It’s not an exaggeration to say that we owe the popular image of Frida Kahlo to the photographs of her as much as to her own paintings. Her relationship with photography is so strong one might wonder why she didn’t embrace it as her own art. The daughter of a photographer, one of her most intriguing early images is in a family portrait, dressed as the son her father craved. Tina Modotti, Manuel and Lola Álvarez Bravo were three big-name photographers within her circle of friends as well as influential artists who put in motion the post-revolutionary Mexican cultural renaissance. And let’s not forget the powerful role photography played in the Mexican social and political upheavals of the early 20th century.
But the connection here is not just Frida’s friendships with photographers and the power of photography in society. The striking correspondence of her paintings of herself and the pictures others took of her just invites us to look closer and to use one in order to understand the other better. There is definitely a dialogue between her self portraits and her photographic portraits that’s worth exploring and enjoying.
Nickolas Muray’s photographs of Frida are probably the most comprehensive photographic insight of her persona and art. It’s not a chance that his most famous work is of her and that her most symbolic connection to popular culture is his 1938 photo for the cover of Vogue. He knew her well and, based on his experience as a Hollywood and fashion photographer and their affair, his approach to her is extremely stirring. His portraits are faithful to Frida’s vision of herself expressed in her self portraits: introspective, theatrical and commanding at the same time.
Take, for example, the photograph “Frida and Diego with a Gas Mask” (1938). The connecting embrace of Frida and Diego is a frequent topos in her paintings. The expressive hand gesture, her glance sideways and especially the gas mask – worn by Diego but handled by Frida – echoes her painting “The Two Fridas”, where a personal object, the needle with a thread, becomes a physical connection and a lifeline between two souls.
We could speculate about the meaning of the gas mask – grasp at life? artful modification of the body? – and about the symbolism of the material connection between the two subjects. We could ponder the resemblance of this photo to the self-portrait, painted at the same time. The similarity of the feel between the photograph and the painting is a compelling evidence that we could understand Frida’s art better if we study her photographic portraits. And it’s yet another testimony to the collaborative nature of photography: whereas in painting the artist can have almost limitless freedom, in a photograph the cooperation and the contribution of the model and of reality is crucial.
So Muray’s exhibit at the Photographs Do Not Bend Gallery is a must, for connoisseurs of photography, art, fashion and Mexico. It’s a great occasion to see how cultural and societal trends so disparate converge in one of today’s most powerful women icons. It ends on January 22 2011, so hurry up!