I wish I could claim credit for the excellent term “Fridolatry” but it’s not mine. It refers to the cult inspired by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, who died in 1954. Now, for the first time, Hungarians can see what the fuss is all about. An exhibition of Kahlo’s work opens at the Hungarian National Gallery on July 7 and runs throughout the summer and fall.
In the past, paintings by Kahlo have been notoriously difficult to show outside Mexico. This exhibition includes works loaned by the Museo Dolores Olmedo, Mexico City, and other significant Mexican collections. It consists of more than 30 paintings and other works, including Kahlo’s first ever canvas, painted in 1927.
Today, Kahlo is probably the most easily recognized artist in the world. Her unibrow and riot of traditionally-patterned Mexican clothing adorn a weird and wonderful array of merchandizing. She’s also a constant source of inspiration to the fashion industry.
But to take Kahlo simply at face value is to miss her real significance.
Frida Kahlo was born in Mexico City almost exactly 111 years ago to the day the National Gallery exhibition opens. She died in 1954 aged 47.
Kahlo’s father was German – not Hungarian-Jewish as she claimed – and her mother a mixed-race Mexican. Perhaps not surprisingly, there is still a Hungarian angle to Kahlo’s story. One of her long-term lovers was the Hungarian photographer and Olympic Fencer Nickolas Muray, also known as Miklós Mandl, from Szeged.
Contracting polio as a child left Kahlo disabled. When she was 18 she was badly injured in a traffic accident. Although she’d been heading for medical school, months in secluded recovery led to her becoming increasingly interested in art.
After she joined the Mexican Communist Party in 1927, Kahlo met the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Throughout their life together, it was Rivera who was regarded as the star artist of the two.
Kahlo began painting seriously in the late 1920s and ’30s as she traveled throughout Mexico and the United States with Rivera while he worked on commissions. Her first solo exhibition was in New York in 1938, arranged by the French Surrealist André Breton, who described Kahlo’s work as “a ribbon around a bomb”.
In 1939, Kahlo exhibited in Paris where her painting “The Frame” was purchased by the Louvre, making her the first Mexican artist to become part of their collection. She had to wait until 1953 to have her first one-woman show in Mexico, shortly before her death.
Up until the late 1970s, Kahlo’s work and reputation were still overshadowed by the giant figure of her husband Diego Rivera.
Despite the fact that Kahlo’s life could be seen as rather tragic, she lived it to the full. She had a brief affair with Leon Trotsky in Mexico. When she was in Paris, she had a fling with the legendary American dancer Josephine Baker who was working for French military intelligence at the time.
All that pain, suffering and correspondent determination to really live fed into Kahlo’s art.
On the face of it, the art appears simple and accessible. Kahlo painted many self-portraits but was also inspired by the Columbian and Catholic folk art of Mexico, using this to explore modern questions of identity, gender and race. Her paintings also mixed realism with fantasy.
Most of all, Kahlo’s paintings were, as she put it, “the most frank expression of myself”. This uncompromising depiction of femaleness is why her work has been embraced by feminists and the LGBT community.
“Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair” (1940) is a good example of Kahlo’s magical mix of honesty and ambiguity. The Museum of Modern Art in New York described the work as expressing her feelings of estrangement from Rivera while also having a dreamlike quality.
The painting also illustrates the influence of Mexican popular culture. Into it, Kahlo has written “Look, if I loved you it was because of your hair. Now that you are without hair, I don’t love you anymore.”
Sadly, the subtlety of the work is often missed while the more cartoon-like aspects of her life and appearance have fueled the cult of Kahlo.
I first became aware of Kahlo when her name was mentioned in a 1990 “Vanity Fair” magazine interview given by Madonna. It’s not hard to see why Kahlo’s mix of sexual ambiguity, intense color and Catholic iconography would have appealed to the singer.
Cultural magpie Madonna was also picking up on a trend gaining momentum since the early 1980s, when Kahlo’s biography was published. Madonna is still mining Kahlo’s life and work. The cover of her 2015 album Rebel Heart, which depicted her face bound in rope, was inspired by Kahlo.
But by far the biggest boost to the cult of Kahlo came with the 2002 biopic “Frida”, which starred Mexican-American Salma Hayek, complete with unibrow.
Since then “Fridolatry” has grown and grown, with her unibrowed visage featured on everything from socks to aprons. (Full disclosure: my partner is the proud owner of a splendid Kahlo bamboo curtain.)
Earlier this year, the mainstreaming of Kahlo reached ludicrous proportions when, as part of their “Inspiring Women” series, Mattel launched a Frida Kahlo Barbie doll. The Kahlo Barbie was sans unibrow, which wasn’t a smart move in terms of credibility.
Strangely enough, according to the Allure website, Kahlo’s “legendary unibrow may be the summer’s biggest – and boldest – beauty trend”. Will we see the gorgeous, chic women of Budapest proudly sporting huge, hairy unibrows this summer I wonder?
Find out more about the Frida Kahlo exhibition at the Hungarian National Gallery website: www.mng.hu.