By Bruce Jacobs

Kahlo cover“Finding Frida Kahlo”
by Barbara Levine, with Stephen Jaycox
Princeton Architectural Press (254 pp.)

A big art world to-do has bloomed from the seeds sown in a fascinating new book from Princeton Architectural Press.  “Finding Frida Kahlo” by Barbara Levine with Stephen Jaycox is a beautifully designed book of photos and translations reflecting a recently discovered trove of artifacts purported to be from Kahlo’s many collections and belongings.

With a realistically skeptical but convincing introductory history and commentary, Levine explains how she stumbled on the five cases of “stuff” in an antique shop in San Miguel de Allende, an American expatriate paradise in the Mexican highlands of Guanajuato.

The official guardians of the Kahlo-Rivera Trust were quick to debunk the find.  Even Latin American art dealer and expert Mary-Anne Martin joined with them in the outcry.  No one wants to accept such a remarkable find. But the book contains detailed color photographs of the five boxes, trunks, and suitcases with samples of the personal notes, books, drawings, paintings, clothing and other ephemera of Kahlo’s life from the 1920’s until her death in 1954.

Its text is bi-lingual, with the English-speaking author’s comments translated to Spanish and Kahlo’s writing translated to English.  While the “lost” artworks in the collection seem to my unsophisticated eye to be minor at best, the sketches and notes, if not authentic, are still a damn fine facsimile of what we have come to know as the Frida persona.

Among the goodies are unsent letters to Diego Rivera.

“You did not understand what I am.  I am love.  I am pleasure, I am essence, I am an idiot, I am an alcoholic, I am tenacious, I am a painter.  I am simply I am…You are a shit.”

Interspersed with erotic drawings are uninhibited diary entries.

“[I am] a woman who knows what sex is in all of its forms.  I slept with whomever I liked.  I didn’t feel.  I enjoyed the phallus in all its magnitude, and the vagina in all its delights.  I have no regrets.  This is how I am.”

The cases are not restricted to writing and drawing, but also contain bits and pieces of her life; such as a broken prosthetic foot, jewelry, small painted boxes, those colorful blouses she wore, recipes, and even a box of stuffed hummingbirds.  The latter may be some kind of memento of Rivera’s propensity to sprinkle ground hummingbirds in his salsa as an aphrodisiac.

One particular diary entry summarizes the generally accepted perception of the Frida Kahlo character:

“How many times have I not felt unfortunate for being disabled from which I learned what suffering is.  I cannot relieve my frustrations with sex.  I don’t give a shit what the world thinks.  I was born a bitch, I was born a painter, I was born fucked.  But I was happy in my way.”

Perhaps this entire collection is an elaborate hoax as the “official” art world, particularly the Mexican museum scholars, would have it.  Does it matter?

The lines between fact and fiction have become so blurred (or more likely have always been blurred) that books now need lawyers to vet them before the label non-fiction can be printed on their covers. “Reality TV” show writers win Emmy awards alongside joke writers and dramatic series. The gender of our athletes can’t even be conclusively determined; and photo-shopped” pictures of celebrities fill newspapers. The truth of a family history is lost in self-storage archives while the man with the loudest voice recounts it to his children around the dinner table as if he were there.

Finding Frida Kahlo” may be just another “novel” where the belongings and detritus of a life define the main character. Last February, Leanne Shapton published a remarkable novel that gained little attention. “Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry” described the story of the birth and death of their marriage as an auction catalogue of all the movie tickets, dried corsages, and bad snapshots of their lives.

If the reward of a good book is to learn something more about ourselves and about the world around us, it matters little whether the book is called fiction or fact.

Anyone who has sent a child off to college and then taken a thoughtful walk around his now uninhabited room will understand how easily a person can be defined by the abandoned Bob Marley posters, Harry Potter books, Pokeman key chains, faded hoodies, empty Corona bottle, and the unmatched sock under the bed.

Whether the art experts of the world authenticate this Kahlo find or not, the book “Finding Frida Kahlo” is a remarkable portrait of an artist and her life.

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