Does shining a spotlight on the personal lives of artists put their work in the shadow?
Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art thinks this has happened to Frida Kahlo.
In the belief that she’s better known as a bisexual Mexican woman with health problems and a womanizing husband than a painter of significance, MCA is showing her work with that of others who came after – like Cindy Sherman and Louise Bourgeois – to suggest Kahlo’s impact on contemporary art making.
As MCA curator Julie Rodrigues Widholm told the press, “She’s been so overshadowed by her celebrity that her work has become lost. Academia isn’t taking her seriously.”
If that’s true, why fault academia?
Doesn’t all the focus on Kahlo’s personal life have to do with all her self-portraits that call attention to her maimed spine and pelvis crushed in a trolley car accident when she was a teen? Didn’t Kahlo direct all the floodlights on herself with her work?
She said it herself: “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.”[
“Self-Portrait,” like much of her work, is a staring full-face image in Mexican folk art style with attendant reference to the heavy body brace and numerous surgeries and miscarriages she suffered. As if to further emphasize her infirmities, she even pictured blood oozing from thorny twigs around her neck.
“The Broken Column” makes more reference to her broken spine. The title is a literal description of what you see: Kahlo in the nude, encased in a heavy brace. Nails sticking out of her and her face stiff with the bearing of pain tell how it felt to be her.
And her pain bled into her work even when she wasn’t picturing herself. Clare Booth Luce’s comment about a portrait she commissioned Kahlo to paint of her late friend Dorothy Hale makes the point:
“I will always remember the shock I had when I pulled the painting out of the crate. I felt really physically sick. What was I going to do with this gruesome painting of the smashed corpse of my friend, and her blood dripping down all over the frame? I could not return it – across the top of the painting there was an angel waving an unfurled banner which proclaimed in Spanish that this was ‘The Suicide of Dorothy Hale, painted at the request of Clare Booth Luce, for the mother of Dorothy.’ I would not have requested such a gory picture of my worst enemy, much less of my unfortunate friend.”
All that said, what’s wrong with artists painting what they know, their experience, their inwardness, their reality? It certainly hasn’t reduced academia’s regard for, say, Van Gogh or Mapplethorpe.