The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo
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In This Section:
Understanding Frida Today
Interview with Hayden Herrera
Interview with Victor Zamudio-Taylor
Interview with Carlos Fuentes

Understanding Frida Today
Excerpt from an interview with filmmaker Amy Stechler and author/historian Carlos Fuentes.

Amy Stechler: I'm hoping to fill out the context of her life a little bit. When I began reading about her, I had no real understanding about how Mexican she is and how Mexican – how significant all of the aspects of Mexico are in her story. How is it so profoundly significant that Frida is Mexican?

Fuentes: Well, she's Mexican, but she brings in many other things, as most Mexican artists do. There is no wholly national painter or author or filmmaker in the world. We are all influenced by many other things. Frida, of course, had the Mexican roots of the ex votos for example in the churches. I think that had a lot to do with her painting these tableaux painted on wood or metal thanking the Virgin for saving her from a catastrophe. A lot of women in bed, you know, suffering from childbirth or some infirmity.

There's Posada, the great gravure artist of Mexico. Yes, there is Mexican folk art. There's also the whole, the whole European tradition of the dream world and the world of the extremes, the world that is invisible, the world of Hieronymous Bosch, of the uh events such as the Black Death in Europe, or of the Middle Ages. There are so many things that come together in a great artist and Frida Kahlo was a great artist. Now that this all of this converged in a Mexican woman of Hungarian /German /Jewish parentage - OK. There she is, with Mexican influences but also, let's never forget it, with quite universal influences in her painting.

Stechler: What do you think Frida's relations to radical politics were?

Fuentes: I think they were very superficial, extremely superficial. I don't think Frida was a communist. I think that Frida was a pantheist. I think Frida was in love with the world, with everything that was alive. Her love for the little dogs and the flowers and the monkeys and all the things that appear in her painting. She sort of sacrilizes the world. She wants to sacrilize everything she touches. Diego Rivera doesn't have that feeling for nature at all. He was a feeling for faces, people, historical poses, movements, facts. But she is a true pantheist. She is, she is in love with the world as garden. The world of animals and flowers and rivers and food. That is her universe. And she touches it and loves it and smells it constantly.

Stechler: How would you contrast their approaches to painting? He was so didactic. The message always. And hers is small.

Fuentes: Well, it's like a complement. Because what he couldn't do, she did; and what she couldn't do, he did. There are many Riveras, you know. There is only one Frida Kahlo. Because she was very faithful to her style I think throughout her life. There were many Riveras. Many would say that the best Rivera was the cubist Rivera The Rivera of Paris, of the early 20th Century. The friend of the cubists and surrealists. And some of the cubist paintings are really magnificent. But so are many of the monumental murals. They are very, very good.

There is also a minor decorative Rivera who made pictures to decorate the great nightclubs and restaurants. The naked ladies or gladioli or Indians with flowers. That is a very minor Rivera But there is a great monumental muralist, and there is also the fantastic cubist painter, I think a superb cubist. You know the cubist paintings of Rivera have gone up in price in such a way, that it is unmentionable. A cubist painting by Rivera can be worth $30 million for example. Yeah.

Stechler: So in this world of public, grand public art. Huge scale public art. Here's this woman painting at home, tiny, tiny little paintings of herself. What's, where does she fit in?

Fuentes: She fits in beautifully because you don't have the large without the small. And sometimes the small is bigger than the big. And so she is simply another dimension of the Mexican painting of the period. And the fact that she was Rivera's wife and woman, and it really establishes a very striking complement between, as you say, the monumentality of Rivera and the almost domestic painting of Frida Kahlo. But don't they complement each other? I think they complement each other beautifully.

Stechler: What's the significance of this, of the self-portraits for her? And why is she always, almost always painting herself?

Fuentes: Because she is a woman who cannot reveal the pain inside her except through the painting of her own self. If you look inside yourself, I forgot who said this, I think it was Greek philosopher, Roman-Greek philosopher said, "If you could see yourself inside yourself, you would die of fear of what you saw." Well, she saw. She saw what was inside herself, and she painted it.

This is more than mirror images of Frida Kahlo, these are portraits of her soul. I think that it's Rembrandt painted his soul, Van Gogh painted his soul. It is not simply a photograph or a mirror image of the painter. It is…when you see Rembrandt going from youth to old age in self-portraits, it is marvelous the way he understood his soul as it aged. It is not only a picture of a man who has, whose hair is going white and who has wrinkles. It is Rembrandt's soul moving through time. And this is also what Frida Kahlo did. It is a painting of her soul more than of her figure.

Stechler: I wanted to ask you about her relationship to self-portraiture. She has a very unique relationship also to the camera. In our research, we've…there are thousands and thousands of photographs of her, and she's always there. They're not idle. What do you think she understood about the camera?

Fuentes: She understood about the camera that this is a record of the instant. That the consecration of the instant has had no greater priest than the photographer. So the idea of Frida Kahlo that her instance were worth capturing. This fleeting moment, which the painting is fixed in a way, also had to reveal itself in its fleetingness, in its passing.

And she chose the best photographers, huh? She had Tino Medotti. And she had Edward Westin. And she really had the best. The great photographs of her, which are marvelous photographs. But I think she knew the great distinction between the painting and the photograph and that both were art.

Stechler: So she understands something about the relationship between reality and imagination.

Fuentes: Oh yes. Absolutely, absolutely. She is a great artist of the imagination. There is in every artist inevitably an extra subjective dimension. We're all in the world. And we relate to the world and to our environment. But what we draw from that environment back into ourselves and then give to the world as art, that is a more complicated matter?

Because art doesn't simply reflect the world. That is a banality. The world suffices unto itself. It doesn't need anybody reproducing it. To transform it. To give it a second reality, a second meaning side by side. That is the purpose of all art and literature and painting or any other of the arts.

Stechler: So what does Frida actually leave behind in that case? I mean, why are we still talking about her?

Fuentes: Well, we are talking about a resurrected artist, you see. Because she was forgotten for a very, very long time after her death. She was not considered. And suddenly she comes back. She comes back on the wake a lot of the feminist movement, no? Of the search for icons for feminism. But along with that it is discovered that you had a great forgotten artist.

An artist with a unique personality. That really resembled…you can invoke all kinds of influences, but you cannot, you cannot supplant the personality of Frida Kahlo. It is very much hers. You recognize the Frida Kahlo painting anywhere in the world. So whatever the reasons for her present popularity, what is the basic fact that a great artist has been recognized worldwide, universal. I think she's even on matchboxes now, hum?

Stechler: Well why did that happen, and why has she become sort of a cult figure and why is she in the marketplace?

Fuentes: You would have to ask those who own the marketplace. I don't know them that well. But the fact is, I think she is very allied to the feminist movement, and also to the need for novelty. Let's look at the other aspects of it. It is wonderful to discover a great artist who was always there, who has been there for the past sixty years and has been more or less forgotten.

And to rediscover this and to discover the quality is breathtaking because our eye for novelty is jaded. We do not see great novelties today. Maybe there are. But we just don't see them. After all, the impressionists were disregarded in their time. And many great artists were. And maybe there are great artists doing work right now who are invisible to the jaded eye of the public and critics.

And here you discover an artist who had not been considered very highly or totally forgotten who is marvelous and exciting and inspiring and a woman, and a woman with a tremendous biography. You can make films about her. You can do shows about her. You can write books, biographies. She is a mine. And, so of course she walks to the front of the stage. She has recovered her legs. She hasn't had accidents. She's out of the hospital bed, and she's in the front of the limelight saying "camera".

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