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Updated: Nov 29, 2023



Immersing oneself in somebody else’s life is a therapeutic pastime and this documentary about Frida Kahlo fits the bill. Simply titled Frida Kahlo, the latest “Exhibition on Screen” series follows Kahlo’s experience in a trajectory from childhood to death. There are plenty of stills of Kahlo’s paintings and seductive, mid-century, monochrome photographs of the artist. Worldwide curators explain her art alongside the narrator Anna Chancellor who highlights her personal life.

Left to right: The Broken Column 1944; The Two Fridas 1939; Frida Kahlo with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird 1940

So settle back and learn about Frida Kahlo. She is nothing if not absorbing.

In the first instance, she is an early twentieth artist who rocked the art world from inception. She is forever iconic and perhaps overdone. This is central to Ali Ray’s documentary, who spent much time filming in Kahlo’s Mexican home and wanted to find out more about the woman who emblazoned so many art gallery t-shirts.

She could be defined by her circumstances as a childless, disabled woman, a renowned beauty with limitless charisma who was courted by the most significant surrealists of the twentieth century namely Picasso, Miro and Kandinsky. Her lovers were male and female and included Leon Trotsky and her husband, the Mexican Master of Art, Diego Rivera.

However much you think you may know about Kahlo, in Ali Ray’s documentary you learn one thing above all, that Kahlo cannot be simply defined. She mixes and surpasses cultural boxes. Frida Kahlo overcame challenges that would crush the best of us.

When the writer and founder of Surrealism, Andre Breton, met Frida Kahlo and saw What the Water Gave Me, he labelled it a surrealist painting. Surrealism adhered to Freud’s theories of dreams, but Frida refused this classification. She insisted that she painted from memory, not dreams, and that her images were quite real and found in the real world. “They thought I was a surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality. I have never followed any school or anyone’s influence. I don’t expect anything from my work except the satisfaction of expressing something that I could never put into words.

Disability underlines this film biography of Kahlo. It bursts into her art with graphic depictions of pain, violence and defiance. It simply cannot be ignored. Even before the notorious tram crash at the age of eighteen which broke her spine and ribs, Kahlo had polio as a child which affected her foot, a foot that was eventually amputated as an adult. She spent all her life under operation.

Her pain extended to her passions. She declared with acerbic wit, “There have been two accidents in my life. One was the tram. The other was Diego. Diego was far worse.

Kahlo’s life with Diego was tumultuous and the documentary places him front and centre. Well, she married, divorced, and remarried the man, even after he had an affair with her beloved sister. They had a remarkable arrangement, living in separate, modern houses adjoined by an elevated walkway. Kahlo’s house, the famous Blue House in Coyoacan Mexico, was where she was born, raised and died.

About her other lovers, little is mentioned in the film, except for the exiled, revolutionary communist, Leon Trotsky. The affair infuriated Diego. It triggered the divorce, but in the documentary that is put aside. Apparently, Diego, a promiscuous creature himself, resented her affairs with men, but not women.

As for her female lovers, there is reference to a photo of Kahlo with a striking, blonde woman and, regarding her lesbian sexuality, Ray turns to Self-portrait with Cropped Hair 1940 in which she poses as a man in a trouser suit, legs astride a chair.

Researching just a little into Kahlo, it becomes increasingly clear that much is skimmed over in Frida Kahlo, not just her lovers and sexuality, but also her family. Her father was a celebrated photographer and friends with the likes of Tina Modotti. But we learn little about her family or friends.

The film concentrates firmly on Frida Kahlo’s paintings which speak about her accident, her marriage and her miscarriages. Essentially, Kahlo’s fascination is with herself, about which she is fearless. Following her divorce, she began a series of self-portraits. Surgery and pain limited her movement. Quite simply, she had only herself as muse. It was also a great source of income during her lifetime such was her fame.

In her self-portraits, Kahlo stares you out. One suspects in real life she would be the last to blink. Or perhaps she is not looking at anyone else? Forced to bedrest, she might just be staring at her own reality and not flinching from the injustice. She looks directly at the viewer or in a three-quarter pose (a learned photographer). She is utterly confident in her appearance. She wears bright, red lipstick. She does not depilate her upper lip or unibrow.

She paints herself pinned by nails or encased in a steel corset. She depicts herself bleeding, engorged, twisted, corpse like, eyes bulging like a wounded beast. Sometimes she is iconic, surrounded by flowers. She wears traditional Mexican dresses from various regions, encouraged by Diego. She wore them like a motif overseas in New York where she had a solo exhibition in 1938 at the Julien Levy Gallery and in Paris where she was courted by the Surrealists.

Elements around her change in her paintings: foetuses; monkeys; cats; the moon; the sun; Diego. They are often linked by umbilical cords and arteries. They are attached to raw hearts and lungs. Like Frida’s persona and sexuality, she also combines male and female elements: the sun and moon; dark and light; love and death.

Much of her imagery references motherhood and breast feeding to be found in Christianity, Hinduism and Pre-Hispanic culture but not Kahlo's life. Madonna and child are a frequent subject, as is the Mexican earth mother. Her art is peppered with a menagerie of little animals, her baby substitutes. And yet, to her chagrin, she was childless. “I lost three children and a series of other things that would’ve fulfilled my horrible life. But my painting took place of all of this.

Frida was also an alcoholic for much of her adult life. She partied and abandoned herself to intoxication to stem the physical pain and emotional distress in her marriage. Finally in 1950 she was taken to hospital in intense pain from her lifelong injuries. She took morphine until her death three years later at the age of forty-seven. One of her last self-portraits shows her holding a pallet that is a live heart in her lap. She sits in a wheelchair holding paint brushes dripping with her blood.

Understandbly, a 90 minute documentary can only summarise a life. In Frida Kahlo, this particular summary is pitch perfect with quotes from Diana Bermudez in dulcet, Hispanic tones enhanced by Carolina Arteaga Romero who plays Frida Kahlo in convincing mini tableaus.




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