The Nerve of Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo

an exhibition at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, October 27, 2007–January 20, 2008; the Philadelphia Museum of Art, February 20–May 18, 2008; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, June 16–September 28, 2008.
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Elizabeth Carpenter, co-curator with Hayden Herrera.
Walker Art Center/DAP,320 pp., $49.95

Frida Kahlo was an ironic and devilish person, and so she might be intrigued by the thought that, for this writer, at least, her finest single work is in an outward respect her least typical. Kahlo is known, of course, for her many unsparing self-portraits, images where she can confront us with tears on her cheeks or exhibit herself as a bedridden patient or victim. They present a woman who, facing us as well with her distinctive and unforgettable dark, unbroken, single eyebrow and clear suggestion of a mustache, and often wearing clothes or accompanied by details that are redolent of her native Mexico, exudes a smoldering fury—an expressionist tension that, until recent decades, was rarely encountered in the work of women artists.

The Suicide of Dorothy Hale, however, a painting dated 1939 which shows exactly that, a woman killing herself, has a New York City setting and has as its protagonist a formally and elegantly dressed woman who is not remotely like any other figure in the painter’s work. At the traveling Kahlo retrospective currently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, an exhibition geared to the centennial of her birth, in 1907 (she died in 1954), no other picture had the degree of experimentation, the luminosity, or the graphic clarity of this painting, either. Dorothy Hale was a socialite and something of a friend of Kahlo’s who had lost her husband and become psychologically adrift and financially desperate. She committed suicide by jumping from her apartment in the Hampshire House, on Central Park South, and from the incident Kahlo made a picture that is as witty and ingenious as it is mordant and disturbing.

In the painting, which, like most of her work, is fairly small, the white skyscraper appears like a mirage emanating from the kind of deadpan perfect blue sky, covered with deadpan perfect cottony clouds, one would find in a contemporaneous work by Magritte. Near the top of the building, in part of the painting that recalls images of people jumping from the World Trade Center, we see a tiny, dark, plummeting figure. In the center of the picture a more clearly visible person falls twistedly before us, while at the bottom, on a ledge which could be a sidewalk, Hale lies dead, her eyes open and staring at us. Her body seems unscathed although blood seeps out from under her onto the frame, which has been painted so as to be a continuation of the scene. Blood also seems to form the words in the strip at the bottom of the picture that tell us, in Spanish, what we are looking at and who painted it.

Brilliantly conceived as a design and as a way to present, in a single image, a number of events taking place over a passage of time, Kahlo’s picture keeps our eyes continually moving over its entire surface. Even better is its pulsating, wonderfully tricky sense of space. With the “story” of the scene continued onto the frame and with…

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