Frida Kahlo at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

April 19, 2008 at 11:51 am (art, culture, interesting, life, painting, thoughts, Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

For some strange reason, my parents were especially into the soundtracks of 1970s broadway musicals – or, at least, when I was growing up, this is what was in their record collection. As a result, I grew up listening to the soundtracks of some of the most ridiculous, over-the-top music ever recorded (Andrew Lloyd Weber will one day rot in hell), but if I’m being totally honest… I loved it. Maybe it was just perfect for a kid; I don’t know. But to this day, I’d bet I still know nearly every word to such classics as Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar.

But one of the musicals that I have the fondest memories of is A Chorus Line. I can’t help but think that by listening to that score over and over growing up, I instilled in myself many of the obsessions I carry with me today – making art, performing, art school (or acting/dance class, as in the musical), the critique, American Idol, all that stuff. There’s a particular track that I only remember in the haziest of ways that deals with this student taking a class with a teacher that is especially beloved and adored by all the other students. She takes the class assuming that she will have the same mind-blowing experience as everyone else reports having, and instead finds herself studying with a guy who is totally gross, unsupportive, abusive, and all around a shitty teacher. As all her classmates exclaim their love and affection for the guy, she comes back over and over to the refrain, “I felt nothing.” She goes through this whole What the hell is wrong with me thing throughout the song. I think in the end the teacher dies and all the other students are beside themselves with grief, and she returns to the phrase “I felt nothing.”*

I thought of this as I wandered around the touring Frida Kahlo exhibit, which is currently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I want, so much, to be blown away by Kahlo’s work – to have this divine, mystical experience with it; to be moved deeply and profoundly. And somehow, I’m just not. I would accept the alterntive as well – if her work really pissed me off and seemed fradulent, I could deal with that too. But like the girl in A Chorus Line, I kept finding myself feeling nothing.

I would go for a moment or two just being frustrated with Kahlo being a constant victim (Oh Frida: just dump that bum Diego and get a better medical doctor, one that can actually treat your ailments successfully and maybe prevent you from having nonstop miscarriages). And then I’d find myself being impressed with her incredibly fine abilities with paint and the really weird metaphors and visual language she was using. And then, I would quickly shift into not caring and being really annoyed with her. I wanted to see her as this great hero, but I couldn’t force myself to do it. The show made me place her firmly in the camp of surrealism and outside of the realm of feminism which, for me, isn’t such a great place to be. I love that she revealed all this painful, violent, angry, ugly stuff about herself, that she never shied away from incorporating blood or gross imagery in her work. I love that she stuck to a pretty singular theme – the self-portrait – that she worked and reworked her whole life. So why don’t I like her work at all?

And then, as the clincher to the whole show, the only path out of the gallery is through the gift shop (which is something museums are doing more and more). But I have never seen marketing of an exhibition that is quite as out-of-control as this one is. I know that museums have to make money and I accept your standard museum-shop cliche of splashing a famous painting on a mug, t-shirt, or postcard. But do we really need to have an image of a topless, sick Kahlo cropped just so and placed on a men’s tie? (Ok,on a tie?? Jesus.) Reproducing an image on a postcard is ok for me, but reworking it so that it can be a lenticular, 3-d image is kind of going too far. Aren’t Frida Kahlo dolls a little… stupid? Aren’t we basically (re)victimizing her to reduce her work to such kitsch?

Ughhh. I didn’t like the show but the gift shop kind of made me root for her just a little bit more.

Kind of interesting that the museum’s online shop doesn’t have any pictures of the especially offensive merchandise. Two pictures I was able to quickly take:
\"Frida Kahlo inspired\" table setting.

Those ties.

A friend and colleague of mine** who came with us on the trip sent me a note saying, among other things:
[I] thought some of the contextual material, especially the ex-votos, helped to place her imagery in a broader context and encouraged me to reconsider her work in the context of Mexican art rather than Surrealism.
Ok, this is a really great point and one that I really meant to draw some sort of attention to in the original post. They had a wall of ex-voto paintings that were pretty amazing and that I was really happy to see. I don’t think that seeing them necessarily changed my opinion about putting Kahlo in with the Surrealists, but they were still very interesting to check out – probably my favorite part of the exhibit.

[…] the audio guide addressed the issue of reception and pointed out that unlike Feminist artists and critics, Chicanos and Chicano artists regard her not as a victim but as a woman of great strength who managed to overcome physical and mental torment.

I’ve heard this before and, while I don’t doubt that it’s true, it still remains difficult for me to stomach. That’s partially my POV as a person who has lived in the US all her life (and has been deeply indoctrinated/influenced by US-based feminism), but also reinforced by the wall text that I’ve seen accompany every single Kahlo painting ever, which really stresses more of the pain that she withstood rather than her triumph over it. This is really a shame, as the pain in her paintings is so self-evident that having a text next to it reinforce it is obvious at best, whereas some sort of text about how she overcame it might actually add more information that would be helpful as a viewer.

(Oh, I don’t know. I still really want to like her work and I still really don’t.)

(Footnotes, sort of)
*Bear in mind I’m remembering this from having listened to A Chorus Line when I was maybe 6-9 years old and then not again for many years. If I’m screwing up the story behind the song, that has an awful lot to do with it.
**I don’t like to drop people’s names into posts unless they’re public figures or if I have their permission, and in this case the name doesn’t qualify on either accounts. But if she grants me her permssion, I’d be happy to add it! I just didn’t want to assume that it was ok.



  1. Andrew Thornton said,

    Even though I love and adore her work, I can see what you mean. In some senses, it’s kind of like reading someone’s diary. It’s fascinating and beautiful and personal and poignant and on some level we all share experiences with most people that can be related to… then at some point there’s a rejection of this. That, “Wow, gee golly, I don’t care anymore.” And then instead of reading the pages so earnestly expressed, we start to skim over the text looking for buzz words and key phrases to find what interests us most.

    Sometimes, I feel as though these pieces have to be seen when you’re completely at rock-bottom. Don’t read the text. Don’t listen to the tape. Just feel the work. Dive into the personal cosmology that she creates and dig around in the hurt just like she did. The heroisms you’re looking for become evident in the practice and patience.

  2. Ilene said,

    Just returned from the Kahlo exhibit and gift shop and couldn’t agree more with your post and — oddly enough — the previous comment. I do think that Kahlo is better without the very lame audio and information produced by the museum, but I too found myself impatient with her victimhood, despite a predisposition to like her work. (Made worse by the knowledge that some of her surgeries were to get Diego’s attention!)

    One thing that did strike me was how the work, particularly those painted on hospital bed,s were so small and delicate. I had always envisioned them as large and overwhelming works. To see them in person was a real contrast with the Friedapalooza going on in the gift shop.

  3. amywilson said,

    Funny – I feel like with the addition of these two comments, the post is now really complete. Thank you guys for helping me with my thinking about the show!

    You are totally right about the delicacy of the work and how that’s totally lost… another thing I think about is how the convention of projecting slides in a classroom is so bad for work like this (I’ve bumped up against it when lecturing about my own work). You picture the work to be of this epic scale when, in fact, they’re much more powerful as these tiny little things so carefully painted.

  4. » Blog Archive » See Frida. Buy Frida. Be Frida.: S.F. MoMA’s Kahlo gift store. said,

    […] Thanks to Timothy Buckwalter, who points out in the comments section below, that Amy Wilson covered this same topic on her blog, Working, back when the Kahlo show passed through Philly. On that occasion, the gift […]

  5. Another Roadside Attraction Or Big City Ironic Rustication? | Southern Fields Art Resource said,

    […] our refined methodology, San Francisco! Can we interest you in some parrot wrangling to go with the temple to the Cult of Frida? Which way to the […]

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