New Frida Kahlo book coincides with buildup to COD exhibit

  • "My hope with this book is that people will see this other side of Frida," author Celia Stahr says of her new book, "Frida in America: The Creative Awakening of a Great Artist."

    "My hope with this book is that people will see this other side of Frida," author Celia Stahr says of her new book, "Frida in America: The Creative Awakening of a Great Artist." Courtesy of the McAninch Arts Center

 
 
Updated 9/28/2020 11:31 PM

Her name evokes floral crowns and a signature unibrow.

A merchandising empire puts her commercialized image on socks, kitchen towels and now face masks, stuff that has little to do with her art or politics.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Her exhibit opening at the College of DuPage next June is the kind of cultural happening usually reserved for a major city museum.

So it's easy to forget there once was a time when a major publication referred to Frida Kahlo as the "pretty little Mexican wife" of muralist Diego Rivera.

A new biography on the artist and icon begins with Kahlo as a newlywed, only 23 years old, a "child of the Mexican Revolution," leaving her home and family for the first time on a train trip bound for "Gringolandia."

"Frida in America" traces her travels to San Francisco, New York and Detroit in the early 1930s. Author and art historian Celia Stahr calls it a period of "personal and creative awakening" in Kahlo as she finds her voice as an artist, provocateur and trailblazer.

"I was interested in getting at who I thought she was outside of that public persona," Stahr said in a phone interview from California. "And I wanted to really be able to focus on this period of her life when she was just developing as an artist and a woman."

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The McAninch Arts Center at the College of DuPage will host a virtual discussion Sunday with Celia Stahr, the author of a new Frida Kahlo biography.
The McAninch Arts Center at the College of DuPage will host a virtual discussion Sunday with Celia Stahr, the author of a new Frida Kahlo biography. - Courtesy of the McAninch Arts Center

Her book is essential reading for Frida fans waiting for "Frida Kahlo: Timeless," the blockbuster exhibit coming to the College of DuPage a year later than originally planned as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

The school's newly expanded Cleve Carney Museum of Art will display the 26-piece show -- the largest in the Chicago area in more than 40 years.

In anticipation of the 2021 opening, the McAninch Arts Center is hosting a Frida event every month as Fridamania spreads around Glen Ellyn. One of the most visible signs is a downtown mural that will honor Kahlo in her full floral glory.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

McAninch Arts Center Director Diana Martinez also will lead a live, virtual discussion with Stahr about her book Sunday afternoon to give exhibit visitors a deeper understanding of Kahlo, beyond the cult image she helped create. Tickets are $10.

"If you've never read a book on Frida, you're going to learn a lot about Frida as a person in general and her background," Martinez said.

Author Celia Stahr's fascination with her subject began as an undergraduate when she marveled at Frida Kahlo's "Self-Portrait with Monkey."
Author Celia Stahr's fascination with her subject began as an undergraduate when she marveled at Frida Kahlo's "Self-Portrait with Monkey." - Courtesy of Albright-Knox Art Gallery

Stahr's fascination with her subject started as a college student who had to know who painted "Self-Portrait with Monkey." This was back in the 1980s, and Kahlo hadn't yet risen from relative obscurity outside Mexico.

"It was unlike anything I had ever seen," Stahr said. "She looks like an Aztec warrior. She's got this monkey on her shoulder, and they both look out at you with this intensity."

As the foundation of her book, Stahr accessed Kahlo's letters to her family, now housed at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. She also obtained the journal of Kahlo's friend and muralist Lucienne Bloch through her granddaughter.

"One of the things that I found is that a lot of the ideas about Frida, particularly thinking now about her time in the United States, are too simplistic," Stahr said. "Now part of that is because people hadn't really mined these letters in much detail."

The letters "completely disprove" the notion that when Kahlo came to the United States in 1930, she saw herself only as the wife of the great muralist Diego Rivera and lacked artistic ambition.

Painter and surrealist Frida Kahlo poses at her home in Mexico City in 1939. An exhibit of her works will open at the College of DuPage in June 2021.
Painter and surrealist Frida Kahlo poses at her home in Mexico City in 1939. An exhibit of her works will open at the College of DuPage in June 2021. - Associated Press

"She wants to make money to help her family," Stahr said. "That was always important for her, to be able to make money and help out her family, and she even talks about how they might move to a hotel so she doesn't have to do any domestic chores so she can just focus on her art.

"So her ambition comes through here, and her identification as an artist is clearly there at the very beginning," Stahr said.

Much is known about Kahlo's personal tragedies, the chronic pain she suffered from a bus accident in 1925 and depicted in her bold self-portraits.

But Stahr also interprets the political symbolism in Kahlo's artistic breakthroughs against the backdrop of time and place. Kahlo captured the racial and economic disparities she witnessed in the United States and while her husband painted his Detroit industry frescoes.

"She didn't like narrow-mindedness," Stahr said. "She had a hard time with people who didn't have an open mind, and I think she really felt that in Detroit in particular."

In "Self-Portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States," a 1932 painting reproduced on the cover of Stahr's book, Kahlo places the Aztec empire and Henry Ford's industry side by side, hardly an endorsement of the Ford Motor Co., the author writes.

Stahr provides this context: In 1933, Ford would cut employee wages for the second time in three years, leading 9,000 workers to go on strike.

"As the provocateur in the center, Frida prods us to think about this complicated relationship," Stahr writes of the painting. "Just look at where she places the American flag. It's embedded in the large smoke plumes rising out of the Ford factory, as if it's going up in smoke."

With Kahlo's letters and her own analysis, Stahr reveals an artist "filled with duality" in her relationship to the United States.

"I hope that can shed light on some important aspects of Frida and her passion for politics and for the people of Mexico," she said.

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