Olympic contenders aren’t chosen for their good looks. That’s not to say that a cute young gymnast like Mary Lou Retton won’t beam out at you from a box of Wheaties. While watching the Olympics recently, it was refreshing to see the fastest, strongest people on earth had bad haircuts and crooked teeth. You can be ugly and get a gold medal. Unless of course, you’re a citizen of China, then you might be prohibited from appearing on television like Yang Peiyi.
Recently while perusing the cocktail menu at 6 Degrees, I saw a Frida Kahlo Margarita on the menu. My friend Jim Chagnon commented, “Oh yes, unibrow.” I laughed. Without a doubt, Frida Kahlo painted herself as a unibrow—a person with only one eyebrow. For many people, the unibrow puts her squarely in the “can she run really fast or do gymnastics?” category. Just in case you’re curious, Frida Kahlo never did gymnastics. She fell into the cigarette smoking, communist sympathizer category. She will almost certainly never be on a box of Wheaties.
I had scheduled myself to go see the Frida Kahlo exhibit five times at the SF MoMA, but never managed to make it despite the fact that I even purchased tickets online once. This determination to see Frida Kahlo’s work comes as a change for me. In college, I felt little more than disdain for the pop icon. Although her work still enjoys a great deal of popularity (the waiter said the Frida Kahlo Margarita used to have a different name), it no longer feels like the mandatory appreciation meme that circulated back in the early 1990s. I have seen her work in person on a few occasions and she paints a fascinating image of her own reality.
Frida Kahlo suffered through an enormous amount of pain in her life. Through her heart rending marriage with muralist Diego Rivera, a near fatal bus accident, struggling with infertility and years of surgeries, she found a way to paint her life experience in a moving, poetic and compelling manner.
Her paintings have a symbolic dynamic, many of them full of metaphor and history. Andre Breton called her a Surrealist. She famously claimed in an interview, “They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.” Her own reality was full of vivid and rich images. Many of her paintings rained images like fireworks upon the canvas juxtaposing her ancient Mexican heritage with her modern experience in America.
Art exhibits in museums always feel a little contrived to me–the paid audio tour at the beginning of an exhibit and the museum shop at the end. Though not nearly as contrived as Lin Miaoke lip syncing. While Frida Kahlo will never get her face on a box of Wheaties, it’s easy enough to see her work plastered on books, tote bags, and t-shirts. In fact much of the income from the exhibit will come from the sale of goods with images of her work. Sales for Frida Kahlo racks up millions. Not bad for a cigarette smoking commie unibrow.
Frida Kahlo was a strong woman and this most recent exhibit convinced me, that man, she could perform. And unlike the digitally enhanced fireworks that China created for the television broadcast, Frida Kahlo’s fireworks are the real thing.