Mexican Artist Used Politics To Rock The Boat

Artist Judy Chicago celebrates the release of "Frida Kahlo: Face to Face," a new book by Chicago and art historian Frances Borzello. Frida Kahlo was the 20th century Mexican artist who became a sensation well beyond her country's borders thanks both to her art and to her politics. Guest host Jacki Lyden speaks with Chicago.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

I'm Jacki Lyden, and this TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Today, October the 12th, marks two 200 years of Oktoberfest. We'll speak with a beer connoisseur about the enduring celebration in Germany, and of course, in communities all around America.

But first, imagine that you're a celebrated artist trying to place your life's work in context - not just some of its most famous, singular pieces. Fame can overshadow the work of artists living and dead. And that certainly happened to the artist Judy Chicago, who's made many pieces of important work since her monumental "Dinner Party" of 1979. That exhibit revolutionized feminist art, and has been seen by over a million people. Yet even Judy Chicago herself once had to educate herself on female artists. Earlier in her career, she searched out tomes in used bookstores about important female artists who had often become obscured in history.

So when Judy Chicago - who, by the way, is in a survey show you might want to catch in New York - was invited to reconsider the art of Frida Kahlo, the Mexican revolutionary artist, she jumped at opportunity to make a new book. Together with the art historian Frances Borzello, they created "Frida Kahlo: Face to Face." And it deals less with Kahlo's mythologized personal life than with the paintings - not as frequently considered. Judy Chicago and her collaborator Borzello divided Kahlo's work into nine themes.

Ms. JUDY CHICAGO (Artist; Author, "Frida Kahlo: Face to Face"): The nine themes in the Kahlo book has to do with images of her friends and family, images of herself, her exploration of her Mexican identity, images of Diego - including a comparison between her representations of Diego Rivera and his own - Frida's cosmology - Kahlo was one of the few women artists who ever attempted to create visual cosmology. My menagerie - her relationship with animals, fruit and flowers, divided self and inside out.

LYDEN: Judy Chicago joins us now to talk about this book, "Frida Kahlo: Face to Face." Judy Chicago, a real pleasure to have you with us.

Ms. CHICAGO: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me on this show.

LYDEN: Now, I just want to say that you did some research here so that you could put her in the context of how female painters have been treated. And you came up with statistics cited by scholars, particularly this essay "After the Revolution: Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art." I was really struck by some of the statistics you came up of how difficult it has been for various women artists, including her.

Ms. CHICAGO: Well, you know, I'm asked all the time if things have changed, and on one level, they have changed. There are many more women exhibiting, and young women artists can be themselves in their work. And so it's very easy for people to say that this is a post-feminist world. But, you know, I'm a student of history, and particularly of women's history, and I know that there have been other periods in time when women artists have come to the fore and then been erased - for example, the 18th century in the court of Marie Antoinette. She was a great patron of women artists. In fact, they used to say that was the century of women, because there were so many women painters who were successful, famous, celebrated. And yet, when I was studying art history, they were - had been erased.

So it's important to look beneath the surface and look at those aspects of the art world that control history, and that is permanent collections in museums and solo publications about a single artist. And in terms of permanent collections in the major museums of our world, they continue to be only three to five percent. And in terms of publications, in the 1970s, the percentage of publications about single women artists was an abysmal 1.7 percent. In 40 years, it has grown to the staggering 2.5 percent. And what that means is that all the changes that we see have not been translated into institutional change.

LYDEN: Well, turning our attention now to Frida Kahlo, she tends to get eclipsed in a very different way. She's become so popular - on key chains and books and popular movies, the Salma Hayek movie, that it can be difficult to look at her art in the context of her time and this is what you and Frances Borzello do.

Ms. CHICAGO: Well, we also wanted to do something slightly different from what's been done with Kahlo, which is, one, to look her overall body of art. You know, I looked at a lot of the books that have been written about Frida Kahlo and I have to say I found a lot of the writing aggravating because there were writers who would talk about particular paintings of hers that were done in their opinion in reaction to particular actions of Diego Rivera. And, of course, you know, there's a tendency to look at women artists in relationship to their biographies and their relationship with men. And one of the things I say in the book is that if you read a book about Jackson Pollock in which the writer talked about his paintings being created in response to what happened in his marriage to Lee Krasner - I mean, that is totally unthinkable.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. CHICAGO: And yet it happens all the time with women artists, and that tendency reduces their agency. In other words, it makes them reactive rather than active.

LYDEN: Youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden sitting in for Michel Martin, and we're speaking with the artist Judy Chicago about her new book, "Face to Face," about the paintings of Frida Kahlo.

So well begin with these paintings that she has done of herself with her menagerie, her beloved animals.

Ms. CHICAGO: Well, I wanted to look at that because I have also done a lot of paintings of animals, particularly my life with my husband, photographer Donald Woodman, and our menagerie of cats. And I've been interested in the paintings historically of animals and there are a great number of animal paintings by women. And so in this painting, "Self-Portrait with Monkey, 1940," the monkey has his hands around Kahlo's neck.

Now, the monkey is traditionally a symbol of lust. So you could say that this monkey is holding Kahlo in its grip. On the other hand, the monkey is individuated in a way that animals are not often portrayed. But in the paintings of many women these animals take on a characteristic of individuality, self-possession, and also are given a kind of respect and dignity by the artist.

LYDEN: You know, when I look at this painting of the monkey with his paw around her neck, and there's a ribbon around the monkey's neck and her neck, I think she looks more composed than in some of her paintings where Diego Rivera is, you know, in her brain. I mean here there seems to be sort of a balance.

Ms. CHICAGO: Well, I think that interesting because, after all, what's she saying then? She's saying that the monkey is not an inferior creature as often is assumed about animals as a lower species. She's granting the monkey dignity, respect, autonomy and also she's acknowledging the bond between her and the monkey, not only through those entangled threads that are - ribbons that are holding them together, but I think she's also talking about great affection for this animal that shared her life.

LYDEN: What else did you find here? You said you had nine themes in here. What else is overlooked in Kahlo's work?

Ms. CHICAGO: Well, let's look at the section on still life paintings, because historically there was a hierarchy of categories and women were not allowed to participate in the higher categories, which required painting from the nude. So those were nude paintings, history paintings, and women were prohibited from that kind of training. They were only allowed to paint in the lower genres.

Okay, Kahlo comes into this tradition of still life painting. If you look at the still life tondo of 1942, for example, what you see is this incredibly fecund painting filled with sensuality and sexuality. In fact, there's another painting that we reproduce in this section that was shown in a painting, in a show called Modern Masters - Modern Mexican Masters, which was a show of the great Mexican painters. There were only two women in it, and of course there were these enormous Riveras, Orozcos, Siqueiros, and this small modest painting by Frida Kahlo, which totally for me eclipse the rest of the work. Because Kahlo had managed to take the still life painting and suffuse it with personal meaning and emotion that reached out beyond the confines of what has been considered a lower genre of painting, and that's one of the points of the book, is that Frida Kahlo opened up subject matter that was then going to become the focus of the work of a lot of younger women artists.

So the reason this is so important is that the way in which women artists are always positioned is within a history of art that is male-centered and so that illuminates an aspect if it. But because we have our own history and our work is not often placed in that history, whole aspects of our point of view is not visible, and that's one of the things that happens, I think, in Frances's and my book. I think we've opened up areas of potential scholarship - for example, women and animals, women and dolls, women and still life painting. Those are areas that have not been opened up because they dont fit within the mainstream narrative.

LYDEN: So you look at all these areas that have been somewhat overlooked in terms of thinking about Frida Kahlo's work or thinking about them in new ways. Why has she been so obscured by her own legend? Why have the pictures taken really a backseat?

Ms. CHICAGO: Well, again, I would say that it relates to the way in which women artists have been treated. Either their work has not been looked at holistically, as had happened to Kahlo. It's, of course, happened to me in terms of the focus on the dinner party, even though I'm gratified by the attention it has brought me. Still, individual works or small aspects of a woman's work have often stood in for a comprehensive analysis of their body of art. That's one thing.

The other thing has to do with what I've been talking about, is the dominance of this male Eurocentric narrative that one sees in the Museum of Modern Art and that has been exported all over the world. And then women and artists of color, there's an attempt to fit them into that narrative and whatever work doesnt fit is simply ignored. So there are two elements at play in what has happened to Kahlo, and then add to that the kind of mystification...

LYDEN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. CHICAGO: ...and the tendency to use a woman artist's success like Kahlo or O'Keefe to exceptionalize them, to make it seem like they're only an exception to the idea that there has never been any great women artists, which of course is not true. So there are many factors that have gone into the way in which Kahlo, O'Keefe have been both treated, and that has to change in order for women artists to take our place in the larger mainstream of art history. There has to be more room for us as artists. We have to be able to be seen in our fullness in terms of our own artistic agency, and we're a long way from that.

LYDEN: Well, thank you very much for being with us and good luck on your show, which runs until mid-November in New York. And thank you for this book, "Frida Kahlo: Face to Face," Judy Chicago with Frances Borzello. Its been a real pleasure talking to you.

Ms. CHICAGO: Thank you for having me on the show.

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