Stare Master


in Archive


It’s The Look that gets to you. Frida Kahlo took up a variety of
subject matter and dabbled in a number of styles. All of it worth
seeing. But in the end it is the self-portraits that endure and that
fuel her ever-increasing stature in 20th century art. That’s because in
the portraits you get The Look. The Look is the Frida Kahlo stare. If
you’ve seen any of her self-portraits then you have seen it. It is an
expression that barely changes throughout a lifetime of paintings.
Costumes change, parrots flutter into the frame, monkeys come and go.
The Look never wavers. Walking through the major exhibit currently
hanging at the Philadelphia Museum of Art or flipping through the
catalog, it’s clear that The Look starts in about 1930 with the Self-Portrait of that year and keeps right on going through the last
great self-portrait, Self-Portrait with Medallion, in 1948.

There’s no Frida without The Look. In fact, as time goes on and her
living memory recedes further into the distance all she will be is The
Look, and The Look will be her. It’s also nice that the show at the
Philadelphia Museum contains a whole section of photographs taken of
and by Frida over the years because it gives us something to contrast
with The Look. The first and most obvious thing to note about The Look
is that it is hard, harder than any version of Frida you see in the
photographs. It is bold and it is uncompromising. The Look is even a
little bit scary. The lips are invariably set together and sometimes
slightly pursed. The face is set and without expression. The eyes look
directly at the viewer, though, importantly, her head is almost always
turned slightly to the left or to the right, as if she is looking away
from something else and then has suddenly directed The Look straight
out of the painting and into the world of the viewer.

The photographs of Frida are much softer, or more playful, or openly
seductive. They are filled with the emotion and the personality that is
so strikingly absent from the self-portraits. The closest thing to The
Look in a photograph is probably Guillermo Kahlo’s portrait from 1932,
but even in that photograph there is a warmth and a rounding of the
edges that isn’t in the paintings. There is a vulnerability that comes
out of the photograph, even though she is posed in the same way and has
the same blank expression that she does in her self-portraits. A
photograph from 1940 now titled Frida Kahlo With Cropped Hair has
something close to the hardness of The Look, but there is a smile
playing at the corners of her mouth and a twinkle in her eye. It isn’t
The Look.

This brings up the intriguing possibility that, in fact, the self that
Frida Kahlo captured in her paintings and portrayed to the world was
something altogether manufactured and bearing little resemblance to the
actual person who is both the author and subject of those paintings.
The Look would be, then, a lie, a lie that she told to herself and then
told to us. And that interpretation would fit with another aspect of
The Look, let’s call it the heroic aspect. The Look that Frida gives us
in a painting like Self-Portrait Dedicated to Sigmund Firestone is
that of a hero in the classical sense of the term, beyond human in
capacity and resolve. And there’s no doubt that the heroism of The Look
is also related to her life story, the suffering she endured from the
series of operations she underwent after surviving a near-fatal
streetcar accident when she was 18. It is also the struggle of a woman
in her time, from being Diego Rivera’s wife during all the years of his
philandering and success, a struggle with the difficult political and
economic situation in Mexico in the early 20th century, a struggle with
tradition and the modern world. Struggles, indeed, are everywhere, and
she is the hero with the capacity to face them all. Or so she wanted to
portray herself.

But then why are we so taken with her lies, even after all these years?
I think our fascination is explained in something she once said about
André Breton when he was visiting Mexico. She said, “I never knew I was
a surrealist till André Breton came to Mexico and told me I was.” There
is a story of 10,000 levels of defiance in that sentence, and it is
that same defiance that powers The Look. But it is particularly
fascinating that the comment comes in reference to Breton. In
Surrealism we have but one of a never-ending list of 20th century
movements that dissolved the self into one thing or another. For
Surrealism, the self dissolves into dreams and the irrationality of
desires. Or, variously throughout the early 20th century, the self
dissolves into history or the structure of society or into the grammar
and syntax of language. The self, in short, has done a lot of
dissolving over the past hundred years, and a glance at the painted
canvasses over that time reflect that fact as much as anything. From
formalism to the avant-garde, the self either performed a disappearing
trick altogether or was forced to submit to every manner of
fragmentation and dissipation.

Weathering it all, never going under for a second in the stormy seas of
all the dissolution is The Look. There is no theory behind it, no
counter claim about the essence of our being. There is simply Frida
Kahlo’s need to capture The Look again and again. Whatever drove it,
whatever pains and sorrows, it became an aesthetic thing of its own,
and that is how The Look comes down to us now. It comes down as a truth
greater than the conditions that may have caused it for the simple
reason that it doesn’t fade one bit. It doesn’t shy away from the basic
— let us call it Cartesian certitude — that was the rock upon which
Frida built her art. The Look says, “I am I and you are you.” The Look
is about the hardness of that fact, the impenetrable steely actuality
of that fact. It is a look that suffers no fools, no bullshit. I am I,
Frida Kahlo, I am I. • 21 February 2008