What We’re Reading: “Frida in America: The Creative Awakening of a Great Artist” by Celia Stahr

Alyssa Dumire, Director of Children’s Education

Alyssa Dumire’s Frida Kahlo collection, including the new book by Celia Stahr. Photo courtesy of Alyssa Dumire.

Frida Kahlo has one of the most recognizable faces in art history, captured in her own time by photographers (beginning with her father) and in her iconic self portraits. Today, she’s a pop culture phenomenon, adorning memorabilia from t-shirts to jewelry to oven mitts; I’m the owner of a Frida votive candle, tote bag, and Christmas ornament (they were gifts!). Parts of her biography are also incredibly well-known. FWMoA displayed photographs of Frida in a couple different exhibitions over the past few years (most recently in Seen & Unseen: Photographs by Imogen Cunningham). During school tours, children as young as kindergarteners knew and shared the story of how Kahlo began painting while stuck in bed, recovering from a horrific bus accident that left her with lifelong health problems. Many visitors, young and old, also know of her turbulent marriage with muralist Diego Rivera, her sartorial choices, and her beautiful blue home in Mexico City. With so much of her biography already common knowledge, I wondered what there was to learn from a new book, Frida in America: The Creative Awakening of a Great Artist by Celia Stahr, out last year. Stahr answered my question in the book’s introduction: “Frida in America is a story about the impact of place.” A major biography on the artist hadn’t been published since 1983, and by focusing on just her years spent in the United States, a place she dubbed Gringolandia, Stahr sheds new light on this formative time that had an incredible impact on the remainder of Kahlo’s life and career.

Frida was 23 when she married her “famous husband”, who she met years earlier when he painted a mural at her high school and again through their mutual involvement with the communist party. The first few years of their marriage were spent almost entirely living in other cities for Rivera’s mural commissions and exhibitions: first in Coyoacán, then San Francisco, New York, and Detroit. It is this time, beginning five years after that fateful bus accident that spurred Frida to become an artist, that is the focus of Frida in America. Stahr takes us through deep-dive interpretations of the paintings and drawings created during these years, informed by journal entries from Frida’s confidant Lucienne Bloch and letters to and from family in Mexico, to trace her maturation as an artist (and a person).

The bus accident was the first of three painful events that shaped Frida’s art and outlook, tribulations that Stahr frames as a “hero’s journey”, a series of necessary challenges that the story’s protagonist must overcome to gain their powers. The final two trials happened in close succession–a traumatic and extended miscarriage that almost killed her followed by the death of her mother–and after each, Frida was reborn, eventually metamorphizing into the personality and artist idolized today.

While Diego, somewhat paradoxically, loved America and its industrialization, Frida was ambivalent at best. They arrived at the beginning of the Great Depression, and the inequities between the “haves” and “have nots” weighed heavily on her (even as she rubbed elbows with her husband’s wealthy benefactors). At first playing the role of charming young wife, after her third major trial–the death of her mother–Frida found ways to slyly subvert the powerful people she deemed foolish and hypocritical, particularly Henry Ford and his anti-Semitism. Conservative Detroit, the industrial center of America, was Frida’s least favorite stop on their extended tour. If women artists had trouble breaking through in New York, it was nearly impossible in the Midwest. It was also, however, the site of her most important artistic breakthroughs to date, something that even the Detroit News recognized in a way, acknowledging her skill and style (albeit in an article titled, “Wife of Master Mural Painter Gleefully Dabbles in Works of Art”).

Frida was a complex person rife with duality, a theme that has its roots in Aztec mythology and that she employed throughout her life and work; juxtaposing masculine and feminine, European and indigenous Mexican, life and death. Her Self-Portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States, the last work she completed in Detroit and the image quite appropriately selected for the cover of the book, exemplifies this. It also effectively sums up the impact of Frida’s time spent in America: although her feelings on Gringolandia were as complicated as the symbolic imagery she used, her identity as a Mexican woman was stronger than ever, as evidenced by the flag in her hand (she also dropped the “e” from her given German name, “Frieda,” by the time she returned to Mexico). She had also gained well-deserved confidence in herself and her artistic abilities, placing her own image standing tall, front and center in the composition.

What would Frida think about the “Fridamania” that has swept over the world? She aspired to be an artist of the people, embracing popular art forms such as retablo paintings and adapting indigenous styles of dress. She also loved to shop for kitschy souvenirs and trinkets. Her public persona was carefully constructed and controlled by her: she understood the relationship between photographer and subject from an early age, thanks to her photographer father, and considered each detail in her own painted self-portraits. With all this in mind, I think there was a part of Frida that would embrace the proliferation of her likeness on all kinds of mass-produced novelties. They show her as she wanted to be seen and in the most accessible way; but they, of course, barely scratch the surface of the complicated person she was. For a more complete picture, you’ll have to read the book!

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