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Frida Kahlo: A Ribbon Around A Bomb

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by Henderson Downing, for outsideleft.com
originally published: July, 2005
Madonna paid in excess of a million dollars for 'Self-Portrait with Monkey'

Frida Kahlo is the star of Tate Modern's blockbuster exhibition this summer, the first solo show at the Tate for a Latin American artist. Sadly, assuming that you're actually interested in seeing the work rather than merely being seen moving from room to room soaking up the work's aura, her iconic status almost guarantees that you won't be able to get a clear view of the most famous pieces, such as 'The Two Fridas', 'The Broken Column', 'The Wounded Table', or 'The Little Deer'. Maybe you can console yourself by buying one of the innumerable monographs on sale a few yards from the exhibition exit. Or else try imagining that it's the 1930s and you're a Hollywood actor on sabbatical from your latest gangster flick. You can forget about timed tickets and crowded galleries and go and see Kahlo herself. Pretend you're Edward G. Robinson, her first major client, purchasing four paintings at $200 a piece. Then remember that if a single self-portrait was to put in a rare appearance at an auction nowadays you would need more than a million dollars just to make a bid.

Celebrities gravitated towards Kahlo. Possibly attracted by the on-again fuck-off again chemistry between her and Diego Rivera, a by-product of their innumerable affairs. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton concocted a similar routine soon afterwards, but in a drunkenly diluted version that had none of the style of their Mexicanadad forerunners whose lives seemed to overflow with a weird and powerful brew of revolutionary ideology and bohemian excess. In a Mexico City suburb they commissioned his and hers modernist villas (designed by the innovative Mexican architect Juan O'Gorman) and filled them with vernacular trophies. They transformed the violence and eroticism unfolding around them like a bloody animation of the surrealist game of exquisite corpse into a passionate form of art, made more intense and personal by the bitter legacy of Kahlo's childhood polio and the crippling tram-accident that killed her slowly and painfully, piece by piece, over twenty-seven agonizing years.

Kahlo's work currently fetches the highest prices for any female artist. And still the celebrities gather, with the wife of another gangster movie veteran perhaps the most notable. Several years ago Madonna paid in excess of a million dollars for 'Self Portrait with Monkey'. For the current exhibition Madonna has lent her 'precious child' to the Tate for a second time (the painting was also included in Surrealism: Desire Unbound in 2001) as well as also lending the traumatic ex-voto 'My Birth'. Madonna is a Kahlo obsessive. After reading Hayden Herrera's biography of the artist, Mrs Guy Ritchie was desperate to play Mrs Diego Rivera. She commissioned a screenplay. But the allure of producing and starring in a Frida biopic ended as a three-way catfight between Madonna, Jennifer Lopez, and the eventually victorious, and Oscar-nominated, Salma Hayek (if you want a worse pun than the 'Frida Mined' link, try 'Frida is a road Salma travelled by the multiplex').

When Salvador Dali brought his relentlessly self-promoting brand of surrealism across the Atlantic, the imperious surrealist leader Andr?© Breton rechristened the budding millionaire megastar with the anagram 'Avida Dollars'. He despised what he perceived as Dali's crass commercialization of the surrealist name. Breton had spent decades battling with various communist committees in order to prove that surrealism was as much a politically revolutionary movement as it was a personal one. When the Nazis advanced towards France he travelled to Mexico to meet one of his heroes, Leon Trotsky. A gifted writer, brilliant thinker, and an exiled founder of a revolution that was becoming increasingly bastardized, Trotsky fulfilled on an epic scale the kind of role that Breton identified himself as also playing. Breton was enchanted by the natural surrealism of Mexico. Trotsky was enchanted by Frida Kahlo, with whom he had had an affair. When Breton saw Kahlo's work he recognized yet more Mexican surrealism and described her paintings as 'a ribbon around a bomb'.

Perhaps as a homage to the fame and money generated by the Kahlo industry fifty odd years after her death, perhaps as the latest in a series of nails in Breton's surrealist coffin (after the first delirious hammer blow from Avida Dollars himself), the Tate has generously amplified the available merchandise since the recent Joseph Beuys exhibition, where you could buy a felt Beuys bag or even mugs and pencil cases featuring a vaguely Microsoft-ish icon of his trademark fedora (a beautifully facile signifier for such a self-mythologizing figure). Arguably, both Beuys and Kahlo displayed in their work an intimate understanding of the crazy mechanics that operates the cult of celebrity. Both went so far as to assemble their own self-obsessed versions while remaining tacitly opposed to the recuperative mutations of the capitalist system within which such celebrity status was prized for its lucrative potential. These days that potential is unashamedly being realized. In the past few months several magazine covers have cashed in on the Kahlo look - the head tilted to reveal a single ear, the pursed and painted lips, the dark eyes under the flying gull monobrow - while a display of Kahlo's actual costumes recently adorned the windows of Selfridges. I won't list the items of Kahlobilia on sale at the various Tate Modern retail points. Just give yourself plenty of time to browse after leaving the show.

A related item even turned up in the bottom of a box of paperbacks at a certain used bookstore in Notting Hill. I've not seen this particular Frida Kahlo gift (pictured above) displayed elsewhere. But she is part of the dual purpose finger-puppet-and-fridge-magnet series of 'magnetic personalities' created by the Unemployed Philosophers Guild. Their eclectic range of puppets (if not the astonishing realism of their execution) should entice franchise holders in galleries, museums, and libraries worldwide to stock up. Alongside Frida, other personal puppet/magnet favourites include Monet, Gandhi, James Joyce and Michel Foucault. The Guild also produce a Nietzschean watch that replaces the second hand with the philosopher's maxim on eternal return rotating around his classic side profile with Walrus moustache. Somewhat inevitably for such highbrow material a number of the Guild's items include facial hair, especially in the infamous beard and glasses combination. Meanwhile, the Relativity watch is dedicated to Einstein (another finger puppet favourite) and features a warped representation of the familiar twelve-hour numerals rotating around minute and hour hands that never move. Other website highlights include a pillow painted with Van Gogh's 'Starry Night' that lights up in the dark and a pair of Freudian slippers (available in three sizes). Although I was slightly disappointed that there was no Andr?© Breton puppet/magnet, it was consoling to find that both Trotsky and Dali were available.

Henderson Downing

Henderson Downing has written for various literary journals and small press magazines, he lives in London

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