Long before I learned who she was, I knew what she looked like. The bushy unibrow, the faint shadow of hair on the upper lip, that unsmiling and mildly confrontational homeliness. By the time I reached high school, Frida Kahlo's face had become a countercultural logo, a female Che Guevera. I came to know the iconic Mexican painter not through canvases in museums or pages in art history books, but from T-shirts and oversized handbags sported by serious-looking girls climbing the stairs to my school's third-floor art classrooms.
I understood Kahlo then as a loosely political symbol, communicating some vague combination of feminism and Communist resolve. It would be another year before I found out Kahlo was a painter, and still later when I would learn the sensational details of her personal life.
Like me, many young enthusiasts are introduced to Kahlo's mystique before they get a taste of her art. In the 24 years since Heyden Herrera's best-selling biography "Frida" made the artist a household name, a cult of personality has exploded around Kahlo, shrouding one of art's most seductive and beguiling figures in a fog of celebrity mythology.
Thanks in large part to a life fraught with immense personal tragedy -- a horrific streetcar accident, a bout with polio, a turbulent marriage to the philandering Diego Rivera, a string of therapeutic abortions, an amputated leg -- her bewitching paintings have been subordinated to her personal history. And that history is continually processed and altered by pop culture kitsch and glossy Hollywood epic. (Herrera's book now comes with the words "Now a major motion picture" emblazoned on the cover, along with actress Salma Hayek costumed as the artist.)
The much-anticipated Frida Kahlo exhibition that opens at the Walker Art Center this weekend attempts to cut through some of this distorting hype. It reminds everyone of the root cause of Kahlo's allure: her actual paintings. Curated by Herrera herself and the Walker's Betsy Carpenter, the exhibition celebrates the 100th anniversary of Kahlo's birth. The show boasts a few paintings never seen before in the United States and -- perhaps even more intriguing for Frida fanatics -- private snapshots of Kahlo taken from her personal photo collection. Both succeed in knifing through the B.S. of Fridamania to strike at the heart of this woman's genius.
The "cult of Frida" is an uncomfortable subject for Kahlo scholars. When I pushed Carpenter to comment on the romanticized myth surrounding the painter, she was quick to shoot me down.
"You always have to go back to the art," she said emphatically. "If she wasn't a good artist, we'd be like, OK, she's this interesting celebrity. But I want to reel people in from going off the deep end with Frida's biography."
In Carpenter's estimation, too many Kahlo fans stop there, amazed by the facts of her life, but never delving deeper to get at the halting emotion that emerges when Kahlo projects these facts into visual metaphor. Frida was "cathartically unleashing her pain" through painting, Carpenter insisted, and "anyone who spends two seconds in front of this work will get that."