Judy Chicago and Frances Borzello, Frida Kahlo: Face to Face, Prestel Publishing, 2010
The name “Frida Kahlo” tends to provoke a passionate response among art fans and feminists alike. At first look, feminist artist Judy Chicago and art historian Frances Borzello’s recent Frida Kahlo: Face to Face may appear to be yet another entry in the glut of Frida-related books that have appeared since the mid-190s and tend to cover similar ground; however, this is not just another Frida book intended to capitalize on salacious details about her life or provide a hipster’s coffee table with full-color reproductions of her amazing paintings. It is by no means a perfect addition to the canon of books about Kahlo and her art, but an important and worthwhile one nonetheless.
Judy Chicago is a strong candidate to undertake such a project, as she knows firsthand about the unique pressures of being an openly feminist creator in the art world. Best known for her 1979 installation piece The Dinner Party as well as many other pieces in a variety of media, Chicago’s perspective on women’s art—and the history of feminist art—brings to the book both her intelligent personal reflections on Kahlo’s art and its impact on her own work and that of other 20thcentury-era women artists. She provides particular elucidation of how Kahlo’s work fits in with some of the major themes of women’s art throughout the 20th century, including gender, the body, relationships, the self, pain, pride, and culture. Frances Borzello’s art history background adds much-needed artistic and cultural context to the works of Kahlo’s that are discussed in the book; many readers, regardless of their experience with art history, will find that Borzello’s analyses reveal new insights about Kahlo’s work from a more technical and historical artistic perspective.
In her foreword to the volume, Chicago describes her own adverse, stunned reaction to seeing Kahlo’s powerful 1944 painting “The Broken Column” reproduced on a kitschy refrigerator magnet; she wonders whether some current consumers of Kahlo’s art do so mostly because of its colorful kitsch value, while not truly understanding many of the personal and cultural factors—among them her lifelong chronic pain following a bus accident when she was 18, her tumultuous relationship with painter Diego Rivera, her Marxist political outlook, and her pride in her homeland and in Mexican culture–that heavily influenced most of her oeuvre.
Despite its overall strength in re-situating Kahlo’s work within the context of 20th century women’s art, there are some segments of the book that fall short on critical analysis. The racial dynamics that govern the continued appropriation of Kahlo’s work—and that of other artists of color by North Americans–often in the guise of “appreciation,” deserve to be explored in further depth.
In one early chapter, “Frida Kahlo: A Personal Reflection,” Chicago credits the feminist art movement of the 1970s and 1980s with having “discovered” Kahlo’s work and bringing it to a mass audience. Given the feminist art movement’s close connections with the often-problematic Second Wave of activist feminism in the U.S.—and the latter’s numerous issues with race—one may wonder how the racial dynamics of this “discovery” of Kahlo by feminist artists may have played out. These aspects of the “discovery,” however, and the resultant fawning over of Kahlo by many white feminists, are never explored. A discussion of the perils of an uncritical “feminist” embracing of Frida Kahlo would have vastly added to Chicago and Borzello’s project.
While the feminist art movement may be responsible for having brought Kahlo’s work to the masses, the depiction of that same movement here as having “discovered” the art of a woman of color without an attendant examination of the power issues that may have been involved in that discovery seems both one-sided and rather self-aggrandizing. There is cultural and political context underlying, for example, the “thousands of non-Latin Frida look-alikes who roam the Southwest,” as performance artist and theorist Coco Fusco calls them, and save for a mention of Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta—who, Chicago asserts, “strongly identified” with Kahlo—there is little discussion of how Kahlo’s work has influenced that of other women artists of color.
The book itself is beautifully designed, which makes it stand out amongst the many oversized volumes showcasing Kahlo’s work. While Kahlo’s art proves absorbing in any format, the book’s classic yet timeless design cannot be praised enough; it not only gorgeously shows reprints of Kahlo’s art in full color, but the bold integration of the art and the textual commentary from Chicago and Borzello work together to create an entire world between the book’s ornately-designed cloth covers—the frontspiece of which, appropriately, features a self-portrait in which Kahlo unapologetically affixes the viewer head-on with a confident stare. With this book’s emphasis on the importance of context and viewers’ personal connections to great art, Chicago and Borzello have created a complex, interesting volume that is, in many ways, an antithesis to the fairly recent consumption-based “Frida-mania” that has colored Kahlo’s artistic legacy.