Book Review of Frida Kahlo: Face to Face

If you don’t know much about Frida Kahlo, and want the details of her life and love affairs, you have two options: watch the 2002 movie Frida starring Salma Hayek and directed by Julie Taymor or read the biography by Hayden Herrera on which the movie was based. If you want to know more about her artwork the book Face to Face is the way to go.

The book is an extremely large volume with over 90 illustrations, including a few closeups and sketches, as well as some work from other artists and a multitude of photographs of Kahlo and her family. It was written by the artist Judy Chicago, probably best known for her installation piece The Dinner Party which is housed in the Brooklyn Museum, along with art historian, writer and essayist Frances Borzello. After the introductions by each author the women discuss Kahlo’s work, piece by piece, in almost a discussion format. Kahlo’s body of work is primarily self portraits, however, her portraits, still life paintings and some surrealist pieces are divided into nine categories and discussed first as a grouping and then individually.

While Judy Chicago might be the better known of the two women I thought that Borzello’s comments about the paintings were, overall, more accurate and less inclined to dramatization or sentimentality. Chicago’s critiques of the work seemed overly simplistic at times. Another difficulty with Chicago’s commentary is her tendency to draw comparisons between her own work (and life) and Kahlo’s. Perhaps it is a natural tendency of all people to search for a connection to another person and Borzello, being a historian, is better at sublimating that tendency than Chicago. At first I was only distracted by the comparisons but as the book progressed I became increasingly annoyed by the little lifeline like threads of “Oh, I did that too!”

I really enjoyed the chance to see the paintings that were not self portraits since that is a rarity although I was fairly unimpressed with the still life section. I found them to be, overall, much cruder than for example Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings of fruit and flowers. But that preference may be due to O’Keefe’s tendency to render both items in a very smooth and slick style more like commercial art, with a lot of pop, than is typical in paintings. One fun difference between Kahlo’s still lifes and those you would normally see in a museum is the types of items pictured. I don’t believe I’d seen coconuts in a still life composition before. But my favorite section, overall, was the chapter titled Frida’s Circle which included her paintings of other people. The 1944 portrait of Dona Rosita Morillo is, in my opinion, Frida’s best piece of work.

Oil on canvas and mounted on masonite, 75.5 x 59.5 cm, collection of Dolores Olmedo Patino

Notice the details in the woman’s hands and the varieties of red throughout the composition. The piece is balanced perfectly and you really get a sense of being grounded due to the dark hues used in Senora Morillo’s clothes. I also like the contrast between the subject’s somewhat wary expression and the bright, riotous chaos among the cactus behind her.

Two other favorites from the book include: Portrait of Ing. Edouardo Morillo Safa (1944, not shown) and The Deceased Dimas Rosas painted in 1937 and pictured below.

Oil on masonite, 48 x 31 cm, housed in the Museo Dolores Olmedo, Mexico City

Yes, that is a painting of a dead child. Notice what looks like a funeral card on the pillow by his head and the jaunty, almost drunken, placement of his crown. It is a unique painting. And while I wouldn’t recommend purchasing this book which sells for $65.00 on Amazon I would urge you to check your local library system if only to see some more pictures that aren’t the typical examples of Kahlo’s work.

For more information on Frida Kahlo online click here.