New Frida Kahlo Documentary at Sundance Doesn’t Even Scratch the Surface of a Complex Artist - Living Strong Television Network
New Frida Kahlo Documentary at Sundance Doesn’t Even Scratch the Surface of a Complex Artist

Carla Gutiérrez’s new documentary Frida would in theory be the right occasion to examine the full of Frida Kahlo’s life. It is being given prominent placement at the Sundance Film Festival this week, and it is brought there by Amazon Studios—no small distribution company. Such a big canvas should provide a good opportunity to reexamine the famed Mexican artist, whose biography often feels stranger than fiction.

But the film unfortunately tells the same story that has already been told about Kahlo, without providing much new material along the way, other than some kitschy animations of her paintings. Her Wikipedia page remains more insightful.

Gutiérrez has said she came to make the film by diving deep into Kahlo’s archives: she read her diaries and colorized black-and-white photos. This is a noble cause, because ever since the rise of Fridamania beginning in the 1980s, we’ve lost sight of what makes Kahlo truly important.

As Carolina A. Miranda wrote in ARTnews in 2014, in an article called “Saving Frida Kahlo From Her Own Celebrity,” Kahlo’s overnight rise from “obscure Mexican painter to popular saint” had caused her mere mention to be met with disdain: “Recently, when I told a fellow art writer that I was working on a story about Kahlo, she replied, ‘You know, I kind of cringe when I hear the name.’” I’ve felt that way, too, in the past, not because I’m not a fan of Kahlo, but because few have been able to adequately deal with artist with such a complex legacy.

Recent exhibitions prove as much. A 2016 exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, came closest to looking at Kahlo’s lens through a more critical and historical lens, but even that blockbuster was occasioned by the museum’s acquisition of its first Kahlo, as opposed to a serious curiosity about her art. Meanwhile, an exhibition about Kahlo’s fashion sense has been traveling since 2012, but it has failed to offer many insights, either, beyond attesting to how sharp of a dresser she was. Still, it has succeeded in drawing large crowds.

These shows often don’t feature enough of Kahlo’s own words, which is one of the few positives of the new documentary. There’s value to that, but she and her legacy still needs to be critiqued and analyzed. There’s a lot to unravel in Kahlo’s story, not just because her politics were complex and deliberately opaque at times, but also because she frequently self-mythologized, embellishing her own biography in ways that require interrogation. For the sake of this film, an easy fix would have been to bring in some experts, yet Gutiérrez does not do this.

In order to understand Kahlo and her art, it’s crucial to view it against the backdrop of post-Revolution Mexico. She was born in 1907, three years before the Revolution began, but at a certain point in her life, she redated her birth to 1910 so that she arrived in the world along with the Revolution. At a time when the new Mexican government was fixated on constructing a national identity through the arts—look no further than the work of Los Tres Grandes, the painters David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, and her future husband, Diego Rivera—that is a significant detail, if not an essential one. Even if Kahlo was often dismissed as Rivera’s wife or a second-tier Surrealist painter during her lifetime, she was just as committed to the cause of a new Mexico. That goes unmentioned in the film.

A major theme in Frida is Kahlo’s own self-fashioning. Through her years in medical school, when she was the only women member of a friend group called Las Cachuchas, she dressed decidedly butch. Kahlo met Rivera in 1928 and showed him four of her paintings. He was so taken by her that he almost immediately painted her into one of his murals.

They married the following year, and it was around this time that Kahlo began to dress more femininely, adopting the Tehuana dresses of the Indigenous Zapotec people as her everyday costume. Later on in the documentary, we learn that Rivera was acceptant of Kahlo’s bisexual identity. Her iconic painting Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940), featuring the artist dressed like a man, flashes on screen. The year before she painted this, Kahlo and Rivera had divorced, only to remarry months later. This second marriage was intentionally devoid of sex (to avoid jealousy on Rivera’s part), likely meaning that now that Kahlo was no longer an object of Rivera’s desire, she was free to dress more freely. The film doesn’t provide enough information of how often Kahlo dressed in suits post-1940.

In 1930s Mexico, the act of adopting Tehuana dress was seen as just one more way to construct José Vasconcelos’s notion of la raza cósmica (cosmic race), in which all other races would amalgamate into a fifth one that would be superior to all others. Gutiérrez doesn’t address that history, or its neo-colonial, racist, and social Darwinist underpinnings, or even the simple fact that Kahlo’s appropriation of Tehuana dress and culture would have added insult to injury for a group that had by then been significantly impacted by land redistribution, displacement, and violence.

In general, Gutiérrez has a strange way of dealing with Kahlo’s politics. As a clip of a speech by Emiliano Zapata, one of the leaders of the Mexican Revolution, plays, we learn that Kahlo decided to join the Communist Party. Not much more is said on that front. Later in this mostly chronological documentary, we also hear that Kahlo and Rivera were instrumental in getting the Mexican government to grant asylum to Leon Trotsky, who lived at the couple’s Casa Azul for two years and with whom Kahlo had an affair. The details of their falling out with Trotsky are rushed in Frida, and Gutiérrez omits the fact that Kahlo and Rivera were initially suspected of carrying out Trotsky’s assassination in 1940, though they were later cleared. 

Between 1931 and 1933, Kahlo and Rivera lived in the United States as Rivera worked to complete several commissions. Gutiérrez does not elide how stylistically ambitious Kahlo was during this period. The filmmaker even takes the time to highlight the backstory of three quintessential Kahlo paintings: Henry Ford Hospital, My Dress Hangs There, and Self-portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States (all 1932), which filter Kahlo’s feelings of isolation in the US. Kahlo’s diaries do show that she found the wealthy commissioners of these paintings to be “rich jerks,” but the contradiction of a Communist hobnobbing with the elite goes uninterrogated, as it often does.

Bafflingly, at its end, Frida turns Kahlo’s death into a metaphor by considering one of her most famous paintings, The Wounded Deer (1946), in which Kahlo’s face is transposed onto the body of deer that has been shot with nine arrows. Painted eight years before her passing and a year after a major operation, the painting, as with other works from the era, like The Broken Column (1945), is a reflection on her declining health, a topic that became increasingly important to her after the death of her father in 1941.

Gutiérrez, however, treats this work differently. In one of the film’s 48 animations, she removes the arrows from Kahlo’s deer. This seems like a way of liberating Kahlo. In order for Kahlo to be famous, Gutiérrez appears to claim, she had to suffer. But that’s just a rehash of the uninspired trope of the tortured artist, and it isn’t very interesting.

A successful artist documentary should look at how the subject’s biography impacts their work. But it also shouldn’t be afraid to look at the subject’s warts—their failings, that which makes them human. Any subject is an unreliable narrator of their own biography, and it should be the job of someone like Gutiérrez to reveal myths rather than feeding them, as she does in the deer animation. Frida is a film that’s good at portraying what we think we know about Kahlo. Too bad it can’t also portray what we should know, too.

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