New Frida Kahlo Monograph Moves Beyond Individual Genius Narrative

It is no secret that Frida Kahlo has permeated the zeitgeist like few artists have. The crown braid, unibrow and direct stare saturate our collective imagination. But how we speak about Kahlo has been largely shaped by her most circulated works, leaving a larger portfolio behind. Dominant interpretations of her work highlight her publicized private life. As a whole, Fridamania has been fueled by narratives centering a unique artistic vision, sensationalism, and the commodification of her likeness.

Frida Kahlo: The Complete Paintings by art historians Andrea Kettenmann and Marina Vázquez Ramos (edited by Luis-Martín Lozano) brings together all 152 known Kahlo paintings in one place for the first time. The 500-plus-page, extra-extra-large monograph aims to move beyond the noise and over-commercialization of the Mexican icon and back to her artistic output. As Lozano notes, “The number of books and articles that have appeared about her life story, her house, her recipes … has continued to increase, yet in comparison there has been rather less analysis of her paintings.” In collaboration with Andrea Kettenmann and Marina Vázquez Ramon, Lozano provides extensive descriptions about each of Kahlo’s works, including new scholarship of prominently known works and paintings whose whereabouts still remain unknown.

Lozano devotes the first half of the book to exploring Kahlo’s artistic career and the development of her artistic language. Commonly revered as unique genius fueled by pain, the four chapters recalibrate this narrative by tracing Kahlo’s intellectual engagement with art history and aesthetic discussions of her time. Kahlo’s early inspiration from the Western canon can be easily observed through side-by-side comparisons of her work with compositions by Agnolo Bronzino, Leonardo Da Vinci, Titian and other European masters. Lozano also works through a web of conceptual references to eloquently identify Kahlo’s relationship with contemporaneous art movements, including Dadaism, Surrealism and lesser known connections to German portraiture and New Objectivity.

The pièce de résistance of the monumental tome comes in the second half of the book where Lozano, Kettenmann, and Ramon interpret Kahlo’s entire catalogue. Together they provide new context for canonical works and highlight the importance of obscure paintings. The virtue of certain entries lies in their introduction of lesser-known works to a mainstream audience, while others position lost paintings as complementary to more widely known masterpieces. “The Wounded Table” (1939/40) was one of two works along with “Las Dos Fridas” (The Two Fridas)(1939) included in the 1940 International Exhibition of Surrealism in Paris — the exhibition that cemented Kahlo as an international artist. Lozano sees both works in conversation, with “Las Dos Fridas” as a representation of Kahlo’s divorce from Diego Rivera, and “The Wounded Table” as her subsequent future.

Frida Kahlo, “The Two Fridas” (1939) oil on canvas, 68. x 68⅛ inches, Mexico City, Ministry of Culture, Instituto Nacional de Bellas  Artes y Literatura, Museo de Arte Moderno (photo by LML Archive; Copyright: © Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021)

Notably, Lozano brings new insights to “A Few Small Nips (Passionately in Love)” (1935-1938), one of the most significant paintings associated with Kahlo and frequently included in retrospective exhibitions. The oil painting, featuring an impaled woman with multiple stab wounds lying on a bed next to her assailant, is known to be inspired by a news story and often seen as a metaphor of Kahlo’s state after discovering the affair between Diego Rivera and her sister Cristina Kahlo. In an almost investigational manner, Lozano pinpoints formal references to German painters George Grosz and Otto Dix both of whom had produced a body of work exploring the theme of violence against women. “Sex Murder”(1922) by Dix, “has an undeniable connection in both compositional and psychological terms.”

This past year, artist Oroma Elewa’s efforts to reclaim and rectify a quote commonly misattributed to Kahlo were well documented on social media, and perfectly exemplify what Fridamania has become. It is an uphill battle to move beyond the wave of misinformation and flattened narratives associated with Kahlo today, but the authors move toward that goal. Frida Kahlo: The Complete Paintings privileges the Mexican painter’s journey as an artist and the history behind her art over familiar tropes. The authors works to debunk the mythicizing of Kahlo inspired solely by her personal life with sharp artistic reference points throughout, resulting in a more nuanced depiction of Kahlo as an artist.

Frida Kahlo. The Complete Paintings is published by Taschen and is available on Bookshop.

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