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Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo: Toted as the female Van Gogh, Kahlo draws the crowds

As “Frida” hits the screens, the cult painter’s art–and spin-offs–are in high demand

A pivotal scene in the movie “Frida” includes a wrenching kiss between the uni-browed Mexican artist and the photographer Tina Modotti at the end of a lustful tango. Never mind that the real Kahlo was a tiny woman with a limp, nothing like the voluptuous Mexican Salma Hayek who plays her on the screen, or that the film is in English, spoken mostly by Mexican actors with heavy accents.

After 20 years of aborted productions initiated by Madonna, Jennifer Lopez and many others, “Frida,” which played at the Toronto International Film Festival, joins the crush of Kahlo-bilia. There are two novels, at least two stage plays, a cook book, a restaurant, dolls, peasant clothes marketed as Frida-wear, web-sites, and even the beginings of a religion, Kahlismo. Teenage girls list her as a “most-admired” woman.

Was it because she was a famous painter, a drug addict, a bisexual, or a communist? The marketers are too busy raking in the money to care.

“The feminists always wanted a Van Gogh figure, and with Frida Kahlo they finally got one,” William Lieberman of the Metropolitan Museum of Art joked during the Met’s Mexican survey 10 years ago. Now the Uni-Brow seems poised to surpass Van Gogh at the gift shop and box office.

“Frida,” based on Hayden Herrera’s 1982 biography, echoes recent films about artists and, alas, recycles their stereotypes: lavish costumes, torture in love and life, and more attention to her circle than to her art. As in “Basquiat” and “Pollock,” the “art” was done by hired painters.

Exaggerated performances reflect the stage background of the director, Julie Taymor, who punctuates episodes with collages of Mexican images or of art that weighed on Kahlo. Also weighing on her is the monstrous Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina), a hulking lecher whom Kahlo married twice.

Most of “Frida” examines their mutual torture, although her worst batterings at his hands are left out. Frida’s trysts with Leon Trotsky (David Rush) play like gag agit-prop, as does a confrontation between Rivera and Nelson Rockefeller over a Rockefeller Center mural that Rivera destroys rather than remove Lenin’s likeness.

Oddly, the life that overflowed with drama is clumsy on screen. Kahlo’s obsession with self-portraiture goes unexplored. Her magnetism for men and women remains a mystery. We are constantly reminded that Salma Hayek, who produced the film, is seductive, but Hayek never makes the squirrelish Kahlo’s special allure believable.

Nonetheless, “Frida” may win awards for its design. Interiors of wood and coloured tiles look just right for a Mexican-themed “Abitare.” Costumes seem styled and actors posed for fashion spreads (which is precisely where they appeared in the spring, when the initial release of the film was due). But the audience may not mind any of this, given the intense demand for anything Kahlo.

At Christie's spring auction of Latin American art in Manhattan, along with paintings were an address book, a blouse, and a stone necklace, all once owned by her, as well as a dress, a letter she and Rivera wrote to Leon Trotsky, and a toy skeleton she may have made for the Mexican Day of the Dead. Yet even Kahlo-mania has limits. The personal effects failed to meet their $30,000 reserve.

These days Kahlo paintings are so hard to get that neither Christie's nor Sotheby's had one for the spring sales. "Someone who wants to show off could definitely pay millions of dollars," said the New York dealer Mary-Anne Martin, noting that a Mexican media executive set the current $5,065,000 Kahlo record in 2000.

Kahlo (b. 1907) died at 47 in Mexico City. Child pneumonia left her with a limp as a girl, and she was crippled by a 1925 bus accident that almost killed her. She endured constant pain for the rest of her life. Her exact cause of death is still not known but she may have killed herself.

No todo Kahlo show is touring the world right now, although “Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican Modernism,” organised by the National Gallery of Australia, recently drew record crowds at the Museo del Barrio in New York, the exhibition's 10th venue. The show moves opens at the Seattle Art Museum on 5 October(until 5 January, 2003).

“It’s like Van Gogh’s ear. You mention Frida Kahlo and you have lines outside,” said Robert Littman, who manages the collection assembled by Jacques and Natasha Gelman, wealthy Mexican film producers who knew Kahlo.

In fact, Frida Kahlo has always had cinematic connections, and not just in her flair for self-promotion: the screen gangster Edward G. Robinson was the first American collector to buy her paintings.

Those surging auction prices...

Oil paintings:

2001 Portrait of Cristina, my sister Sotheby’s $4.6 million

2000 Self-portrait Sotheby’s $1.5 million

1995 Self-portrait,monkey & parrot Sotheby’s $2.9 million

1991 Self-portrait with loose hair Christie’s $1.5million

1980 Self-portrait with monkey Sotheby’s $40,000

Works on paper:

2001 Karma (portrait Nacho Aguirre) Christie’s $65,000

2000 Karma I and II Sotheby’s $250,000

1995 Self-portrait Christie’s $22,000

1992 Self-portrait Christie’s $18,000

1985 Self-portrait Sotheby’s $12,000

Sources: Artprice.com and Art-sales-index.com

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The female Van Gogh?'