The first retrospective of Frida Kahlo’s work outside Mexico opened at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in May 1982, organized and co-curated by Laura Mulvey and myself. In fact, it was a joint exhibition of works by Kahlo and Tina Modotti, the Italian–American–Mexican photographer, who herself subsequently became the object of a minor kind of ‘Tinamania’. At that time, Mulvey and I were hostile to the idea of shows limited to the work of a single artist and felt that a contrast between two related bodies of work was more revealing than a self-contained one-person event. We also wanted to display photography on an equal footing with painting. After its opening at the Whitechapel the show travelled to Germany and Stockholm, before going on to the Grey Gallery in New York and, finally, to the National Art Museum in Mexico City. The North American venues were added after the exhibition had opened, as a direct result of its impact in Europe, its word-of-mouth reputation. The effect of this was to introduce Kahlo’s work to the us—more specifically to its artistic and intellectual capital, New York—in 1983, at roughly the same time that Hayden Herrera’s biography of Kahlo came out. It was, I believe, the conjunction of these two events, the exhibition and the book, that sparked off an interest in the us, which later fed into or converged with the enthusiasm in Europe and Mexico to produce ‘Fridamania’: the elevation of Kahlo to cult status.
Since then, there has been a stream of further exhibitions, catalogues, books—and eventually postcards, calendars, wall-posters, folding screens, diaries and feature films, Paul Leduc’s and now Julie Taymor’s. Within a decade, Frida Kahlo had become probably one of the most instantly recognizable artists in the world. How did it happen? And why? As we shall see, these questions raise a number of issues that are central to the way we construe the history of taste, the reception of art and the generation of cultural icons.
To begin with the question of why we wanted to put on the show in the first place: this may verge on self-portraiture, but perhaps that is appropriate in writing about an artist like Kahlo. We were not art historians and had never organized an art exhibition before. We were film theorists and avant-garde film-makers. We went to Mexico together for a Christmas holiday, 1978–79, staying with a friend who taught Japanese Political History at the Colegio de México. Before that, I had seen one Kahlo painting, Portrait of Frida and Diego, at the historic exhibition ‘Women Artists: 1550–1950’, put on by Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin in 1976. However, Kahlo did not figure at all prominently in my thinking as I planned what to see on the trip. There was scant information in the books I looked at—Rivera’s wife, did some painting. I first became more conscious of her role after arriving in Mexico City, because she is portrayed—alongside Tina Modotti—as a revolutionary handing out arms to the workers and peasants in the murals Rivera painted in the courtyard of the Ministry of Education building in Mexico City. Later we went to the suburb of Coyoacán, primarily to visit Trotsky’s house. The Blue House, which belonged to Kahlo, was nearby, and so we decided to visit that too. As it turned out, it was the Blue House that made the greater impact.
In fact, there was only one room of Kahlo paintings there—by no means the best ones. The impact came from the house itself. Looking back on it, I located it in my mind in a series that included the Gaudí houses in Barcelona (especially the Casa Batlló and the roof of the Pedrera) and the Watts Towers in Los Angeles. I had already, in a sense, ‘exhibited’ Gaudí via the script of Antonioni’s film, The Passenger, which I co-wrote with Mark Peploe some years previously. A number of scenes in the film are set in Gaudí buildings. In general, I was interested in a certain kind of intensely personal or ‘outsider’ architecture. I still am. This interest derives from surrealism and it came as no surprise that it was André Breton who ‘discovered’ Kahlo as a painter, wrote the catalogue essay for her first New York show (1939, at the Julien Levy Gallery) and organized an exhibition of her work in Paris that same year. Breton personally instigated the reception of her work abroad and it was as a surrealist (or para-surrealist) that she was originally perceived outside Mexico—and to some extent inside as well.
The ‘outsider’ aspect of the Blue House had another important quality, beyond its relationship with surrealism. It stood in stark contrast to the white walls, empty spaces and techno-hygienic aspect of the typical museum of modern art. It was a cluttered, domestic space, brightly coloured and full of idiosyncratic objects. In many ways, I saw Kahlo as challenging orthodox doctrines of modernism. First, of course, she was a woman artist and, by then, it was already well established that women had been relegated to a secondary place within the history of modernism. Second, she was, in a sense, an ‘outsider’ artist, untrained, non-professional, painting out of her own desire without seeking to exhibit; and this too put her in a marginal position vis-à-vis the mainstream art world. Third, she was from Mexico, a country outside the European–United States bloc that was culturally hegemonic. Fourth, she had ties with surrealism which, although accepted within the history of modernism, was still somewhat suspect, both within the rationalist Bauhaus account of art history and within the Greenberg art-for-art’s sake version. I was also interested in the implications of her political involvements—with Trotsky, but also with orthodox Communism.
After visiting the Blue House, I made more of a conscious effort to see Kahlo’s work and the decisive moment probably came when, shortly afterwards, I saw the paintings exhibited in the Modern Art Museum in Chapultepec Park, especially The Two Fridas, certainly her most ambitious work available to me. On returning to London we went to the Whitechapel Gallery and suggested an exhibition—a project accepted by the director and by Mark Francis, the in-house curator responsible. I made a number of trips to Mexico, by myself and then with Mark Francis, to trace all the work and to secure the loans. During this time I met Hayden Herrera, through mutual friends; we were able to exchange information—although I learned more from her than she did from me. Her work was already more advanced than mine although the book finally appeared after the show. During this time I also wrote a piece, a hybrid of fiction and essay, called ‘Mexico/Women/Art’, which was published in London in 1979 in the Saturday Night Reader, an anthology edited by Emma Tennant.
I recently reread this piece for the first time in many years and was intrigued to see the line I took. The first paragraph mentions Rivera and muralism, Breton and surrealism, Trotsky and revolutionary communism. But its centrepiece is ‘her unrelenting struggle against injury and ill-health’. As we shall see, this was a crucial element in the construction of the Kahlo legend. I go on to stress the ‘non-western’ (or ‘Third World’) aspects of Kahlo’s art and compare Mexico with Iran, a country in which I had lived for some time. I was clearly preoccupied with questions about the history of modernism and the meaning of the idea of an ‘avant-garde’, issues which simultaneously arose for me out of my work as a film-maker. I was also fascinated by Kahlo’s use of popular art and imagery, especially the ex-voto paintings she collected, which relate directly to her own history of medical disasters. I was interested in the ways in which the avant-garde of the sixties—Fluxus, for example—picked up the threads of the twenties—women’s art, political art, photography, popular imagery, environment, performance—and how these threads were also relevant to Kahlo. There is a whole section on Kahlo’s use of Tehuana costume, linking it to feminism, to the tragic drama of the body, to the ‘creolization’ of indigenous cultures and to the psychoanalytic theory of masquerade.