One integral part of the Eminent Study experience is the conducting of an interview with someone who may be able to offer some insight of your eminent person, or an aspect of their existence. With so much literature that exists on Frida Kahlo, I knew early on that my interview would be primarily opinion-based, or very much hinging on the experience of the interviewee. I began my search by contacting various American musuems that have exhibited some of Kahlo’s paintings in the past, as well as some local art historians at the nearby universities. After sending about eight emails or so, and only receiving replies that led to dead ends, I was feeling a bit disheartened. However, about a week after my first release of emails, I received a reply from a Mark Castro, a member of the curatorial staff at the Philidelphia Art Musuem. Conveniently, he was in the midst of organizing an exhibition with some works by Frida Kahlo, and was happy to address some of my questions.
When formulating the questions, I was keeping in mind his curatorial background, and as I mentioned before, many of the answers were more open-ended, and were aimed at Mr. Castro’ s personal experience with Kahlo’s art. Because the bigraphical details of her life were available to me through literature, I as most interested in gaining a more interpretive insight. The questions and answers can be found below.
1. As a painter Frida Kahlo is often referred to as a surrealist, as many of her imaages denote an otheworldy nature. However, Kahlo has been said to have explicity expresses that her work expresses her own reality, relating to her pain, suffering, relationship with Diego Rivera, etc. Because so many of these ‘surrealist’ motifs that we see in hr work are rooted in very real aspects of her life, how do you belive to handle this label of surrealism versus reality in Kahlo’s work?
Frida and her contemporaries were aware of international art movements like Surrealism from newspapers and books, and what they read certainly must have influenced their work. Nevertheless, they never joined the Surrealist movement, nor do I believe any of them called themselves “Surrealists.” André Breton, the founder of the Surrealist movement, was the first person to associate Frida’s work with that movement, but there were all sorts of factors motivating his reading of her work as Surrealist, almost all of which had nothing to do with Frida herself. I guess one strategy for navigating this question is to remind people that Frida was a highly educated woman who kept up with international art trends. Surrealism undoubtedly influenced her, but that doesn’t make her a Surrealist since to my knowledge she never called herself one and she never officially joined the movement. It is the right of artists to describe their work however they please, and equally our right as researchers to propose connections between their work and larger trends.
- Frida Kahlo often took great measures in her appearance to hide her ailments through her dress and make-up (such as long skirts to hide her polio-shrunken leg), which, in a way, was a concealment of her suffering. In her paintings however, she presents herself in such a vulnerable way with no intention of censoring herself. Why do you think that Frida, or painters in general, felt as though they could depict these vulnerabilities in art, but struggled to keep them hidden in real life?
I think after you complete your research you may come to your own answer on this question, since I think it is more of a matter of opinion (or perhaps psychology) than any art historical fact. I will say in general and not specific to Frida, perhaps it is easy to depict feelings and emotions in works of art because they are objects which are detached from our own bodies and psyches, which we ourselves create and therefore control. If we use Frida as an example, you might say she was uncomfortable showing her human vulnerabilities, but was able to express them through a representational object. People didn’t look at her, they looked at the painting, which perhaps was okay for her. I’d also say, on a tangent, that for Frida, her dress/appearance (her “traditional” clothing and hair-style) were as much a political statement as anything else. Following the Mexican Revolution, people like Frida and Diego Rivera supported policies that favored Mexico’s native heritage over its European heritage, and by wearing traditional clothing Frida was supporting that position.
- In addition to emphasizing many traditionally Mexican images and settings within her paintings, Kahlo often contrasted them with aspects of the American industrial world, such as in the painting Self Portrait Along the Border Between Mexico and the United States.How did this approach differ from the other Mexican art that was being created at this time?
The truth is that it didn’t differ so greatly. As you said above, Frida claimed her work expressed her reality and paintings such asBorder were done (or in the case of that work begun) during her time in the US, where she accompanied Diego who was completing several mural commissions. Several Mexican painters (Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros) came north in the 1930s for a variety of reasons and they began to paint the world they saw around them, as they had in Mexico. Their interpretations of that imagery may have differed, or what they chose to focus on, but it is something you often expect when artists travel and make new work.
- As with many eminent people, Kahlo’s artwork didn’t become widely acclaimed until years after her death, around the 1980’s. Why do you think her work and style could become more popular at that point in time? What changed in terms of people’s perspective on Mexican art or surrealism?
This is a really hard thing to explain and in fact I heard a talk about this not that long ago. First, Frida was well-known in Mexico towards the end of her life and afterward. Although she wasn’t then what we might think of as a “famous” artist, in part because she was overshadowed by Diego, she was known, exhibited, and written about. But you’re correct that sometime in the 1980s her reputation began to grow internationally and with that her work became more sought after by museums and collectors, and before you know it her face was on everything from handbags (there is one hanging on a chair in the office next door) to cookies (which I had recently in Mexico). I guess the academic answer might be that she in part became more well-known through the feminist art history movement, which has brought many female artists who were previously overlooked to the public’s attention through books and exhibitions. Then at some point it took off into and became mania. This is a hard question to answer, it’s akin to asking why some videos on YouTube become world-wide sensations and others get only a few hits.
- You mentioned that you are working on an exhibition that will include some of Kahlo’s work. Why do you think it is important to continue to showcase her work? What about her work determines its massive amount of staying power over the years, making it relevant today?
In the most general sense, our show is a survey of the Mexican art world from 1910-1950 and Frida was a vital part of that world. Although typically in exhibitions and in books she is featured alone, or in association with Diego, she was in dialogue with numerous other Mexican artists during her lifetime. They influenced her work and she theirs, and therefore we can’t offer our visitors a clear view of those decades without her. In our project we’ve decided to stay away from Frida’s biography and instead place her work in context with that of other artists in Mexico. I think Frida’s painting is undeniably interesting and provocative, what we hope is that we can get visitors to look at it in a new way and come away with something unexpected.
- Kahlo was largely affiliated with Diego Rivera for a significant portion of her life, and her paintings after their marriage offer many more allusions to politics and the rise of Mexicanism. To what extent do you believe Diego’s influence changed the content and originality of Kahlo’s work?
I think that the term originality can sometimes be misleading. No artist just creates in a vacuum, they are always being influenced by the world. As you say Diego was a very politicized artist, working often for the Mexican government on programs which promoted Mexican indigenous culture and the idea ofMexicanidad. Kahlo’s personal political beliefs seem to have come to align more closely with Diego’s, and there is a crossover of imagery between their works. However, it’s important to remember that just because Kahlo was being influenced by her husband, something which one expects whenever artistic people come together, she also maintained a very distinct creative identity. Her devotion to easel painting, a medium which Diego often denigrated, is one example of how their interests remained separate from one another.
- Many would say that Kahlo’s many self-portraits represent the various ‘versions’ of her self and being. Why do you think an artist such as herself would choose to vary her image in so many ways? What do you think we can learn from viewing an artist’s depiction of themselves? Also, why do you think many of these depictions show her in resemblance to a holy or religious figure?
I think that Kahlo is one of many artists throughout history that have focused on the genre of self-portraiture, something which almost every artists explores at some point, and which some, such as Rembrandt for example, explore over and over throughout their career. There are lots of reasons why artists focus on self-portraiture, and there are volumes of literature trying to answer this question. I guess in my opinion, I would say that creating an image of one’s physical self in any medium offers the opportunity to explore who you are, or who you’d like to be, and to place yourself within your own world. I think that when Kahlo shows herself in a fashion similar to a religious figure or a Tehuana, she is perhaps exploring her own connections with that part of Mexican culture and crafting an image of how she sees herself.
- Finally, what would you say is Frida Kahlo’s long-lasting influence on the artistic world, in both Mexican and international respects?
I’m not sure I can answer this one, it is one of those questions that has so many answers it somewhat negates the question. Obviously she has inspired and influenced many artists, poets and thinkers that have come after her. I guess in the simplest sense, the sort of Kahlo mania that is gripping the world has made people interested in Mexican art and in Mexico in general, which leads to more exhibitions and research. For people in the Museum world, it offers an opportunity to build on this interest by teaching the public about other artists and movements that were happening during Frida’s lifetime.
Reading over Mr. Castro’s answers, a lot of his points have reinforced the aspects of Frida Kahlo’s life, work, and influences that first interested me from the get-go of the project. Although I received his email after Eminent Night, it as been a good reminder to myself that this study does not have to end after our formal presentation, and that the information stays relevant ad intriguing.