It’s not surprising to learn that Madonna collects the work of Frida Kahlo. When she loaned the artist’s Self Portrait with Monkey to the Tate Modern in 2001, she compared it to “letting go of one of my precious children”. Madonna – famed for her seamless shrugging on and off of feminine identities; for her performance of womanhoods – perhaps sees something of herself in Frida Kahlo. Frida’s self portraits lay the multiple facets of womanhood bare, and Madonna took on a similar responsibility in the early nineties.
We think we know a lot about Frida. We know her gruesome origin story, the tram accident that impaled her, shattered her spine and leg and left her covered in blood and gold dust, in pain for the rest of her life. We know about her great love, Diego Rivera, the famously large philandering artist whose work lacks the gut punch of his wife’s. We know about her other lovers (Trotsky! Tina Modotti!); her sharp wit; colourful skirts; monobrow; moustache. We’re drawn to her tragedies, and don’t always see what we’re really looking at when we’re face to face with Frida Kahlo at the gallery gift shop. She’s the dark flipside to Mexico’s other great female icon, the Madonna, but the popular culture overshadows a few weird truths.
She painted herself, she said, “because I am so often alone, because I am the subject I know best”, and one can’t help but imagine her eyes boring into the mirror, as she painted lying on her back, encased in a thick plaster corset. In these portraits her expression rarely changes but her costume and settings do. She’s sometimes visited by animals, or adds Rivera’s face to her forehead as a third eye. In Self Portrait with Cropped Hair she’s in drag, dangling a gaping pair of scissors dangerously close to her crotch. She’s naked, in traditional Mexican costume or with the body of a wounded deer. She has cut herself open to display her flayed stomach and heart, her shattered spine. Looking at photographs we can see that she exaggerated the thickness of her eyebrows and moustache.
The self-portraits and the myth combined to create an icon. Her gaze, cool and confident in those self-portraits, does not show us as much as we think. In our consumption of Frida Kahlo we elide over inconvenient truths - Stalinsim, addiction, the thirty operations (not all, apparently, necessary), miscarriages and eventual leg amputation – in order to keep her as an icon of female strength and pain.
Hiding in plain sight, behind the hype, we find a more complex Frida. Although she called herself la gran ocultadora – the great concealer - Frida’s paintings, diaries, decorated corsets, photos, letters, even her home, show us a radical and proud weirdo, an iconoclast who cross-dressed as teen, kept monkeys and parrots, called the hollow of Rivera’s armpits her “shelter”. She never shied away from the grotesque – painting a suicide’s feet hanging off the picture frame, along with countless images of gory uteri, ripped stomachs and bloody foetuses. She painted her crowning head bursting out of a front-on vagina in a work called, simply, My Birth. That one doesn’t work very well on a tote bag.
Like a distress flare shooting from a life raft, Frida’s paintings tell us, I’m here, its weird. I’m dealing with it. She relished pushing against social norms, expressing her strange yet intensely relatable imaginative world. André Breton called the artist “a ribbon around a bomb” and claimed her as a Surrealist – a label which, decades later, Tracey Emin rejected: “there were many people around her…trying to be weird, when she genuinely was”. Works such as Marxism Gives Health to the Sick and Self-Portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States show us her political concern for indigenous rights and socialism. That she’s now, as Germaine Greer writes, the “patron saint of lipstick and lavender feminism” might have come as a surprise to Frida Kahlo. But if the personal is political, she made the personal universal.
Madonna owns My Birth; in 1990 she told Vanity Fair that she used it as a test to see who was on her level. If you don’t get My Birth, you don’t get Madonna. For someone celebrated for her glossy exterior, Madonna’s identification with Kahlo speaks to her own inner weirdness. She admired Kahlo’s “courage to reveal what a lot of people choose to hide in feelings of being unworthy or in pain” and identified with “her sadness.” While their advocacies might have differed, both women were notorious for their private lives made public and refusal to live on anyone else’s terms. For both, the personal became public – and iconic.
This feature was originally published in our winter 2014 issue, 'All Our Heroes Are Weirdos'. Buy a copy of that issue here.
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