Frida Kahlo of the paintings has The Look. Frida Kahlo of the photos does not. Why?
The photographs of Frida are much softer, or more playful, or openly seductive. They are filled with the emotion and the personality that is so strikingly absent from the self-portraits. The closest thing to The Look in a photograph is probably Guillermo Kahlo's portrait from 1932, but even in that photograph there is a warmth and a rounding of the edges that isn't in the paintings. There is a vulnerability that comes out of the photograph, even though she is posed in the same way and has the same blank expression that she does in her self-portraits. A photograph from 1940 now titled Frida Kahlo With Cropped Hair has something close to the hardness of The Look, but there is a smile playing at the corners of her mouth and a twinkle in her eye. It isn't The Look.
| Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and
But then why are we so taken with her lies, even after all these years? I think our fascination is explained in something she once said about André Breton when he was visiting Mexico. She said, "I never knew I was a surrealist till André Breton came to Mexico and told me I was." There is a story of 10,000 levels of defiance in that sentence, and it is that same defiance that powers The Look. But it is particularly fascinating that the comment comes in reference to Breton. In Surrealism we have but one of a never-ending list of 20th century movements that dissolved the self into one thing or another. For Surrealism, the self dissolves into dreams and the irrationality of desires. Or, variously throughout the early 20th century, the self dissolves into history or the structure of society or into the grammar and syntax of language. The self, in short, has done a lot of dissolving over the past hundred years, and a glance at the painted canvasses over that time reflect that fact as much as anything. From formalism to the avant-garde, the self either performed a disappearing trick altogether or was forced to submit to every manner of fragmentation and dissipation.
Weathering it all, never going under for a second in the stormy seas of all the dissolution is The Look. There is no theory behind it, no counter claim about the essence of our being. There is simply Frida Kahlo's need to capture The Look again and again. Whatever drove it, whatever pains and sorrows, it became an aesthetic thing of its own, and that is how The Look comes down to us now. It comes down as a truth greater than the conditions that may have caused it for the simple reason that it doesn't fade one bit. It doesn't shy away from the basic — let us call it Cartesian certitude — that was the rock upon which Frida built her art. The Look says, "I am I and you are you." The Look is about the hardness of that fact, the impenetrable steely actuality of that fact. It is a look that suffers no fools, no bullshit. I am I, Frida Kahlo, I am I. • 21 February 2008
Morgan Meis is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for The Believer, Harper’s, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily. Idle Chatter appears here weekly. Morgan can be reached at email@example.com.
Homepage image Self-Portrait, and Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Museums Trust.