|Excerpts from an interview with filmmaker Amy Stechler and Kahlo biographer Hayden Herrera.
Amy Stechler: This is sort of a broad question, but could you summarize in what way the accident determined who she became?
Hayden Herrera: Well, she wouldn't have been a painter if it hadn't been for the accident. She started painting because she was bedridden and she said she was bored in hell in bed and needed something to do to help support her family. It was something she could do at home. She wasn't for a long time really well enough to go out and get another job.
She had had a couple of jobs before the accident, none of them very serious, but, so the accident turned her into a painter. I mean, not just because it was a practical thing to do, but because she needed, she needed something to hold onto, and I think painting her self-image over and over again was a way of creating something that she could hold onto that steadied her.
Stechler: You think that the self-portrait is a significant aspect of her becoming a painter?
Herrera: I think she, I think part of it was a needing to know herself and to sort of make herself feel real, and in the world, and like a solid person in space somehow, that to get, not to feel so fragile. This was sort of a concrete thing. If you paint yourself, you're permanently there. And if you're about to…if you feel so mortal as she did and so on the edge of having, she did almost die in the accident, I think making this concrete image of herself made her feel safer in some way.
Stechler: Do you think that that remained as a motivation in her self-portraiture as she developed as an artist? That she was trying to balance back and forth, trying to communicate?
Herrera: Yeah. I've always felt that from the very beginning Frida Kahlo's self-portraits were a way of attaching people to her. They often were gifts for friends, and she would want to keep herself in somebody's mind. It's interesting that she would paint Diego on her mind painting Diego's image in her forehead. But then her paintings were to put herself in other people's minds.
She just didn't want to be neglected. She really wanted a lot of attention. And she wanted people to focus on her, and I think that comes both from the accident and brush with death with polio also, and maybe from other kinds of loneliness as a child. I think she was somebody who was deeply lonely. I think the paintings show it. Her disconnection between herself and space and anything that's around her. In those paintings. It's all about some kind of isolation. Which, you know, having polio and staying in a room for whatever it was, you know, a long, many, many months would give her a sense of being isolated.
Stechler: Interesting she chose a man who needed more attention than she did and who primary mode was to abandon her over and over again.
Herrera: Well, that happens a lot in human beings. I mean, if you have neglectful parents, you immediately look for a neglectful man.
Stechler: Why do you think she was so bonded to him?
Herrera: To Rivera? Well, you know, she was always saying it was because she loved his bosoms and he loved her mustache. I mean, they loved this side of each other. He like her sort of macho side, her feisty side, her strong side her …original… She was very original and funny and forceful, and she sort of like the soft, feminine side of Rivera. But I think she was attached to him, well, in the beginning partly because he was famous, and then he was much older so he could be a bit.
You know, I guess she adored her father and Rivera's being older that might have a connection here. But I think he was just brilliant and funny and charming, and for many people he seemed rather sexy, I think. I mean his brains made him very sexually attractive to women. And also the fact that he loved women and loved to talk to women. He thought women were more interesting than men to talk to. So that helped.
Stechler: When do people start to recognize her as a painter?
Herrera: When I was doing the research, which was in the second half of the seventies, she was not really very well known. In Mexico, she was known as Diego Rivera's sort of peculiar wife with the strange little paintings that most people really didn't like very much. They were too peculiar. And too weird. They are weird. I mean, we've gotten used to them now, but they still are kind of weird.
And in the United States, I don't think many people had heard of her. At least, I'd never heard of her until somebody…Max Kozlov and Joyce Kozlov presented me with a catalog and said, "Go write about it for Art Forum." And that was about, I think around 1974 -- '74, '75 -- somewhere in there. Anyway, I think Frida Kahlo's fame began in the late '70s and had a lot to do with feminism, had a lot to do with the Chicana people in the United States loving having this sort of emblem of Mexicanidad and loving her whole story, because it's a painful one. And then there were exhibitions and lots of articles, and … but it sort of picked up and came as a sort of rolling thing that kept going more and more, and now there's the movie, and that makes it even more so.
Stechler: During her lifetime, there's a point where, in the early '40's I guess, when people start to become, when Julian Levy notices her, and she gets brought to Paris, and people actually, like Edward G. Robinson, people actually begin to buy her work.
Herrera: Well, Edward G. Robinson did buy her work, because Rivera took him to her studio. Rivera was extraordinarily supportive of Frida Kahlo's painting. He was always trying to get people to look at them, and also trying to get Frida to work in a…you know, to work. Because she wasn't methodical about her work habits. In, so occasionally people would buy.
But it was mostly friends, or people that Rivera would bring. And Frida was always very surprised if anybody liked her work. I think about Robinson, she said, "He must be in love with me. I mean, he bought my paintings, he must be in love with me." Her, she did have a show in New York at the Julian Levy Gallery, but that was thanks to Andre Breton organizing. Julian Levy was a very surrealist oriented gallery, so Breton made that connection for her. And then Breton also got her to show in Paris. It was part of a much bigger show of Mexican art in general, and she had all the paintings that were in the Julian Levy show then traveled to Paris with Frida.
She went to both of those shows. But I, this was 1939. And it was a moment, it wasn't a great moment to be in Europe having a show. The war was about to start. And not that much attention was paid to that show. I mean, she didn't become famous, and she didn't sell that many paintings. And she never had a show in Mexico until the year before died. When her health had deteriorated so much that her friend, Lola Alvarez Bravo, thought, "This woman needs to have a show while she can still know about it." So that show was in 1953. And Frida loved having that show. It meant a lot to her to have a show in Mexico.
Stechler: Do you think she's a great painter?
Herrera: Yes I do. I sometimes wondered about it while I was writing the book. I don't think I wrote the book because I thought she was a great painter. I thought she was fascinating. And, but I wasn't sure. Because my training was mainly in European modernism, and this is a long way from European modernism, and it's a long way from Matisse and Picasso, and I was totally brought up to think that that was the kind of thing that was beautiful and Frida Kahlo didn't look beautiful to me in the beginning.
It looked compelling. But in, over the years, I'll wander through the Museum of Modern Art and there's a couple of Frida's often that are hanging. They're hanging sort of somewhere between surrealism and Mexican painting in there. And we see Frida in the surrealist show at the Met a couple of years ago. She looked so much better than all the other, I mean, not all the other surrealists, but her paintings looked so strong. And this is true when you pass them in the Museum of Modern Art. 'Self-Portrait With Cropped Hair'. There it is. And you sort of take a step back and think, "It's a really strong painting." Yeah, I think she's great. I think to be that profoundly into your interior and manage to make images of it that affect people so strongly takes greatness of a kind.
Stechler: So what do you think is her legacy?
Herrera: Her legacy for other painters, I think is a huge legacy in that she gave other painters permission to be personal and to be autobiographical and to deal with the body in a very open way and also to be, to use fantasy in a way that sort of digs into the self. I would say that was what her legacy was for painters. Do you think about her legacy for the whole world?
Stechler: Bigger than that. I mean, here she is.
Herrera: So Frida's legacy, besides the legacy for painters, I think for people in general - and she has become so well known - she has been this example of strength and her story is a strength-giving story. I think she's … people come to me sometimes I'll give a Frida lecture somewhere, and people will come up and say that she's changed their life because…Especially, but it is especially painters, mainly painters, that get from her this idea that you can just keep struggling and keep working and deal with adversity and keep on going and come up with something that makes life, a whole life, seem worthwhile.
Stechler: That sort of explains why today people are interested in her. But why does that turn into this sort of kitsch freedom market? Where did that come from?
Herrera: You know, it's so, it's so sort of primitive and fetishistic, the thing of going to museum stores and finding all kinds of little earrings and mousepads, and the best was a bead curtain. I loved the bead curtain! I think, you know, I don't mind this. I think, I don't like the idea of commercialization, but I'm not sure…People like to own something. It's like when you go to some religious, if you go on a religious pilgrimage, you're probably going to buy a little image of the Virgin. Frida's become Saint Frida, and people want to have a little piece of it, so they have to have a little physical 'thing' that has her image on it. And it's very primitive. If it's commercial, I don't think it matters that much. I think Frida would have loved it and been amused by it. I think Frida's stuff is funny. And the sweater and the t-shirts and the this and that. I think she would have just rolled over in her grave laughing at this thing. Because she wanted to be know, so this is part of it. Do you think…maybe she'd be appalled, but maybe not.