Andrew Lambirth

At the shrine of Frida

Frida Kahlo (1907–54) is apparently the most famous female artist in history (who is the nearest competitor, I wonder — Grandma Moses or Paula Rego? Probably not Artemisia Gentileschi), and as such, with a recent feature film dedicated to her legend, a hot commercial property. The merchandising angle alone is substantial. There’s never been a solo exhibition of her work in England, so, with her reputation at an all-time high, a show becomes a viable and desirable museum proposition. Yet Kahlo is such a cult figure (‘bohemian artist, a victim turned survivor, proto-feminist, sexual adventurer who challenged gender boundaries’) that the Tate exhibition pamphlet makes this extraordinary statement: ‘First and foremost, Frida Kahlo was a painter, and for this reason Tate Modern’s exhibition focuses upon the frank testimony of the paintings themselves.’ Almost as if the art were a lamentable expedient, but would have to do in the regrettable absence of the star herself. And looking at the exhibition, there is something in that…

Apart from the guards, I counted half-a-dozen men amidst the hordes of women and children visiting the show on the morning I went round. There were parties of schoolgirls, some very young indeed, and even pregnant women come to worship at the shrine of Frida, as if it were essential for babies in utero to imbibe her message. In the first room there is a lovely doomy self-portrait, a mature depiction of the handsome face with its regulation mono-brow, entitled ‘Thinking about Death’ — just to set the scene. Kahlo suffered from polio as a child, which left her with a withered leg, and was then gravely injured in a traffic accident at the age of 18. (Her injuries were truly horrific: her bad leg alone suffered 11 fractures.)

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