The biopic of Frida Kahlo has been one of the most fought-over projects in Hollywood. On the eve of the film’s release, Salma Hayek, its producer and Oscar-nominated leading actor, explains what made Kahlo great. By Jonathan Jones
Every man and every woman is a star,” it says at the beginning of Kenneth Anger’s sleazy classic of film history, Hollywood Babylon. Frida Kahlo loved the movies. In New York while her husband Diego Rivera was painting marxist murals for corporate America in the early 1930s (no, it didn’t turn out well), she saw Frankenstein twice. She also avidly watched King Kong and the Tarzan films. Perhaps in her heart she knew she had an appointment with the silver screen. The taste for her work has always been spearheaded by Hollywood, responding to the charisma of her self-portraits; the first serious purchaser of her work was the legendary gangster-movie star and sensitive art collector Edward G Robinson, who visited her in 1938 and bought four paintings for $200 each. This is a fact that Kahlo’s biographers pass over, but maybe it tells us everything about her – it suggests she always had something that communicated with glamour, modernity, cinema.
She is so famous now, having leapt, since her rediscovery by feminist art historians and collectors including Madonna in the 1980s and 90s, into a superleague of art celebrity – among modern artists, only Van Gogh, Dali, Picasso and Warhol have such name recognition – that you can’t help wondering if a fall is due. The plummeting of Frida Kahlo. Already, feminist art history has moved on, sceptical of the way that artistic fame depends on biography.
Kahlo’s biography is famously startling. Her life was a street accident that lasted 47 years. Crippled in her right leg by polio when she was a child, then horrifically injured as a teenager in a traffic accident – multiple spinal fractures, the same right leg and foot shattered – she made what at first seemed a good recovery, became an artist, married Mexico’s most respected modern painter, Diego Rivera – then the most famous modernist in America, north or south – participated in revolutionary politics, had an affair with Trotsky, was taken up by the surrealists, divorced and remarried Rivera, suffered a slow but inexorable decline in health and mobility, attended her first Mexican solo show in her bed, which was carried into the gallery, and died with a portrait of Stalin (an imaginative betrayal of her lover Trotsky) on the easel.
A life, then, quite a life. Sometimes it seems that the life has eclipsed the work, or rather subsumed it, defined it. It’s hard to avoid seeing Kahlo’s paintings, not to mention her intensely drawn and written diary, as barely sublimated autobiographical fact. She painted self-portrait after self-portrait, and visionary, magic-realist private history paintings in which her face and her narrative – the terrible story of her body – intertwine with fantastic images of Mexico past and present, and of the US, whose inhabitants she professed to loathe, and which she renamed Gringolandia.
All that autobiography. All that apparently unmediated pain. Since the publication of Hayden Herrera’s biography in 1983, Kahlo’s fame has been that of a woman who put her pain into her painting; Madonna, who is the leading private collector of her art, has said she identifies with this pain. And yet this leaves the art out of Kahlo’s art, evading the question of aesthetic achievement. Today you can feel the tide of fashion on the turn – wrongly. Kahlo is a great artist.
What we need now is to look at her art anew, as art rather than confession. One way of rethinking Kahlo is to see her as a star. And someone who might have an insight into that is another star, an inhabitant of Tinseltown.
“What I respond to with Frida is her courage to be unique; her courage to be different,” says Salma Hayek, who beat off Madonna and Jennifer Lopez to become Hollywood’s Frida, and whose performance in the film she produced herself has just won Hayek an Oscar nomination for best actress. “She lived her life exactly as she wanted and never apologised. She was bisexual at a very young age – well before she was in a group of people with whom it would have been more accepted. I think she got caught with the librarian of her school right before the accident.”
For years now a Kahlo biopic has been one of the most talked-about and fought-over projects in Hollywood. Hayek reckons there are at least 12 screenplays in circulation, including the one that Madonna optioned but eventually gave up on. But it won’t be Madonna or J-Lo at the Oscars, it turns out, as we talk on the morning after the nominations are announced. Hayek, famous in Mexico as a TV star before she made her name in Gringolandia in Robert Rodriguez’s films (she is also in his next, Once Upon a Time in Mexico), has received an Oscar nomination for her performance. But she is not just more qualified than her rivals to play Frida Kahlo – in at least one respect, she is more qualified than Kahlo herself.
Kahlo was a natural star who not only impressed Hollywood contemporaries but made them want to copy her; her most potent weapon was her clothes, her spectacular jewellery, headdresses, skirts. But her costume wasn’t just fanciful – it had specific folkloric associations. She chose to wear, and make her own, the traditional costume of women from the Tehuantepec peninsula, where it is said that women rule. Kahlo was not from this region of Mexico; she was born on the outskirts of Mexico City, her father was a Jewish immigrant from central Europe, and her life was intensely urban. Hayek can therefore claim to be more authentic to the persona than Kahlo was herself. “My mother and grandmother are from this area. My grandmother has a collection of Tehuana outfits. When I did my first movie – it was a Mexican movie, before Desperado – we went to the Berlin film festival and I didn’t know what to wear, so I decided to take one of these outfits belonging to my grandmother. They thought I was completely insane.”
And is the region really matriarchal? “It’s true. It’s true in some parts. They are very strong women – they work very hard, they have very interesting traditions. It is like a matriarchy in the sense that they are the ones that work, they organise the society. However, you still have to be a virgin when you get married. You are tested. They have one test that you have to put a thing around your head, like a thread, then if you can do the correct thing with it then you’re a virgin, and if you can’t, you’re not. I used to know it – just in case my mom would test me.”
But Tehuana dress now has another meaning, the one Kahlo gave it – and there is a secret history of fashion here that leads directly to Hollywood. Kahlo held a fatal attraction for Hollywood long before Madonna bought her painting, My Birth, and judged new acquaintances on how they reacted to seeing Kahlo’s mature head emerging from her mother (the pre-Columbian sculpture that the painting quotes can currently be seen in the Royal Academy’s Aztecs exhibition). In the early 1940s Man Ray took a photograph of the film star Dolores del Rio, who appeared in a series of studio hits including Flying Down to Rio and whose lovers included Orson Welles. Welles was fascinated by her extensive collection of underwear; but in the photograph, Del Rio wears not lingerie, but a Tehuana costume. This is certainly inspired by Kahlo. Del Rio was a close friend of the artist; in 1939 the openly bisexual Kahlo presented her with her painting Two Nudes in the Forest. Even if they had not been acquainted, Del Rio could hardly have been unaware of Kahlo’s penchant for Tehuana costume – after her highly successful exhibitions in New York and Paris at the end of the 1930s, Kahlo’s style was featured in Vogue, with a photograph of her bejewelled hand on the cover; and fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli created a Kahlo-inspired dress.
All of which is to say that Kahlo was a star – though one, Hayek points out, with a lot more confidence than your average world-famous movie star. She thinks Kahlo was less than wholly enamoured of the Hollywood types who beat a track to her door (she certainly had a fraught relationship with Paulette Goddard, Charlie Chaplin’s wife and co-star in Modern Times, who may have been the cause of her divorce from Rivera). “Some movie stars pretend to have a lot of self-esteem,” says Hayek, but in reality they are dependent on others’ approval and adulation. “She had that, without needing anyone to acknowledge her as a movie star or as a painter or as anything.”
In fact, Hayek has a radically uncliched view of the woman she has gone to such lengths to play on screen. When I ask if she identifies with Kahlo, she denies this vociferously, and doesn’t agree at all with the characterisation of Kahlo as an artist of pain and tragedy. There’s something almost too upbeat about the film, directed by Julie Taymor – as if it were too much effort to make Kahlo a positive figure – but what Hayek says about the artist is, I think, closer to the truth than the usual melodrama.
“What fascinates me about Frida Kahlo and intrigues me is not the pain. I’ll tell you something. Frida Kahlo, in every picture taken of her, is very serious,” Hayek says. “It’s because she hated her teeth. She had really, really bad teeth. I have pictures that are not usually published where she’s cracking up and she covers her mouth. And I actually have a picture where you get to see some of the teeth, and they’re very bad teeth.”
According to Hayek, Kahlo did suffer a lot of physical and emotional pain, but putting it on canvas was a form of exorcism, and she did it with a dark sense of humour. “I don’t see her as this morbid, sad character and I’ll tell you why,” she says. “To start with, nobody paints their last painting, knowing that they’re dying, and calls that painting Viva la Vida [Long Live Life]. She would wake up in the morning and make an art form of herself; and spend hours decorating herself to go to the market to buy some food, you know, or to stay in the house and paint. This spirit of waking up and transforming yourself into a walking work of art – you’re not telling me this was a depressive, obscure person.”
I have brought along a cheapo book of Kahlo reproductions, and Hayek falls on it, looking for images to illustrate her argument.
“Look at this picture,” she says of a photo taken in Kahlo’s last years, of Rivera visiting her sickbed. “Bedridden for months, towards the end, OK, when she had the most severe pain – look at her nails. Look how she decorates herself! I’m sorry – that’s not a victim/martyr kind of a character.”
I think the point Hayek is making here – that Kahlo was her own work of art – is a good one, and a way of getting beyond the biographical circularity that is in danger of killing her paintings. They are paintings, they are fabricated, they are fictions – hallucinatory and dreamlike little snares for the mind, painted in a realistic and very physically strong, lucid way (this is the only thing her art got from Rivera), almost like the portraits of Otto Dix, and yet utterly fantastic. She herself, the self she made, was a fantastic concoction. Perhaps the most observant thing said about her in her lifetime was a casual remark, that might pass for mere flattery, by Picasso, who admired her and presented her with earrings shaped like hands. He wrote to Rivera that Kahlo painted better “heads” than either of them – not portraits, but heads; a usage that conjures up the genre that the 17th-century Dutch called tronies, images of heads that are experimental and fictive, often with exotic subjects. Frida’s self-portraiture is a fiction, a head game.
Hayek is leafing through the book again, showing me how Kahlo chose to give herself a single eyebrow when in reality her brows, though dark and striking, were separate. “She celebrated what made her different – the eyebrows; the moustache, which she exaggerated in her paintings. There are photographs where you don’t see anything at all.”
Stopping at a self-portrait drawing in which Kahlo’s foot is bandaged, she says gleefully: “I own that.” It’s just a drawing, not on the Madonna scale. She has noticed that, in this self-portrait and in a lot of others, Kahlo depicts not her right leg, but her left, as the one that is injured. Hayek was baffled by this and asked art historians what it meant. The only explanation anyone offered was the commonsensical one that this is the reversal you get when you draw your self-portrait in the mirror. “I don’t buy that. Because sometimes she makes it the right leg, even though it’s in the mirror.” So she compared the incidence of the reversal in self-portraits with Kahlo’s biography. “There’s always an emotional tragedy going on in her life. So I think maybe because she associated physical pain with her leg, she decided to use her left leg as a symbol for her emotional pain. It’s just my own theory.”
Hayek is very good at teasing out the playfulness in Kahlo’s art, something that’s very much rooted in Mexican popular culture and can easily be missed by outsiders. We turn to an image of The Little Deer, one of her greatest paintings, in which she portrays herself as a deer hunted in the forest, arrows in her back, tortured like St Sebastian, hunted like a female Actaeon. Renaissance paintings were one of Kahlo’s passions; she loved Piero della Francesca and Bronzino.
At least, that’s my theory. Hayek says it’s all an elaborate reference – at once angry and comic – to a Mexican song called The Little Deer. “She needed an operation and she had no money, and there was a guy that bought a lot of stuff from her, so she said, ‘I need an operation. Would you buy a painting?’ He said, ‘Yes, paint me something.’ Her favourite song was a funny song about a little deer.” Hayek sings some of it. “But, of course, she’s going to get this horrible operation on her back, so she takes the little deer and does this painting, and puts her face on it. But the song is not a sad song; it was her favourite song, she sang it all the time.” I ask if she can translate it. “There is one part that says: ‘I would like to be the beautiful pearl on your bright earring, so that I could kiss your little ear and bite your cheek. I am a little deer that lives in the mountains.'”
There’s the playful, the savagely comic, and the mysteriously whimsical in Kahlo’s paintings; but then, of course, you come back to the pain. Kahlo’s art is a transaction with death, perhaps a story told to keep death at bay, a story of magic and transcendence – a cinematic story. She is a star, but a star with gravity. Kahlo’s relationship with surrealism is controversial, but crucial. Contrary to the biographical cliche that she was a surrealist by accident, to be “discovered” by the movement’s leader Andr¿ Breton, she was playing the game cadavre exquis, a surrealist parlour game similar to consequences, early in her career, which means she knew all about surrealism. Why wouldn’t she?
Hayek is looking at one of Kahlo’s cadavre exquis drawings and laughing. This is not a tragic person. Kahlo is a star in the sense Kenneth Anger meant it. She had to sit stock still a lot of the time, because of the pain, but she made it a style; in her finery, she was a dreamlike vision, a surrealist object.
She sensed the surreality of Hollywood Babylon. One of the few paintings in which Kahlo is not her own subject is The Suicide of Dorothy Hale, a gory, pulp-horror painting whose very title sounds like a chapter heading from Anger and tells the story of a failed Hollywood starlet who looked like a young Elizabeth Taylor and threw herself from a Manhattan skyscraper. This, says Kahlo’s inscription, is a retablo, a popular Mexican votive image, and it communicates its macabre tale as in a dream; we see, simultaneously, Dorothy leaping from the skyscraper, floating through fluffy clouds, and dead on the ground, her eyes looking at us, her left foot dangling out of the picture in a trompe-l’oeil effect. There is also a handwritten text telling us of Dorothy Hale’s suicide, of Frida Kahlo who executed this – and a blank patch where the wealthy New Yorker who commissioned the painting had her name blotted out, having, with difficulty, been dissuaded from destroying the picture. Today it is the only relic of a sad tale; of a fallen star.
Kahlo is a true surrealist visionary of the Americas whose art exceeds biography and biopics. I wanted to know when Hayek first encountered her art. “I was about 14 and I saw the paintings in Coatzacoalcos [Hayek’s home town]. I was very lucky – it was not a heavily cultured place, but I had a friend who ended up studying art and she’s now an art historian. She was like a nerd, you know, and she showed me these pictures.” The 14-year-old Hayek didn’t understand them. “It wasn’t liking or not liking – they were so strange. But these images haunted me. I could not get them off my mind.”