July 6, 1907 – Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón:
“I paint myself because I am often alone, and I am the subject I know best.”
The Portland Art Museum (PAM) was to have been having sold-out crowds for Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism last summer, and as a member, I was looking forward to early admission and the opening party. Then, some damn pandemic spoiled that. It is now rescheduled for Spring 2022.
Queer artist Frida Kahlo is one of the most iconic Mexicans of all time. When I hear the word Mexico, I think of her first. Her brilliant paintings hang in museums all over our pretty planet. Kahlo was known for her colorful clothing celebrating Mexican traditional designs. Her fashion sense extended to the corsets, crutches and prosthetic legs she needed due to her disability.
She had physical limitations due to polio. She spent nine months bedridden. Her father encouraged her to take up sports to help her recovery, highly unusual for a girl at that era. Still, she walked with a limp.
Kahlo attended the prestigious National Preparatory School, where Diego Rivera was working on a mural. Kahlo would watch Rivera work and the two became acquaintances. While at school, Kahlo was involved in a bus accident that would cause her to suffer for most of her life. A steel handrail impaled her hip and she had back and pelvis injuries that plagued her for most of her life. Over her lifetime she had numerous surgeries to try and ease her pain. After spending months in the hospital recovering, she returned home to her family to recover and it is there that she started painting, including her first self-portraits.
In 1928, Kahlo reunited with Rivera and he encouraged her painting. They were both politically active and members of the Communist Party. They married in 1929 and moved around, often following Rivera’s career, to San Francisco, New York, and Detroit. She had a particularly complicated, volatile relationship with her husband; they frequently fought, divorced and remarried.
Early in their marriage, Kahlo told Rivera she expected him to be “not faithful, but loyal.” Sexual faithfulness was a bourgeois ideal that they reject as Marxist bohemians who disdain the conventional. But passionate jealousy was not unknown to them, and both had a double standard, permitting themselves freedoms they would deny the other.
The name Frida Kahlo is almost synonymous with Diego Rivera, but she had many affairs, including with photographer Nickolas Muray, artist Isamu Noguchi, American billionaire Nelson Rockefeller and Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Kahlo had affairs with both men and women, including her husband’s girlfriends. She has also had a taste for film stars, including Dolores del Rio, Paulette Goddard and Maria Felix, plus Josephine Baker, among others. One of her most passionate affairs was with American painter Georgia O’Keeffe. Kahlo:
“O’Keefe was in the hospital for three months, she went to Bermuda for a rest. She didn’t make love to me that time, I think on account of her weakness. Too bad.”
Kahlo, one of Mexico’s most iconic painters, also had a relationship with one of Mexico’s most iconic singers, Chavela Vargas. Vargas was born in Costa Rica in 1919, and she made Mexico her adopted home in the 1930s. Sometime in the early 1940s, Chavela was invited to a party at the Casa Azul, the house in Mexico City where Kahlo was born and lived most of her life. Apparently at the end of the party, Kahlo invited Vargas to stay the night because Chavela lived in a different part of the city. This was the start of a relationship that was very intense.
Vargas sang Canciones Rancheras, traditional Mexican songs typically performed by men, while dressed like a man. The singer queered conventions by presenting herself wearing a poncho, trousers, sandals, hair up, no makeup. She sang in a raspy, masculine voice, and she would sing to the women in the audience. She did not try and hide her lesbianism.
Vargas challenged conventions; yet she did not came out as a queer woman until she published a memoir, Y Si Quieres Saber De Mi Pasado (2002) when she was 81-years-old. Among the many lovers that Vargas enjoyed, Kahlo is the only one to whom she devotes an entire chapter in her book.
When questioned about the relationship, Vargas told a reporter:
“Well, whoever wants to find out my story should open my chest and find my memories.”
Casa Azul, the house where she was born and where she died, was her studio and it is packed with objects and books. She had a mirror over her bed to gaze at herself. The bed was one of her workspaces, and she had a special system that allowed her to paint while lying in bed. It was, and it is, a beautiful shade of bright Mexican blue. Now it is one of the most-visited museums in Mexico City, even though it is tiny.
Kahlo recognized the power of cross-dressing. In a family photograph from 1926 she is dressed in full male attire. She used cross-dressing to express her power and independence.
Salma Hayek portrays Kahlo in the film Frida (2002), receiving an Academy Award nomination for the performance. Frida received generally positive reviews from critics and won two Oscars, for Best Makeup and Best Original Score among its six nominations. The film is directed by Julie Taymor. It also stars Alfred Molina as Rivera and Geoffrey Rush as Trotsky. Unofficially, the screenplay is by Edward Norton who plays Rockefeller. Vargas appears on the soundtrack.
The film opens in 1953, on the date of Kahlo’s only one-woman show in Mexico. Her doctor tells her she is too sick to attend it, but she has her bed lifted into a flat-bed truck and carried to the gallery. The scene provides Taymor with the set-up for the film’s extraordinary closing scene, in which death is seen as just another work of art.
Last winter in an op-ed for the failing NY Times, Hayek stated that pervy producer Harvey Weinstein attempted to thwart the making of the film because Hayek had refused to grant him sexual favors and also threatened to shut down the film unless Hayek agreed to include a full frontal nude sex scene with herself and another woman.
In the USA, we are still waiting for Harriet Tubman to replace genocidal racist Andrew Jackson off the 20-dollar bill. But, in Mexico, Kahlo is already on the 500 peso note.
This spring a Mexican court barred sales of a controversial Frida Kahlo Barbie doll. The doll was intended to be one of the Mattel company’s line of ”inspiring women” Barbies. The court challenge to the doll was brought by Kahlo’s family, who own the rights to her image, and who complained that Mattel had used that image without permission.
Kahlo was rediscovered during the 1970s Feminist Movement and hailed as an icon of female independence and artistry. She continues to inspire artists, women, and LGBTQ people, and especially bisexual female Art majors.