The art of self-examination

Julie Taymor's film of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo's jumbled, difficult life is painful to watch in many scenes.

"Frida" is an explicit, yet at the same time fantastical, exploration of her private life, including miscarriages, and affairs with men and women, as well as the tram accident that nearly killed her at 18. All of this detail also makes the film a fitting portrait of a painter whose more than 200 paintings nearly all overflowed with intense self-examination.

Director Taymor says she was inspired by Kahlo's mix of ruthless unsentimentality mixed with deep emotional needs. "Frida was singularly strong," says Taymor, "but she was also able to be vulnerable." Nothing in Kahlo's life was off limits to her, and therefore to her art, but that lack of restraint also brought great physical and emotional trials.

Painting was a means of survival to Kahlo, who often said that she could live only if she could paint. She took up painting in the wake of the accident, which her doctors did not expect her to survive. Her parents, a mother who was half-indigenous Mexican, and her father, a European Jew, provided her with art materials during the convalescence.

She defied medical expectations and "painted" herself well. The habit of clear-eyed self-examination was born of necessity and stayed with her for a lifetime. Who else was available to sit for the endless hours she spent painting in bed?

Only marginally successful as an artist in her lifetime, Kahlo has become a phenomenon since her death in 1954. She has been adopted by feminists around the world and women artists throughout the Americas.

Married twice to Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, who called her the better artist, Kahlo used self throughout her work. This struck a strong and important chord for artists in the second half of the 20th century.

"Frida was one of the first Mexican artists to look at herself," says Gregorio Luke, director of the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach. While the great Mexican painters of the mid-20th century were all painting history and social issues, Kahlo was steadfastly rooted in the personal, he says. "She is a vision of introspection. She paints her anguish, her sicknesses – all of it. And if you look at young Mexican painters today, they are all a bit more looking inside as a result of her work."

Kahlo was also a steadfast Communist and incorporated the lives of the common people into her work. Detractors have called her style unsophisticated and unskilled, and her focus obsessively narrow.

To Kahlo, the blunt, naive quality in many of her paintings was a deliberate reference to folk art, without European perspective or overtly skilled draftsmanship. That self-conscious incorporation of a broader definition of art doesn't make her less of an artist, says Luke. "We talk a lot about 'multicultural' now, but Frida was doing it during her life." He points to Kahlo's use of Mexican folk-art forms, such as retablos (paintings of saints and martyrs on common materials, usually tin), European styles that date to colonial influences, as well as elements of modernism, including Surrealism.

"Her work includes a wide range of elements that many people recognize," says Luke. "Add to that a truly dramatic life and you have someone that many people can identify with."

When the National Museum of Women in the Arts opened nearly 30 years ago, curators challenged audiences who came to museum lectures to identify important female artists. Names that always came up: Mary Cassatt, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Frida Kahlo. "She's simply one of the artists people know about because she has this larger-than-life status," says Harriet McNamee, curator of education.

"Kahlo put all her pain right out there for people to see," says Ms. McNamee. "She didn't hide any of it. We're in an age where people find that kind of directness fascinating."

The film certainly will add to the fascination with the Kahlo mystique, which stars Salma Hayek in the lead, and cameos from half a dozen celebrities. Ashley Judd streaks through the film as the revolutionary Tina Modotti; Geoffrey Rush does a turn as exiled Russian Leon Trotsky; and Antonio Banderas sulks in several bars as David Alfaro Siqueiros, Rivera's rival for the status of most important Mexican muralist of his day.

But, as Luke points out, notoriety is not always a negative: "There are so many things that are negative in this world that get a lot of attention. How wonderful if it can be a great artist."

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