Friday, April 18, 2008

Frida, Diego's Just Not That Into You

The ultimate fashion accessory, in a clever visual pun, The Broken Column rhymes with the elongated profile of a man's tie.

The Frida Kahlo show currently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a must-see. We all seem to forget that she was actually a great artist. The show doesn't do much to undo the recent cult status "Frida" has attained. In fact, it hews to the line that her biographer (who, I have to say, did remarkable amounts of research that shed light on her life) Hayden Herrera has established as canonical, focus on the tragic and fascinating biography at the expense of her artistic, intellectual and political project. In fact, as I tell my students, her justly renowned biography should be titled "Frida, Diego's Just Not That Into You." Transformed into a LIFETIME television for women narrative, co-opted by every identity-based discourse prevalent in the USA, transformed into an absent icon for consumer fetishization, the paintings disappear from consideration. 

In My Dress, a collaged fragment recalls Hannah Hoch's critiques of gender and racial roles and references to international contests. A rarely shown fresco fragment is graffitied with a legend referring to her own self-portrayal "ugly." Her constant references to the act of painting, to artifice, to almost photographic precision mixed with dream-like juxtapositions and inventions, anthropomorphic figures, disruptions of scale demonstrate this experimentation. Flowers and animals alongside searing portraits remind me of Christian Schad's riveting images of people cast out by society or those who purposely performed roles that fell outside the rules. In his portraits, flowers, in seeming as artificial as the people underscored the artifice at root in the act of representation and the performance of identity. I think Kahlo did something similar. But now we only think of the portraits as kind of window into her melodramatic life.

Two rooms present works not by Kahlo - ex-votos and pre-Columbian objects from the PMA collection. In the latter case, this display sheds light on objects Kahlo collected and that she depicted in her work, in the former case, Kahlo's appropriation and fundamental transformation of ex-voto picturial and devotional conventions are obscured. Instead, her works and the ex-votos are conflated, distorting their historical contexts of production. Given that there are not photomontages by Heartfield, prints by the Estridentistas, photos by Cartier-Bresson, Cubist pictures by Diego Rivera, Surrealist paintings by Lam, to cite just a few examples, the perspective on who her contemporaries were and what debates she might have been participating in artistically are omitted and a primitivist discourse furthered where Kahlo is looking backwards at traditions, and her works are seen as seamless translations of them.  

Now let's move on to the tchochkes. One is spit out onto the massive gift shop. I would say it's about 3/4 of the size of the show. A wall of catalogues is juxtaposed with large reproductions of some of her self-portraits rendered like those cheesy postcards that change images or appear to move when you view them from different angles. The wall of catalogues looks like an Andy Warhol portrait. A perfect combination as if they had met, surely Warhol would have found her the ideal sitter. 

There were the usual items reproducing works: postcards, t-shirts and the like, and also items that allow one to mimic her distinctive style of dress. (I got an embroidered Mexican blouse) Other more lovely objects included the gorgeous necklace above, taken from a detail of one of her paintings. Now, just because I examine the commodification does not mean that I am too PC not to partake and indeed enjoy it:  I got the mug bel0w. One bizarre item was a pre-packaged bag with the legend "make your own Kahlo shrine." The fact that such a thing is mass-produced (probably in China) could be the subject of a doctoral dissertation. Years ago (in the early to mid 1990s) there was a fabulous show in NY called "Pasion por Frida" - I think today one would have to a several volume catalogue of a sequel.

1 comment:

AK said...

Thank you for the awesome review! Now I will definitely go--if not for the chakas alone!