By Marie-Louise Dunker
Frida Kahlo is the world’s most famous female artist. Nothing less. By turning the spotlight on herself as the subject matter of her art, Kahlo expanded the perception of the female identity in sharp exchange with contemporary currents in modernist visual art.
The ARKEN Museum of Modern just south of Copenhagen features a highlight exhibition of art by Frida Kahlo (1907-1954). FRIDA KAHLO – A LIFE IN ART shows how the artist staged and styled her identity through her art, which is often perceived to directly represent her colourful personal life. With her self-portraits and other depictions of her dramatic life, Kahlo examined the boundary between artwork and biography, between art and life. Nonetheless, her art often looks beyond personal experiences; it is mercilessly revealing yet also highly staged.
Frida Kahlo’s distinct appearance – with her expressive eyebrows, vivid costumes and upswept hairstyles – have made her as iconic a painter as Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso. Her iconic self-portraits have helped fuel a cult-like following, and ‘Fridamania’, widely reflected in Western popular culture, has also been fanned by Salma Hayek’s biopic *Frida*. Kahlo’s story is just as inspiring today and her investigations into her identity are similarly just as sharp now as they were at the early twentieth century.
Frida Kahlo began her artistic career in the 1920s when Mexico City was the scene for some of the greatest artistic and political figures of the times, influential figures who were preoccupied with revolutionary communist ideology and the seismic shifts in artistic expression. In their wild embrace, Kahlo met Mexico’s greatest artist Diego Rivera, and they married in 1929. This marked the beginning of her liberated, avant-garde prominence, not only in Mexico but also in the United States. As a member of the international cultural elite, Kahlo dedicated herself to her art, which in confluence with artistic and political currents of the day resonated with contemporary investigations into identity and originality.
Frida Kahlo’s paintings are pivotal to our understanding of the artist, although in recent years a large number of remarkable images have also reached the public, bearing clear witness to her use of self-fashioning photography. These photographs, often taken by her changing male and female lovers, further inflected the symbolic visual grammar of her paintings: Mexican costumes, sophisticated hairstyles, heavy pre-Columbian jewellery and not least her fearlessly arching eyebrows. These elements are distinct characteristics of the artist in all her self-portrayals. And these were by no means random ‘selfies’. They virtually all reflect a carefully staged composition, which like her paintings are heavily invested with meaning.
Frida Kahlo became a significant artist both at home and abroad. Through paintings, photographs and by her mere presence, Frida Kahlo became a living symbol of Mexico’s past and future and in a universal quest for identity. She died far too young in 1954, but ‘Frida’ the iconic artist and her art are experiencing an ever-growing interest. From 7 September, Kahlo’s works will be on display at the ARKEN Museum of Modern Ar