Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera amassed thousands of photographs: some were by fellow artists, which they used as studies for painting, but others were personal photographs taken of themselves and family members, such as Frida’s beloved father, the photographer Guillermo Kahlo. The archive of more than 6000 images, compact in the formats of the day, was stored at the Casa Azul – the Blue House – where Frida spent her childhood and adult life. The images remained hidden from public view for half a century after Kahlo and Rivera’s deaths.
In 2010, the Mexican photographer and curator Pablo Ortiz Monasterio edited the most insightful of these photos into a large hardcover book, Frida Kahlo: My Photos, which became an international bestseller. Ahead of the exhibition of the same name at Bendigo Art Gallery, which features 257 of the photos, Steve Dow spoke with Monasterio about this treasure trove, including at least three photographs confirmed as taken by Kahlo herself.
Steve Dow: Why did this archive of photographs exist, yet was kept from the public eye for half a century?
Pablo Ortiz Monasterio: Both Frida and Diego were productive and intensive artists, so they collected photographs as iconography to paint from. For instance, there is a famous photo in the collection by the Hungarian photographer Martin Munkácsi, who photographed Frida and Diego for the cover of Life magazine, of a motorcycle splashing through water, and another one of a black cat. There is a painting by Frida of a black cat, and she obviously used Munkácsi’s photograph as a model.
There was also the family album to remember the loved and famous ones. So there was a world of friends and Frida kept it and organised the archive. Diego was probably the one who brought in more pictures, but it was she who took care of it.
Before Frida died, in 1954 [at age 47], she had decided the Casa Azul would be a museum. Her younger sister Cristina – with whom Diego had an affair – said, “Diego, give me the house,” but he wanted to turn the house into a museum for Frida. So he got rid of 90 per cent of the stuff there, and put it away, and selected the paintings Frida did that were still there, and some books and dresses, and he constructed that museum. But the photos were put away with all the letters and political papers.
Before he died in 1957 [aged 70], as someone who had been in and out of the Communist Party three times – a complicated, polemic, intense life – he had decided to keep the archives private for 15 years after his death. There was this woman, Dolores Olmedo, a dear friend of his, that was then responsible, but when the 15 years were up, Dolores Olmedo said, ‘Ah, this is my friend Diego. I don’t want to open it either.’ So it remained closed for over 40 years [until after Olmedo’s death in 2002].
SD: For the exhibition Frida Kahlo: My Photos at Bendigo Art Gallery you chose six central themes to guide your selection of photos – Origins, the Casa Azul, Politics, Revolution and Diego, Her Broken Body, Frida’s Loves; and a final section of photographs taken by friends, many of whom were famous photo artists. But how do you even begin to edit more than 6000 images down to 257?
PM: These important projects are a collective process, always. The idea was to have a lot of pictures in the book, but still only about 600 pictures, 10 per cent out of the 6000: the group of pictures needed to bring attention to the life of Frida Kahlo. For instance, her father, Guillermo, it was important we had his self-portraits because obviously it makes a connection to the work Frida Kahlo did later in life, painting self-portraits. Her father was a unique photographer who did absolutely outstanding work.
During her lifetime, Frida was known as the wife of Diego Rivera, this really heavy, famous, powerful, charismatic man. Yes, she did little paintings, but she was more famous because of the way she dressed than because of the paintings she did. That changed obviously, with time. But her work was constructed [by academics] as Diego Rivera being the big influence on Frida Kahlo.
I’m not an academic; I’m a photographer. So that idea was a provocation: Is that so? What about these pictures?
SD: You’re saying that we can credit her father Guillermo’s photographic self-portraiture as an important inspiration for Frida’s self-portraiture?
PM: I came to the idea that it was the most important inspiration. They were very close; Frida lived with him all her life, because they shared the house. There is a photograph of Guillermo – probably taken by Frida, but it’s not signed – and on the bottom is Frida’s handwriting: ‘Herr Kahlo’– in the German – ‘after crying.’ He’s really old, his wife had died years before, he starts crying, so what does Frida do? Writes that caption; brings the pain. Did Frida take this photo or not? Most likely, we are not sure, but it definitely has the strategy that Frida used with her art – you look at the pain, you don’t turn away.
SD: How can there be this paradox? We know Frida Kahlo from so many portraits and images, and yet she retains this enigmatic quality?
PM: That relates to her strategy with the camera. They’re taking your portrait: don’t look straight; slightly turn your face to one side. Then, look into the camera intensely. Do not blink. She would start thinking of her pain. Obviously, she was important in that construction [of her image]. That idea also came from her father: what is photography?
SD: When you went through the 6000-plus photos, did you discover any that were taken by Frida herself?
PM: Three of which we’re certain, which she signed on the back, but I know of a lot more.
SD: You’re showing me one of her photos, of a toy horse and a doll lying on the ground, signed on the back with her signature and dated 1929. Is this photo a reference the bus and trolley car collision that she was involved in 1925, age 18, in which she sustained severe injuries including a smashed pelvis?
PM: This photograph talks about her accident; the same strategy Frida used for her paintings. The doll is this little lady lying there. She’s using photography to tell the story of the tragedy of her life. From my point of view, this little five by seven inch photo is the most important piece among all the objects, because we knew that she was the daughter of a photographer, but this is a still life to tell her one big story: pain and the accident.
SD: Kahlo turned her suffering into art, having also suffered polio as a child and later a leg amputation. What do the photos of her in hospital tell us?
PM: That chapter is called Her Broken Body. It is the most important theme of Frida’s work, right? One in particular, Frida stomach down, that was taken by Nickolas Muray in 1946. You see the look she’s having? She’s uncovered a little bit of her hip, and she’s looking to Muray. In this picture, you can tell they were really good friends. It’s painful, and sexy at the same time. This chapter, I’m not sure they’re the best pictures photographically, but they are in terms of the theme, and they are very moving.