The film opens with various voiceovers attesting to Frida Kahlo’s greatness. The obligatory mentions are made of her suffering, and someone claims that her art transcended time. This belief – that effectively says that Kahlo’s art can be somehow divorced from the society in which it was produced – comes up more than once in the film and, as far as I’m concerned, the film is weaker for it.
But lets not get ahead of ourselves. First we have the story of Kahlo’s upbringing. Born in an affluent part of Mexico City to immigrant parents, she was headed towards a medical career before the bus that she was travelling on was hit by a tram. It resulted in several deaths and Kahlo having a shattered spine. This injury would appear in later paintings and attract a little too much interest from obsessive critics, who used it to explain all of her subsequent art.
The accident did have a significant short-term effect. Kahlo was forced to cut short her medical studies as her family was unable to pay for both her studies and the crippling hospital bills. As she was bed ridden, her father fashioned an easel that she could use while returning to an old interest of painting.
The boyfriend who was in the bus with her was sent to Europe so that he would not have to spend his life with a sick woman. Not long after, she met the muralist Diego Rivera, who she married and accompanied to the USA where he had been offered several well-paid commissions, not least from the Ford company in Detroit. Kahlo was never fully settled in the States and eventually convinced Rivera to return to Mexico.
While in Detroit, Kahlo became pregnant and asked a doctor friend whether she should have an abortion, partly because her body was too weak, and partly because Rivera showed no interest in becoming a father. This became unnecessary when she had a miscarriage. In her attempt to deal with the trauma, she painted Henry Ford Hospital, a remarkable work for many reasons.
Firstly it subverted the traditional image of a nude woman on canvass, who until then had been painted sensually and with a large degree of objectification. In this painting, Kahlo lies in a hospital bad. She is bereft but she is also the centre of the painting. Her bed covers contain deep red stains – one critic in the film claims that this is the first painting to show menstrual blood.
The bloody scene of Henry Ford Hospital is reproduced in A Few Nips, painted a decade later. The subject this time is a murdered woman. As she lies bleeding on the bed, a man stands over her. This was based on a contemporary newspaper story where a man was sent to court for stabbing his wife to death. His defence: “all I did was give her a few nips”.
At the start of the film, much is made of Mexico’s close links to “cultured” Europe, and Kahlo’s debts to her Western predecessors. Yet as her work progressed, she showed less interest in European practices and took her inspiration increasingly from traditional “pre-Spanish” Mexican Art. She also started to get more involved in politics.
The film finds it hard to understand or explain Kahlo’s political commitment. We are told that Kahlo and Rivera both joined the Communist Party and that her art was somehow influenced by the social upheaval in Mexico after the Revolution at the beginning of the Century. But we are not told how. When talking about what Kahlo actually thought, more time is spent on her brief dabbling with Eastern religions than on her political thought.
So, the fact that for a while she chose to wore Mexican clothes, or turned up to her wedding in servant’s clothes is almost presented as a whim or a fashion statement. It is mentioned in passing that the turn to Mexican dress came when she first moved to the USA, but the significance of this is missed. A Muslim friend once told me that she feels much more determined to wear a headscarf in Western countries which want to police what she wears. Similarly Kahlo’s clothing choice was one of defiance.
The film acknowledges that Leon Trotsky spent his exile in Mexico as a guest of Rivera and Kahlo, but is most interested in his brief affair with Kahlo. We do not hear that Kahlo and Rivera joined the Trotskyist Left Opposition. André Breton gets an even rougher deal. In a discussion of whether Kahlo was a surrealist, he is presented as a utopian who painted his dreams while Kahlo painted her life. No mention is made of the Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art which he co-authored with Rivera and Trotsky.
There is a lot missing from the film, but what is there is generally interesting. We see Kahlo addressing racial issues by painting herself sucking at the teat of an indigenous wet nurse. A painting of her in short hair and a suit is seen as testament to her fluid sexuality – she had a number of affairs with women. And of course we see how she was able to make women the subjects of art in a way that few before her did.
Kahlo’s work did not transcend time. It came from very specific social conditions, and was a result of the ideas and beliefs of its creator. This film touches on the surface of this, which makes for a good film, as Kahlo is such an important artist. It tells a story of Kahlo, but it doesn’t tell The story. While we’re waiting for that film to arrive, we can whet our palette with this.