Saturday, January 8th, 2011

Frida Kahlo: Her Photos

It should come as no surprise that Frida Kahlo, whose own dramatic life was the primary subject of her art, kept a major collection of photographs important to her.  With the intense interest in Kahlo created by Hayden Herrera’s seminal biography, you might in fact wonder, why have we never seen these photos?  Okay, funny story: It turns out that when Frida Kahlo died in 1954, Diego Rivera gave her photo archive to his friend and executor Lola Olmedo with instructions not to open it for 15 years.  Ms. Olmedo, it is reported, apparently felt that if Diego didn’t want to open the archive to the public, who was she to open it?  So she didn’t, and it wasn’t until after her death 50 years later that the archive was finally opened and the cataloging could begin.  Frida Kahlo: Her Photos is the first book to publish some of the photographs from the archive, but no doubt not the last, as the over 500 images reproduced represent less than 10% of the total collection.

Guillermo Kahlo, Self-Portrait. nd.  Reproduced in the book under review.
Guillermo Kahlo, Self-Portrait. nd. Reproduced in the book under review.

What has been selected for this volume, under the guidance of Pablo Ortiz Monasterio, is nothing short of a revelation.  Divided into seven sections—“The Origins,” “Father,” “The Casa Azul,” “Broken Body,” “Love,” “Photography,” and “Political Struggle” —each accompanied by a short, concise essay, Frida Kahlo: Her Photos offers a panoramic view of the artist’s life, interests, and milieu.   It’s all there, Kahlo’s grandparents, her parents and siblings, her friends and lovers, and, it would seem, any and all of the assorted important people who passed through Mexico during the middle years of the 20th century.  There is Trotsky, of course, but also Isamu Noguchi (photographed by Edward Weston), Dolores del Rio, Marcel Duchamp, Henry Ford, and Sergei Eisenstein to name but a few.

But even among this amazing group of personages, one stands apart: Guillermo Kahlo, the artist’s father.  A professional photographer himself, his influence on Frida is made crystalline through the dozens of photos by him and of him.  It is not just the straight-ahead, confrontational gaze clearly presaging his daughter’s favored compositional device; it is the undeniable modernist sensibility present from some of the earliest works forward.  In photo after photo, we witness an artist who is self-aware, at times bemused, at other times deeply self-critical.  Many of his self-portraits are nearly clinical in their unvarnished documentation; we watch as he ages from dashing young man to middle-aged stolid father to world-weary elder.  The last image, dated 1932, shows him looking frail, with white hair and cigarette in hand, and has the words “Guillermo Kahlo, after crying” written in ink across the bottom.  What talent Frida inherited from her father may be an open question, but that she absorbed his modernism and probing psychology, the key things at the very heart of her, there can be no debate.

The reasons Diego Rivera thought this photo archive should be hidden for a time are not contained in this volume.  Perhaps there are other images that were kept out that would answer this question and perhaps not.  But we can say with assurance that we are exceedingly fortunate that, decades after everyone in these photos are long dead, we are able to witness the very full telling of their lives.  It turns out that Frida Kahlo was intent on amassing an image record far beyond her own likeness, including everyone of interest around her as well.  Frida Kahlo: Her Photos is a brilliant testimony to the successful realization of her goal.

Frida Kahlo: Her Photos. Edited by Pablo Ortiz Monasterio. Text by James Oles, Horacio Fernandez, Masayo Nonaka, Laura Gonzalez, Mauricio Ortiz, Gerardo Estrada, Rainer Huhle, Gaby Franger. Published by RM, 2010, ISBN: 9788492480753, 524 pp., 460 duotones, $45