A perfect feminist heroine, the artist Frida Kahlo is now the subject of a big show at London’s Tate Gallery. Sir Joshua Reynolds, the great 18th century portrait painter, is in another gallery at the Tate.
While Sir Joshua is drawing an older, conservative crowd, Anthony Daniels in the New Criterion, reports that Kahlo’s is “large and overwhelmingly female, and many of them had the washed-out, slightly embittered look of British women novelists. They’d probably insist upon calling Nelly O’Brien (Reynolds’s most famous courtesan subject) a sex worker.”
It is not surprising that Kahlo, the subject of a movie in which she was played by Selma Hayek and Alfred Molina played Diego Rivera, to whom Kahlo was married, appeals to washed out would be novelists and such taste setters as Madonna and J-Lo, both huge fans. She embodied stylish values:
“Her politics were radical; she was anti-American, though in her case America always returned good for evil,” writes Daniels. “She was Stalinist, at a time when all right-thinking people agreed that the killing of millions was the road to utopia, but she also had a fling with Trotsky and towards the end of her life displayed a less than dialectical-materialist attraction to the wisdom of the East, thus later appealing to the New Age, healing-power-of-crystals end of the dissent market. All in all, a pretty good C.V. for the modern age.”
But it’s more than this. Daniels pins down the real source of Kahlo’s vast popularity: the cult of victimhood.
“[T]here is something unhealthy, of equal intensity, about the disproportionate adulation that Frida Kahlo has received over the last two or three decades. I think that what has happened is that people with no objective right to do so have equated her suffering with their own, and have appropriated her work as a symbolic representation of their own minor dissatisfactions and frustrations, victimhood being the present equivalent of beatitude.
“They say, ‘I too have known a faithless or a worthless man; I too have suffered from persistent headaches, dymenorrhoea, or sciatica; therefore, Frida Kahlo has understood me, and I have understood Frida Kahlo. After all, I have suffered just like her. Moreover, like me, she was a moral person, which is to say that she had all the right attitudes; she was on the side of the oppressed, at least those who were not in the Gulag; she loved indigenes as a matter of principle; and she took part in the holy work of dissolving boundaries, the boundaries between sexes (or rather, genders) and between cultures.”