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Frida Kahlo: Portraits of an Icon
National Portrait Gallery, London

Nicky Charlish
posted 30 March 2005

Mexican artist Frida Kahlo remains a figure simultaneously well known and obscure. On the one hand there's the crippling accident, the bisexual high jinks, the affair with Trotsky. Yet despite the recent biopic staring Salma Hayek - a long-standing fan of Kahlo - she remains somehow shadowy. Now, a photographic exhibition reveals - well, partly - the life of this mysterious painter.

This exhibition draws on a wide range of sources: there's work from some of the most renowned photographers of the last century such as Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Martin Munkasci, as well as work by photojournalists on assignment in Mexico such as Gisele Freund, Bernard Silberstein and Fritz Henle. Also there are contributions from people who knew her well such as her father Guillermo Kahlo, Nickolas Muray and Lola Alvarez Bravo. Which photographs especially pinpoint her career?

Kahlo's father took two photographs of her which hint at how the painter's future sexuality would develop and manifest itself. In the first photo - taken when Kahlo (born 1907) was four years old - the future artist has an expression of boyish toughness on her face, and we sense that a tantrum lurks under the surface: she's not to be trifled with. The second photograph, taken at the age of 18, shows her wearing a dress and looking androgynous - she could be a pretty boy trying to pass as a girl if it wasn't for her serious expression as a young woman starting to come to grips with an unknown future.

Fast forward to circa 1930, and Kahlo and her husband, muralist Diego Rivera, are off to Europe. Rivera looks self-satisfied but, with Kahlo, the old uncertainty is still there, as if she's worried about whether she will be taken seriously. Two years later, a photograph taken after her mother's death shows Kahlo's face wrapped in mourning, but held in by a jaw set in resolve to achieve success.

Lucienne Bloch, daughter of Swiss composer Ernest Bloch, shows a no-nonsense-looking Kahlo in her photograph of the painter wearing a lacy doily on her head, her expression a warning against taking her as an empty headed plaything: indeed, we wonder why she consented to such an odd pose in the first place. A photograph of the painter talking with an old man and a boy show her as neither haughty nor chatty - she doesn't conversationally look down at them but isn't going out of her way to indulge in small talk either. Kahlo moved a long way from the Catholic piety of her early years, but a 1937 photo by Fritz Henle of her leaving a church at Coyoacan shows her in a solemn, reflective mood with downcast eyes and hands covering her chest, and Catholic imagery would feature in her work. Three years later, Bernard Silberstein captures her as she paints a self-portrait while Rivera watches. Few artists would want to be overlooked in that way, especially when their marriage to the person doing the watching has been a tempestuous one: the couple would divorce but later remarry. Both a devil-may-care strength of character and a deep love, which eventually maintained itself through a life of turmoil, are caught in this photograph.

Two contrasting photographs remind us that Kahlo wasn't always the dominant person we might take her to be - a dominance which we might think was essential to her survival not only as an artist but as a person who had to struggle daily with the after effects of the accident which left her crippled and unable to bear children. A photograph of her with Emmy Lou Packard (an assistant of Rivera) shows Kahlo exuding an air of quiet, triumphant pleasure. But a photograph of her with her friend Teresa Proenza, Kahlo's the one who seems to be uncertain, dominated.

A photograph of her taken at some time in the 1950s in her hospital bed shows her holding up a mirror to see what's going on around her - and looking very much in charge- reminding us that she didn't let her suffering circumscribe her life. And whilst a photograph of her on her deathbed in 1954 shows a measure of tranquillity there, her expression hints at an anxiety that she felt she still had more work to achieve and which will - now - never be accomplished.

For years, Kahlo wasn't regarded by the generality of the art establishment as an artist in her own right, but as an appendage to Rivera. Only in recent years has this started to change. This exhibition doesn't tell us everything about the woman who described herself as la gran ocultadora ('the great concealer'). But it gives us enough to whet our appetite for more: indeed, we'll be able to slake our thirst at a major exhibition of her work, which is planned for Tate Modern in June. Meanwhile, this photographic collection is a good introduction to her crippled, creative world.

Till 26 June 2005.


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