Excerpts from and interview with filmmaker Amy Stechler and writer and scholar Victor Zamudio Taylor.
Stechler: You also, one time you told me that you thought she was a cultural cross-dresser. That because it's a peasant clothing worn by an upper or a middle class woman. You know, 19th century clothing worn by a 20th century woman.
Zamudio Taylor: Well, I think that she's very conscious that she's crossing boundaries. When, when I referred to Frida Kahlo as a cultural cross-dresser, it's because she's crossing boundaries. She's a middle class urban Mexican woman who decides to cross boundaries of her class, of her education, of her upbringing and literally wear and masquerade and flaunt popular regional Mexican attire that…
Frida Kahlo crosses many boundaries. Frida Kahlo crosses boundaries of class, Frida Kahlo crosses boundaries of gender. She even crosses boundaries between the urban and the rural life. So when she wears regional popular Mexican attire, she's literally cross-dressing in a cultural manner, and masquerading as well as flaunting the fact that she has the choice to do this, and she's very, she's very self-conscious about it. She makes it a point. She underlines it. She celebrates that act, and through that she celebrates herself.
Stechler: And where else is she crossing boundaries?
Zamudio Taylor: I think that one can say that she's crossing boundaries between what's considered 'high culture' or the fine arts from a European prospective, from a classical 19th century... Frida Kahlo is also crossing boundaries within culture and within Mexican culture. Traditionally and up until the Mexican Revolution, there was the elite culture, which was mainly the culture of the Europeans and the Spaniards, and then the culture of the professionals, and then the vast culture of the Mexicans who were from rural areas, who were illiterate and who had vernacular and popular traditions.
When Frida Kahlo is interested in the Preparatoria and later as she's engaged in her artwork, she bridges these different levels of Mexican culture, or these different layers of Mexican culture, so that she's in a sense bringing together the culture of the fine arts, the culture of a European background with her love of popular Mexican culture, or rural culture, of mythic culture, the culture of healing, the culture of the marketplace, the culture of décor, the culture of attire. So one could also say that Frida Kahlo is crossing those cultural boundaries and linking them, and I think in a very sincere way. There is very little irony in the way Frida Kahlo does this. I think it's very sincere. I think it's from the heart, and …but she knows that she has this gift and as well as privilege to make that choice. Other women did not.
Stechler: So what's her relationship to popular culture? How does that find its way into her work and her life?
Zamudio Taylor: Frida Kahlo is a Mexican artist that has the most authentic and sincere relationship to popular culture and to folk art. She not only collected folk art, she not only nourished it, she not only valued folk art, but she actually learned from folk art and from popular art and applied it to her own art making. So that folk art or popular culture is not just a theme at times in her work but it also is influencing her forms and her decisions.
Stechler: Like what? Like where?
Zamudio Taylor: The most, the most evident relationship of Frida Kahlo's relationship to popular culture and to folk art is her use of the ex voto, or retablo. The Mexican ex voto is traditionally painted on tin, and it's a small-scale, intimate painting that tells a story. It usually depicts an accident or a tragedy and how a subject was able to overcome that accident or that tragedy, you know, thanks to the intervention of a saint or of the Virgin, or of a religious figure of sorts. Frida Kahlo takes the very same format - that is to say very small-scale - the very same material - that is to say a tin or metal support surface - and also tells a narrative.
But it's a narrative about her life. Or a narrative about issues that she's concerned with. But also it's important to understand that Frida Kahlo's use of the ex votos still retains some of the spiritual and religious quality of the ex voto. You cannot use a form or borrow a form from the religious traditional and from the popular tradition and totally do away with that history, with that aura, with that presence of the object. So in many ways, Frida Kahlo's ex voto-like paintings are also paintings that give thanks and are also paintings that have a spiritual quality, and at times even a miraculous quality.
And the miraculous quality has to do with the fact that Frida Kahlo is overcoming her suffering and her death on a daily level, and in a way the ex voto is the expression of her gratitude towards life.
Stechler: So like what? What comes to mind right away in terms of her paintings that are ex voto?
Zamudio Taylor: The painting that comes to mind when one thinks of the ex voto is the painting 'My Birth'. And the painting is a unique image into history of Western art. The artist depicts her own birth. Her mother is giving birth to Frida Kahlo, and over the bed is an image of La Rosa, the Virgin in pain.
The work is about Frida Kahlo's miscarriages and her infertility. So that by using the format of the ex voto, she is depicting a very painful, a very tragic experience that in this case is only dealt with by representing it. By calling it by its name. That's why it is so direct. And it's the first image of that sort in the history of Western painting, and if follows the exact format of ex votos - it's painted on tin, and it's a very small scale. Hence the term also, retablo.
Retablos and ex votos are devotional works. They're works where the person has an intimate relationship with that object. In medieval times and during the renaissance, owners of retablos traveled with them. They were portable. They were like portable shrines. So in many ways Frida Kahlo's paintings still have that presence of the spiritual, that presence of an object that is enshrining a representation, in this case of a very painful and determining chapter in her life. And I think it is key that Frida Kahlo reverts to the ex voto at a time when she has no choice but to paint her experience and to paint her tragedy and to paint her miscarriage.
I think that her period in the United States is a watershed, a threshold in the artistic career of Frida Kahlo. She is coming to terms in a direct and in a ruthless manner with her biography and with very painful issues that will determine the course of her life. Namely, that she is unable to bear children, that she is suffering from all the fractures of her accident…
Stechler: And yet at the same time she sort of safeguards her privacy. She's making very, very intimate things pubic, and yet she's reserving something from them.
Zamudio Taylor: Yes. Frida Kahlo deals with private themes, with private issues that no woman up until that time had dealt with in painting. She is making private aspects of herself very public. Yet she is hiding or maintaining a privacy. And I think that the privacy that she is maintaining has to do with what makes it possible for her to paint. In other words, we have an array of photographs that register Frida's life, her lifestyle and her friends. And we have her paintings. Those are the visual registers we have of her life.
Those are made public by her. Or made public by cultural institutions or by her collectors. What remains private? What remains private is the network of friends that gave her support and nurturance. What remains private are the day-to-day routines of what it means for a very ill woman to paint and to survive day upon day upon day an extreme condition of pain. So what remains private is actually made the story possible. Right? We only see the results. We see her painting and we see snapshots and photographs of her life where she is glamorous, flamboyant, jolly, seductive, sexy…and if I'm romanticizing Frida Kahlo, it's because I do.
How…why else would I be interested in such a figure who is so seductive and so magnetic and has so much to offer at a present cultural level like that. So what we don't see, what we don't see are, is what occurs behind the scenes, and we also don't see the family romance or the family ghosts surrounding her.
Stechler: What do you mean when you say Frida is an artist's artist?
Zamudio Taylor: Frida can be described as an artist's artist. What does that mean? That means that artists recognized right away her talent. Other painters were able to acknowledge what was special about Frida Kahlo early on. Painters were able to see what was original about Frida Kahlo's works. It comes then as no surprise that Picasso was an admirer of Frida Kahlo, and that he said on more than one occasion that Frida Kahlo could draw a hand or a head better than him. Or that her draftsmanship reminded her of Inge.
Marcel Duchamps admired Frida Kahlo. Jean Miro admired Frida Kahlo. Basili Kandinsky admired Frida Kahlo. Georgia O'Keefe admired her work. You have a series of key twentieth century artists who were able to, you have a key …. You have a series of very important twentieth century artists who appreciate Frida Kahlo's contribution. Yet it stays within that group. That's why I'm referring to Frida Kahlo as an artist's artist. Artists were aware of her contributions It took critics a longer time. It took curators a longer time, but I think that artists and some key collectors recognized her power, her contribution and her originality early on.
It's very surprising when one, when one sees that many paintings of Frida Kahlo, such as "La Sofridas', or such as 'Self-Portrait With Cropped Hair' at the MOMA, entered these collections very early on. That meant, that means that key people were interested in those works as being very important and as these works being masterpieces that needed a museum to house them. So Frida Kahlo is an artist's artist because artists recognized her first.
Stechler: What does it mean in terms of surrealism? Does this make her a surrealist? Where does that leave her relative to the surrealists?
Zamudio Taylor: In paintings as fantastic as 'The Broken Column', as 'Luther Burbank', as 'Roots', among others, Frida Kahlo is making literal her metaphors. Many could think that these are surrealist procedures. I don't think that Frida Kahlo is a surrealist. I think Frida Kahlo uses symbols and uses esthetic procedures or formal procedures that create mysterious, strange, marvelous representations.
That does not mean that they are surrealist. Frida Kahlo is working with very concrete everyday elements and what appears as fantastic or what appears as mysterious in many cases is just the highlight of the object, of the thing. When one observes her still-lifes, for example, these fruits are lush, they're erotic, they're sensual.
They seem to be something else. But they're actually very detailed representations of cactus fruits, of papaya, of watermelon that are magnified in such a way that they appear as very marvelous. The surrealists would call that surrealist. Frida Kahlo would refer to them as still-lifes inspired by Mexican marketplaces.
Stechler: Why do her paintings sell for $5 million?
Zamudio Taylor: Frida Kahlo's paintings sell for $5 million because there is a market demand for her work. She is finally recognized as a great artist of the 20th Century. Collectors in museums want to have her work hung alongside the other masters and important artists of the 20th Century. They are getting more and more expensive because there are not that many paintings available. So that is a market issue.
But I also think that there is another part to this, to this question, and that is "Why is she popular today? What does Frida Kahlo say to us? Why are we seduced by her or repulsed by her? Why do we adore her or why do we hate her? Why do we see her as a sign of distinction or as a sign of ignorance on the part of someone?" In other words, Frida Kahlo is tapping onto very deep, issues in contemporary culture.
Stechler: Why are her paintings still interesting to people?
Zamudio Taylor: Why do we? Frida Kahlo is an artist who permits us to see the world in a different way. Frida Kahlo's works address very, very contradictory aspects of our culture. She deals with death, with love, with suffering, with history. She's constantly asking herself the following question: Who am I? And what is my place in this world? And why am I here, what is my mission? What am I going to do with myself? How do I reconfigure myself and make myself who I want to be against all odds?
I think that Frida Kahlo's importance in contemporary culture refers to two aspects: one that our culture is very empty and hungry for meaning and seeking models of those who have led a fabulous life and who have um, who have come to terms with very adverse conditions and made something for themselves, and also made their universe make sense. So we're attracted to Frida Kahlo as a kind of reflection of our own cultural condition.
Across cultures and across time. But we're also attracted to Frida Kahlo because she's very powerful, and because she is a great artist, she's a source, an unstoppable fountain of thought-provoking ideas.
Stechler: Do you think that people are…do you think that the reason that the paintings are so popular is actually because it's her persona that people are responding to? Do you think one of the reasons people want to collect her work and see her work is because they're in love with her, or do you think that the work stands on its own separate from myth?
Zamudio Taylor: The works stand on their own. The works stand on their own as paintings that are well crafted, well executed and are dealing with a complex subject matter in a succinct, focused manner. They're beautiful to look at. They grow over time. They're very seductive, and they're…many of her works are creating new images and new views.
But the paintings were also linked to her persona, and they're also linked to a country at a very particular time. So, you know, academically one can separate the paintings from her persona and from her times. Culturally speaking, I think all of us link the paintings, her persona and the time. And I think that's what makes Frida Kahlo such a fascinating subject, and I think that's why she has such a warm and critical and crazy reception across cultures and across times. She's an unstoppable source of inspiration. Frida Kahlo is an artist that we can all relate to.
Her works articulate states of mind, emotional states, psychological states, cultural issues that we can all relate to. And also Frida Kahlo was one of the first artists to address in a direct and ruthless manner issues pertinent to sexuality, to the body and to how confusing and complex sexuality and the body are. And in a way Frida Kahlo opens up the horizon for contemporary artists to engage in these subjects. So, in the 1980s and in the 1990s, many artists who are working with the self, with narrative, with issues pertinent to the body, to sexuality and how the person intersects with culture or with his or her place in a broader sphere is what Frida Kahlo is all about. She's a pioneer.
And I think that that's why she is much more interesting, much more important, much cooler and more fabulous than Diego Rivera. Or Jose Clemete Orozco or David Alfaro Siqueiros. Frida Kahlo is referring to us. But also, if we look at art history and we look at the history of Mexico, Frida Kahlo is well received in her time. So she has, then, a transcendent quality. She is able to address issues and attract public and viewers from different times.
And that is something that very, very few artists have. And I think that, as our culture becomes more complex and as we need more emblems, more symbols, more models, more thoughts, to deal with our present, that doesn't promise that much right now. We live in a very adverse time. Some one like Frida Kahlo then grows.
Stechler: Tell me why the puppet? Why the fingerpuppets?
Zamudio Taylor: Fridamania? Fridamania, or the 'Kahlo Craze' as some of us also call it, signifies that Frida has become a cultural icon across cultures and across time. Frida Kahlo is an artist who is well known in many areas of life. When one is in Mexico, everyone has an opinion about Frida Kahlo. Everyone knows about her romances or invents them. They attribute paintings that are not hers. They tell stories that aren't true about Frida Kahlo.
And it doesn't really matter. At this point, the lines between fiction and history, the line between what happened and what didn't happen. And I mean this in the following sense: that what it signifies is that Frida Kahlo has become a cultural icon. A figure that is a sponge, that absorbs different desires, different ideas, different impulses and impulses of the time. Now she is an icon that has crossed the borders of Mexico. So, on the one level Frida Kahlo is represented of Mexico, and on the other, she is not.
She has joined a pantheon of other artists who attract our interest, whose art and persona are melded. And I'm referring to this phenomenon in very cultural terms because I think it's very indicative of how we deal with creative wonderful, powerful, fascinating, fabulous people We look up to them, we project our lives onto them, and we see them as solutions for ourselves.
We see them as markers of behavior. We compare ourselves to them. And, in many ways, what the Fridamania does is it infuses her artwork with gossip, with cultural issues, with politics, with, with themes that are alien to the work. So actually the Fridamania is an index or a barometer of our culture by means of making Frida Kahlo an icon. But then again there is her work.
And Fridamania or not Fridamania, Frida Kahlo is a great artist. And she's a great artist of the 20th century. She's able to articulate experiences in a unique and original manner. She's able to tap into one's desires and one's ideas and one's ghosts. Put another way, the more personal Frida Kahlo is, the more the miracle she is, the more poetic she is, actually the more social she is. Right? So that in many ways her work is more an index of the culture and society of Mexico at the time than social realism. One can refer, in fact, to the intimacy of Frida Kahlo's paintings as an index of society and culture.