The editors of Painters on Paintings are traveling this summer and thought we’d share some observations on the art we’re seeing abroad. Virginia is attending Documenta in Athens and Kassel and will be painting in Berlin through August. Julie will spend a month at the Bau Institute arts residency in Cassis, France. Here are some musings on Frida Kahlo from her recent visit to Mexico City.
According to a Mexican acquaintance of mine Frida Kahlo is considered south of the border, nothing more than kitsch, in the same vein as Norman Rockwell here, her popularity a signal that her work shouldn’t be trusted since it is simply too likeable. She offers so much to so many different interest groups: mediocre paintings for beginning painting students (Marxism will give Health to the Sick) and great paintings for the connoisseurs (Broken Column, What the Water Gave Me), upbeat quotes for the footless (“Feet what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?”), a brilliant fashion sense for Rei Kawakubo and Ricardo Tischi of Givenchy, profound sorrow and rejection in love for the double-crossed and cuckolded alike (Diego screwed her sister!), and affairs with Trotsky for Oberlin students. What else do you need from an artist to win the love of everyone but the suspicious intelligentsia?
I went to Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul while on a recent trip to Mexico City and found myself regretting that I had ever heard about her haters from my colleague, wondering why crossover art tends to trigger so much disdain and whether Kahlo might just be that rare thing: the artist that is truly popular and serious. If I wasn’t convinced by the work (which I am) I became so by her kitchen. She filled it with ceramic pots and painted the floor bright yellow with blue and yellow wooden counters. She and Diego rejected conventional stoves, using instead a huge clay pot with a wood fire beneath it– the indigenous chimenea–which infused everything they cooked with the fragrant nuttiness of pecan wood, or the delicate sweetness of mesquite. And there was a recipe for mole on her kitchen wall that had more flavors and spices than I ever could have imagined combining within the same pot.
I’m aware that Kahlo isn’t lacking in fans. I just want to put it out there, as Mary Oliver says, that it’s ok to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. And in 2012 Patti Smith had the press conference for her first show in Mexico City at the Casa Azul. So, there you go, doubters – no one could ever accuse Patti Smith of being kitsch.