of Frida Kahlo’s paintings and photographs of her with her family and friends. [The show, organized by Elizabeth Carpenter and Kahlo biographer Hayden Herrera, opened at the Walker and traveled to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and from there to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art where it is on view until September 28.] 


Victor Zamudio-Taylor’s essay, “Frida Kahlo, Mexican Modernist” discusses Kahlo’s work  and biography.  He connects her work to Mexican folk art and colonial religious painting (p.23).   He considers the trend in scholarship that “links ...[her work]  in  two distinct but related and even overlapping avant-garde twentieth-century practices: to art inspired by leftist ideologies...and to Surrealism.” (p. 30). He quotes Breton’s now celebrated comment comparing her work to “a ribbon around a bomb”  and several of Kahlo’s  statements, refusing to be pigeon-holed: e.g., that her paintings “are the most frank expression of myself , and they do not take into account or consider the judgments or biases of anyone” (p. 31). Zamudio-Taylor discusses a number of her paintings in a number of ways: how they relate to the themes of her art;  in terms of technical aspects such as brushwork; and how they are related to her biography.


Hayden Herrera, who wrote two books on Kahlo [Frida (2002) and Frida Kahlo (1992)] contributed the essay “Frida Kahlo’s Legacy:  The Poetics of Self,” in which she demonstrates that Kahlo’s influence extends across borders .  Some “pay homage to her by including her image in their art as a kind of emblem. . . .A number of artists have created alters to Frida.  Encouraged by Kahlo’s example, many artists have turned to autobiographical subject matter, creating either narratives of events in their lives or imagery that alludes to their experience in a more metaphorical manner.  [Others] have adopted Kahlo’s intentionally folkoric style to give their subject matter a certain distance as well as a distance as well as a distinct visual charm.”   She says that  “legatees follow her example in painting self-portraits, and several use the body—often wounded, fragmented, and in pain—as a way of expressing meaning.”   In this chapter she discusses a number of artists as legatees, including: Nahum Zenil, Rocio Maldonado,  Dulce Maria Nuñez, José Luis Romeo,Julio Galán, Yasumassa Morimora, Enrique Chagoya, Ellen Berman, Sarah McEneaney, and Kiki Smith.


A useful timeline prepared by Fernando Feliu-Moggi, Nancy Meyer and Victor Zmudio-Taylor begins in 1907 with Kahlo’s birth and ends in 1954, the year of her death.  “Salient events” (p. 82) are given in four categories:  Kahlo’s biography, world historical and political events, arts and culture, and science and technology. 


In addition to seventy-six color plates—many of which were in the show—the book includes two sections of photographs.  In  “Photographic Memory:  A Life  (and Death) in Pictures,” Carpenter’ provides useful commentary on the photographs as they illuminate Kahlo’s biography, and she also considers the photographs in the context of  the traditions and history of art.  For example, she connects the 1938 portrait by Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Frida Kahlo with Globe, with Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, in which the artist is visible in a convex mirror.  She notes,  “Doubling and mirror imagery were of interest to both Alvarez Bravo and Kahlo...Of course van Eyck’s was a portrait of a married couple (and is considered by some to be a wedding portrait).  In Alvarez Bravo’s version the bride’s wistful demeanor amplifies the absence of the bridegroom”  (pp. 46-47).   In addition to this chapter, Photographs from the Vicente Wolf Collection contains sixty-six pages of images.  Altogether  we have  more than 100 photographs, some snapshots, many by well-known photographers Tina Modotti, Gisèle Freund,  Nikolas Murray, Lola Alvarez Bravo, and Manuel Alvarez Bravo.  Perhaps of equal interest are the snapshots of Kahlo with her husband Diego Rivera, her family, and friends including André Breton and Leon Trotsky.


Elizabeth Carpenter, ed.  Frida Kahlo.   Walker Art Center, 2007.  320 pages.




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Miriam N. Kotzin

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© 2005-2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas

Frida Kahlo, edited by Elizabeth Carpenter

Reviewed by Miriam N. Kotzin