Mexican Craftsmanship and Frida Kahlo

By Joanell Serra
By Joanell Serra

In honor of Cinco de Mayo, we want to spotlight one of Mexico’s most iconic artists, Frida Kahlo. Although known primarily as a painter, as well as a partner and muse for her husband, fellow artist Diego Rivera, Kahlo also harbored a lifelong passion for Mexican artisans and their crafts. She was not only influenced by them but also ended up influencing these artisans as well.

In 1929, Kahlo married Rivera, the first time, when he was already a respected muralist. (Their tumultuous relationship included a divorce and remarriage several years later.) Today, Kahlo has perhaps surpassed her husband’s fame, becoming something of a pop-culture icon. She’s most often depicted in a traditional Mexican dress sporting her signature eyebrows—thick, dark, and nearly continuous—and wearing bright red lipstick.  Kahlo, an Instagram hit, is also character in the recent Pixar film, “Coco.”

To learn more about this remarkable woman, I caught up with Oaxaca-based writer Suzanne Barbezat, author of a well-researched and beautifully produced  book entitled  “Frida Kahlo at Home.”

“Before Rivera and Kahlo,” Barbezat says, “Mexican handicrafts were not appreciated by the upper classes in Mexico.” The two shared a sense of Mexicanidad, a term used to describe an affinity and admiration for indigenous Mexican culture. Frida dressed, quite intentionally, in the style of women from Tehuantepec in the state of Oaxaca. She adorned folk jewelry and collected linen, crafts and folk art from various regions, as did Rivera.

While Rivera created murals that showed an enthusiasm for America’s industrial society, Kahlo was a nationalist. She was fiercely protective of, and devoted to, the artisans and workers in her home country. In photos of Frida working in her studio at Coyoacan, you see an array of local crafts and pre-Hispanic sculptures throughout the rooms. And it’s been guessed that the presence of monkeys in Kahlo’s paintings was inspired by the importance of monkeys in pre-Columbian art.

A self-declared communist, Kahlo remained politically active throughout her life, committed to the rights of Mexico’s indigenous population. One of her last outings just a few weeks before she died, in 1954, was to protest the intervention of the United States in Guatemala—in a wheelchair. 

Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait, 1940. Note the monkey on her right shoulder.

THE INFLUENCE OF THE ANONYMOUS

Frida Kahlo and Arte Popular, an exhibit now on display at the Museum of Fine arts in Boston, highlights the connection between Kahlo’s painting and her collections. Eight Kahlo painting are shown in conjunction with approximately 40 examples of arte popular that seemed to give Kahlo inspiration. As the museum puts it, “…this exhibition opens broader discussions about the influences of anonymous folk artists on famed modern painters.” The exhibit remains open through June 16, 2019.

Kahlo’s passion for the local crafts seem to almost erupt in her paintings. In “Girl with Death Mask (She Plays Alone),” we see a little girl wearing the region’s typical folk-art masks, which Kahlo collected. Her self-portraits frequently show her wearing her colorful rebozos. The rebozo, which is essentially a giant shawl, has been seen as a symbol of Mexican women’s power, but it is ultimately a very pragmatic garment. A woman could carry a child in it, use it as a blanket, place it on her head to create a platform for carrying baskets, or even use it to hide guns (look at scenes from the 1910 revolution). Yet Kahlo brought this item of clothing to public attention as a fashion piece. In most of her paintings she wore the long, rectangular scarf wrapped around her body or tied in her hair.

Kahlo and Rivera embraced and often befriended numerous artisans who went on to gain some renown—the self-taught sculptor Mardonia Magana, whose work is on display in Mexico City, at the Casa Azul, the house where Kahlo was born and where she died; and Dona Carmen, who made huge papier machè figures, known as Judas statues, for festivals and celebrations, as well as skeletons for Day of the Dead celebrations. One of Carmen’s skeletons Kahlo hung above her own bed.

Some of the folk art hung in the Casa Azul reflects Kahlo’s interest in death and renewal. photo by Casey O’Brien

On a recent trip to Oaxaca, I came across these same kinds of figures looming somewhat ominously in the street. Stepping inside to see these transitory giants being made, I thought of how enamored Kahlo might have been with how the process has evolved. Several men were working in a courtyard, attaching enormous heads to gigantic bodies—although they weren’t attaching firecrackers, as Carmen did, to create explosions during ceremonies. (That tradition can still be found, however, in various communities around Mexico City.)

Kahlo and Rivera also collected hundreds of ex-votos, or retablos—small paintings on tin. Displayed on the walls of homes, ex-votos contain a central scene depicting a major life event. Hovering above is generally an angel or saint, and at the bottom, there is a brief written account of the event itself. In the early 1800’s these art works were located primarily in churches, but as they became more common they were increasingly displayed in homes, since tin was an affordable material for both painters and devotees. Kahlo played with this form herself and her famous self-portrait, “The Frame,” which depicts Kahlo in a white huipil-style blouse  surrounded with birds, was painted on aluminum. The Louvre later bought “The Frame,” making it the first work by a 20th-century Mexican artist purchased by a major museum.

This looming statue welcomes visitors into a local artisan cooperative in Oaxaca. photo by Joanell Serra

“SHE IS HER SUBJECT”

While Kahlo’s fame grew, both as an artist and as Rivera’s wife, she remained committed to domestic life—filling her home with local crafts and sharing her success with artisans. Friends and relatives who spent time with Kahlo remarked on the care she took with simple tasks, such as choosing produce at the market, using embroidered tablecloths from different regions of Mexico, having fresh flowers brought in daily from their garden, and filling the home with, as Barbazet puts it, “objects made by Mexican hands.”

Maybe it’s because of her outsized passions that Frida’s memory lives on so vibrantly, not only in Mexico but also in the U.S. and across the globe. She’s been the focus of many books, several movies and a play. Children create Frida Kahlo art projects in schools, and curricula exist for self-portraits in her style.

When I asked Pixar’s Adrian Molina, co-director of the movie “Coco,” why they featured Kahlo so prominently, he said, “We wanted to lean in to the actual history of Mexico throughout the film.” To do so, the team used a number of historical figures from Mexico, but he said that he and his team had many long discussions about Kahlo. They even visited The Casa Azul in Mexico City as part of their research. “She has international recognition, partially because her image is embedded in so much of her art. She is her subject.” The film’s two Academy awards would suggest that Molina’s team made great choices.

Given what Kahlo did for the artisans of Mexico, we hope that, as we usher in this year’s Cinco de Mayo, you’ll take a moment to revisit some of our other stories from Mexico. We expect Frida would be thrilled, for example, that craftsmanship is alive and well in Pátzcuaro, Mexico, where it is rumored she visited with her friend, Jacqueline Lamba, painter, and wife of Andre Breton. And we think Frida would cheer for the women of Cherán, who have taken back their town in the face of cartel corruption—even using their rebozos to bind the first men they confronted.

Kahlo was clearly dedicated to artisans, to the indigenous culture, to those fighting for social justice, and to Mexico’s creative spirit. On this Cinco de Mayo, we salute that same spirit. 

Cinco de Mayo, San Francisco 2018. photo courtesy of Carnival Studios