Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Aug 21 07:28:11 MDT 2003

Paint Job
Does Frida nail Kahlo's life—or her art?
By Carol Kino,


But here's what's really wrong with this picture: We hardly ever see 
Frida painting. In some early scenes, when she's recovering from the 
accident, she decorates her body cast with butterflies, as though it 
were a chrysalis—a terrific image, even though I don't believe this 
actually happened until much later in Kahlo's life. We see her parents 
affixing a specially designed easel to her sickbed, at which point she 
starts to paint. Yet after her recovery, though we see plenty about her 
pursuit of sex, drinking, and her passion for Diego, we learn nothing 
about how she made her work.

Did Frida also paint when she was feeling fit? When someone commissioned 
a portrait, did she have her subject over to the studio to pose? When 
the couple traveled abroad for Diego's commissions and shows, did she 
keep on making work, too? Though the answer to all these questions is 
yes, Taymor gives few clues. "Patch me up so I can paint," Frida tells 
her doctor just before he says it's time to amputate her toes. But for 
the most part, we only see her working when she's trapped in a cast or 
some other gruesome medical apparatus.

Frustratingly, Taymor does convey a strong sense of Diego as an artist, 
both in terms of his working methods (he used a crew and scaffolding) 
and his career (he was a sucker for parties and the limelight). So how 
about just a single shot of Frida's studio, a close-up of her paints and 
brushes, or the metal panels she used in place of canvas? (She adopted 
this suggestion of Diego's to intensify the relationship between her 
work and the Mexican retablo—folk art paintings on tin that often depict 
the saints or commemorate some holy intervention in a mortal crisis.) 
Even more important, what did Kahlo's finished paintings actually look 
like? We see plenty of close-ups of those badly painted imaginative 
renderings, but we only ever catch brief glimpses of the real stuff.

Similarly, the film unintentionally demeans Kahlo by depicting her as a 
charming naif, rather than a savvy professional. OK, so she often wore 
folkloric Tehuana clothes and mimicked folk-art techniques, the better 
to express her solidarity with working-class Mexicans. But she herself 
was born bourgeois and was a creature of the international art world 
besides. Her paintings are far more sophisticated than they initially 
seem and, even though she downplayed her ambition, she obviously took 
her work extremely seriously. Furthermore, her romantic partners weren't 
limited to Leon Trotsky and a procession of sexy women, as the film 
suggests. Until her physical condition rendered heterosexual intercourse 
problematic, she also enjoyed liaisons with many renowned male art world 
figures, including the sculptor Isamu Noguchi and the Surrealist dealer 
Julien Levy, who gave her a solo debut at his gallery in New York.

The European Surrealists, who discovered Kahlo when some of them 
decamped for Mexico during World War II, hardly turn up at all. André 
Breton, the movement's founder, makes but a cameo appearance in the 
film, urging her in a hokey French accent to show her work in Paris. 
Kahlo didn't consider herself a Surrealist: "I never painted dreams," 
she is supposed to have said. "I painted my own reality." Yet the 
reality is that her association with the group gave her career a major 
boost. She participated in their 1940 exhibition in Mexico City and 
today, her work graces the covers of countless books on the movement.



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