On September 17, 1925, Frida Kahlo, then an 18-year-old aspiring medical student, was riding a bus in Mexico City when it collided with a trolley. Her spine was shattered, forcing her to spend the next three months in a body cast, completely immobilized. For lack of anything else to do, she began to paint, using herself as her primary subject because (she would later say) it was the one she knew best. Her interest in medicine soon evaporated, and from a period of suffering was born an explosively cathartic art. Entirely self-taught, she combined folk art techniques with her knowledge of the masters of the Italian Renaissance to capture the raw emotion and turbulence of her life. And what a life—filled with the tumult of her on-again, off-again marriage to the philandering Diego Rivera, a series of miscarriages, a love affair with Leon Trotsky and the ongoing political struggles of Mexico. From that material, she created work that transcended her place and time.
The AGO’s new exhibition features both Kahlo and Rivera, but she is the star of the show. Nearly 60 years after her death at the age of 47, she remains an artistic icon on the level of Picasso and Van Gogh. Her distinctive features—the unibrow, the faint moustache, the lustrous hair with its often severe centre part—are instantly recognizable, and her artistic disciples are easy to spot. The magical games of self-imagining played by Cindy Sherman, in which Sherman photographs herself as imaginary movie stars, lunatic clowns and melancholy socialites, exploit the tension between art and biography that Kahlo helped pioneer. Instead of inventing the image of herself, as Kahlo did, Sherman invents the story behind the image.
A less famous but more direct descendant is Francesca Woodman, the American photographer whose sadly brief career has recently been rediscovered. Before her suicide in 1981 at the age of 22, Woodman created hundreds of photographs of herself, often naked and pictured with objects like eels in a bowl, up against a crumbling wall or crucified in a doorway. Her images capture the same sense of hidden intimacies recorded in self-portraits by her Mexican forebear.
Kahlo’s most devoted disciples, however, can be found not in any gallery but online. In a culture overwhelmed by the manufacture of self-image, she seems absolutely current. All those Kahlo postcards hanging in high school lockers—they’re not there because of rampant interest in mid-20th-century Mexican art or because of changing attitudes toward women’s facial hair. Kahlo put a selection of things in the frame with her: monkeys, snatches of her own hair, vines, body parts and a great profusion of flora. It is her obsession with visual autobiography, with defining her own image through the objects and items she accumulated around her, that connects her to this rabidly narcissistic and heavily accessorized decade.
We live in a era when people spend an inordinate amount of time photographing themselves with their stuff, defining themselves through things and disseminating that self-definition as widely as possible. On blogs and Twitter and Pinterest and Instagram and Facebook, millions of personal brands (formerly known as people) supply the world with constant images of themselves wearing designer shoes and clothes and bags and anything else they might be consuming or wanting to consume. Sometimes they put up images of themselves with things for the sake of amusement and sometimes it amounts to a profession. It can be hard to tell the difference.
Obviously, this vast, sleepless campaign of self-conjuration is not art, the impulses being more inspired by modern marketing than by aesthetics. And yet, the urge to share with the world a photo of your most recent meal, your sexy new handbag or the sonogram of your unborn baby is an expression of the same fundamental desires that motivated Kahlo. She was an oversharer, and a brilliant one. Her masterpieces—of which the AGO show contains several—are ferocious in their personality. Henry Ford Hospital, a.k.a. “The Flying Bed,” is a terrifying self-portrait she made in 1932 after a miscarriage. The painting depicts Kahlo on a bed surrounded by a fetus, a snail, a pelvis, an orchid, some kind of machine and a doctor’s model of the uterus. A huge tear falls from her left eye. An entire universe of pain is captured in those six strange objects, bound to her body through six thin, red umbilical cords.
At first glance, Kahlo’s paintings might seem shockingly naked, with all of their confessions right there on the surface. With time, however, they betray hidden depths, and many hints of things that only she could know. This is art that rewards repeated viewings. Even the less dramatic paintings glow with significance, with what are clearly private jokes or cached insights. In a self-portrait from 1940, she is depicted with cropped hair. A line of musical notation floats on the top of the page, and she is wearing a black suit. Each of these details raises fresh questions. The world seems to hover dangerously around the outlines of her form. Objects fill the margins of her paintings like a mysterious fog.
That sense of impenetrable mystery is what sets Kahlo’s work apart from the army of Instagrammers who have taken up the great painter’s spirit of exposure, but not the concomitant need for withdrawal that made her work go way beyond mere self-obsession. While focusing on her self-image for 30 years, she managed never to be vain. Even as art historians and biographers work to unlock the meanings behind her haunting images, the one thing we most urgently have to learn from Kahlo is restraint.