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Self-portrait with Small Monkey, Frida Kahlo, oil on masonite, 1945

As a child my father took me every Sunday to the Detroit Institute of Arts. Each week he showed me Diego Rivera’s murals (1932-33) in the Garden Court and talked to me about their controversial depiction of the car industry. He never mentioned Frida Kahlo, though she’d lived in Detroit with her husband Rivera while he created his murals. Her paintings again and again reference her relationship with her husband, both implicitly and explicitly, and she too made unsettling paintings that pessimistically referenced Detroit and its industry (‘Henry Ford Hospital’, 1932; ‘Self Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States’, 1932). Yet we looked at Rivera’s work for years with no mention of his elemental relationship to Kahlo. Perhaps my father had never heard of her. In any case, I never saw her work at the Detroit Art Institute.

I would like to have known Kahlo’s work sooner. There are so many specific emotions, expressions, and experiences that I can identify with. Even though my own work has been said to break conventions and taboos, when I entered the exhibition at Tate Modern, I found her work shocking. ‘Birth or My Birth’, 1932—based on a 16th century Aztec sculpture—shows the head pushing out of the woman’s open vagina. I am used to seeing explicit imagery of women in pornography, comics and erotic art—ie sexualised. But I have never seen such an unconstrained view of a woman in a museum before. Another painting, which both disturbed me and caused me to laugh, was ‘A Few Small Nips’, 1935—which a Tate guard explained is a mistranslation from a Mexican colloquial expression which should read ‘A Few Small Pricks’. A nude, bloodied, woman lies dead in bed, a blood-stained man standing behind her with a knife. Apparently, this was painted from a news story in which a man who stabbed his girlfriend to death declared, ‘It was only a few small nips’. Male idiocy and abuse. Female knowing—bitter, sardonic—the painting is meant to be funny.

Other works are too piercing to be whimsical, like ‘The Broken Column’, 1944, a self-portrait depicting Kahlo’s body opened to show a broken column instead of a spinal cord. The woman is pierced by nails. Held together by some sort of medical corset, she is crying but shows no emotion. The land is dry. This picture is dry—so grief-stricken that it seems to reach an arid side of pain. There is no humour here. I remember a day last year when I watched the police pull out a suitcase, with a headless woman’s torso inside, from the Angel canal.. Kahlo had a physically traumatic life, in which she lived through acute pain. She also seems to have experienced deep suffering in her marriage to Diego Rivera. However, not all her subjects are tragic. ‘The Little Deer’, 1946, is a lovely, mythic self-portrait as a deer with antlers in a lush forest, pierced by arrows, but from the peaceful inward expression on her face she seems to bear with tranquillity. Only in one portrait, ‘The Mask’, 1945, is there a sense of mad distress—but this is not her ‘real’ self, rather a masquerade of despair. Formally, this is one of the best paintings in the exhibition.

Kahlo purposely intended her work to seem naive, embracing Mexican folklore and craftwork in opposition to the overriding influence of American imperialism. But often a genuine naivete undermines the intelligence and vastness of scope expressed in her paintings. Kahlo seems unaware of how to meld narration into abstract form. Often her work remains simply a diagram of emotion and experience. Kahlo knew many important and famous people—Leon Trotsky, Isamu Noguchi, Josephine Baker; my secret wish is that she could have known Hans Hoffman. He came to America in the mid-30s with a profound understanding of formal developments in European painting. His insightful teachings influenced many artists and changed the face of American painting. Perhaps he could have taught Kahlo to transcend her descriptive mode.

Ellen Cantor is an artist living in London