Monday, June 26, 2006


Some thirty years ago a feminist art historian alerted me the coming elevation of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. How right she was! If only I had known I might have made a killing by acquiring one of her works. Probably not, since her oeuvre is tiny, rendering the available works scarce and pricey (even then).

Even my friend had no idea how high Fridamania could soar. Some even speak of Fridaism as a religion. All sorts of arcame symbolism is imported into her works, which in my view constitute a modest achievement. In the 1940s monographs on modern Mexican painting began to appear (one by my mentor Bernard S. Myers). If Frida Kahlo was mentioned in them it was usually as Mrs. Rivera. No one would have thought of her has belong to a status alongside, even eclipsing that of the tres grandes, Orozco, Siqueiros, and Rivera. Times have definitely changed.

Because of her multiple identities Frida assuredly goes to the head of the class in Victimology 101. She was a woman, Mexican, Jewish, a cripple, and a Leftist. True, according to Jewish law Frida was not Jewish, because it was her father who was of that faith, not her mother. But that fact hasn't deterred some from seeking kabbalist and other Jewish symbolism in her work.

(Kahlo's "ideal" victimhood reminds me of a true story. Thirty years ago the attorney Thomas F. Coleman was asked by the state of California to form a temporary commission to study the sexual problems of minorities. One day Gray Davis, then an aide to Governor Brown, called to ask: "Do you have a handicapped black lesbian." Without a pause, Tom replied: "Well we have the black lesbian; handicapping can be arranged.")

Fifteen years ago I visited Frida's ritzy house in a fancy suburb of Mexico City. Not only did she have servants galore, her library seemed to be stocked exclusively with hack Commie writings (in English), stuff even my Leftist parents would have distained.

At all events last night I chanced upon a cable rerun of the recent Hollywood movie "Frida." It was so hysterical and vulgar that I turned the thing off after thirty minutes. I'm glad I didn't shell out eleven dollars for that piece of tripe. Of course this transformation doesn't in itself tell you much about the artist. With "The Agony and the Ecstasy" Hollywood turned even Michelangelo into a soap opera.

Of course Kahlo is no Michelangelo. Still, there are larger issues here concerning artistic reputations. Sixty years ago Henry Moore was t h e modern sculptor. Nowadays you hardly ever hear about him. Can he be revived? Probably not, at least until it can be proved that he had an early case of HIV and was a descendent of Genghis Khan.


Blogger Stephen said...

Three decades, when I first visited their studios, Kahlo was still in Diego Rivera's shadow. I'd say he is closer to forgotten now than Henry Moore. It wasn't that long ago that I saw (and enjoyed) a large retrospect of Moore's drawings and prints.

Alberto Giacometti and Henry Moore are not as ubiquitous as they were, but I don't think either has been forgotten by art lovers, whatever the situation may be for art history academic labors.

7:26 PM  
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