“Abandon your Diego Rivera”: A review of Becoming Frida Kahlo (BBC Two, 2023)

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Artist, intellectual, and Communist Party member Frida Kalho’s life has inspired numerous books, films, and exhibitions. Reviewing a recent, multi-episode streaming version of her biography, Kahlo’s hot and cold relationship with artist and husband Diego Rivera takes center stage, but too often sidelines or erases her contributions as a woman on the Left who stirred new thinking about art’s relationship with politics.

Of Frida Kahlo’s life, it would seem that very few new things remain to be recounted. Biographies, such as Hayden Herrera’s renowned 1983 Frida, or the countless texts that analyze the relationship between her paintings, drawings or poems and her personal life, have made her into an image and an icon that goes beyond the historical subject that existed. Through academic, fictional, didactic and popular literary production, via photography and epistolary works, or in the audiovisual field with documentaries, films and series, Frida’s image belongs to a select group of names in modern art with such an unveiling of her personal life that they have produced avatars that cross the fields of visual culture, to go from the narrative of art history to readings of her work as a national symbol, and even as a product of global merchandising or popular contemporary craftsmanship. 

Particularly, the figure of Frida Kahlo, as a woman, Mexican, member of the communist party, and linked to the intellectual scene in Mexico, the United States and France, among other relevant geographies of modern art, becomes a case of special interest that brings up the tensions that occur between the construction of individuality in the discourse of women’s empowerment, and the boundary between the personal and the political that feminist groups have debated for so long. 

The case of the audio-visualization of Frida Kahlo’s image has traveled through various narratological projects that account for the way in which modern art has been distributed from screens and that constructs landmarks of audiovisual culture. From Frida, naturaleza viva (1983) directed by Paul Leduc; Julie Taymor’s Frida (2002); or Jane Buckwalter and Louise Lockwood’s Becoming Frida Kahlo (BBC Two, 2023), her screen-image produces among the audience, especially those who self-identify as women or feminized subjects, a sensation of closeness and empathy as political bodies in dispute.

The supposed communist animus of Frida, Diego, and others towards their embodied in artistic figures…is an underlying theme in the series that would have merited a deeper discussion.”

Each episode of Becoming Frida Kahlo is articulated through micro-sections that reveal the narrative structure of today’s audiovisual culture by linking it to the scrolling consumption format of social networks that constantly change the order of ideas to keep the audience’s attention. This review focuses on the alternative tale that comes from this production.

Becoming Frida Kahlo, like most of the projects that precede it, is sustained by the humanist structure of art in which the figure of the exceptional creative woman assumes a companion role for the male creative genius that lies at the center of the hegemonic narrative of art. In so doing, biography is sustained as a constitutive tool for Art History as a modern and bourgeois idiom in which the magnificence of the character, her passions and close relationships are the defining characteristics. Even so, the questioning of how this image of Frida is consolidated—given that she was a Mexican of mixed race, with significant disabilities, of a non-heteronormative gender, and frankly left-wing—deserves a more profound reevaluation. In particular, the place that Kahlo’s image has in some accounts of female empowerment needs to be reconsidered.

As Linda Nochlin argued in “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (1971), the discipline of Art History has routinely defaulted to a patriarchal baseline that allows few female figures onto the stage, so that the dynamic of competition persists between them, rather than challenging the myth of the modern artist. In this sense, the false illusion of competition in the male art system is sustained by a few supposedly prominent female figures. It also highlights the myth of romantic love as a strategy of subjugation of women to the logic of patriarchy. The photograph that is most repeated throughout Becoming Frida Kahlo, other than one in which she is posing alone in front of the camera, is Lucienne Bloch’s Frida and Diego caught kissing (1933), and frequently in the different episodes there is an account of a love that nourished and supported her artistic trajectory, sometimes from near and sometimes from afar.

“In this sense, the false illusion of competition in the male art system is sustained by a few supposedly prominent female figures.”

Throughout the series there are also  indications of the power of the left in the first half of the 20th century in the United States that exceed the biographical framing. The supposed communist animus of Frida, Diego and others towards their  capitalist patrons is an underlying theme in the series that would have merited a deeper discussion.

Frida Kahlo’s real legacy can be found in the the feminist or gender-diversity marches in Latin America and other contexts where a more combative image is marshaled, one that affirms the lives of women and embodies the possibility of becoming a symbol of the cohesion of the multitude that is recreated especially from the personal spaces of the affection shared between women. “Abandon your Diego Rivera” is one of the phrases that can be seen on signs and embroidered bandanas at these events. The personal becomes political beyond the story of suffering, genius or creative individuality.

The figure of Frida Kahlo has the potential to run in multiple directions not only from the field of art but also from direct, political and feminist action. Expanding the limits of the artistic exercise in order to distribute it in political life and in the aesthetic imagination is still a vein to be tapped as we continue to consider Kahlo’s legacy.