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Frida's Art, Life Captivate the City

December 19, 1991|GREGG BARRIOS | SPECIAL TO NUESTRO TIEMPO

Los Angeles has been awash in "Frida mania" during the "Mexico: Splendors of 30 Centuries" exhibit at the Los Angeles County Musem of Art and the ancillary events of "Mexico: A Work of Art" and the Artes de Mexico Festival.

Included in this mix were Frida postcards, T-shirts, posters, books, jewelry, canvas bags and a coffee house (Little Frida's) where conversation often touches on the possible film projects on the life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, who died in 1954. Kahlo lived much of her life in the shadow of her celebrated husband, artist Diego Rivera, but in the last decade she has become a superstar.

To understand how this phenomenon came about, one has to return to 1983 when Hayden Herrera's "Frida," a definitive biography on Kahlo, first appeared. It has sold about 100,000 copies in the United States and been translated into eight languages.

Virginia Fields, who supervised the installation of the "Splendors" exhibit, said Hererra's book has had "a very positive effect and provided a much better understanding of Frida Kahlo's personality and motivation, her relationship with Diego and how that affected her work." It has "been an invaluable contribution," said Fields, associate curator of pre-Columbian art at the museum.

Herrera, in Los Angeles recently to lecture about Kahlo to an overflow crowd at the museum, modestly downplayed her part in making Kahlo a superstar whose paintings now command millions of dollars.

"It was a subject the times were ready for," Herrera said in an interview. "Early on, Chicanos and feminist painters were already interested in Frida and her work. Then, after the book, it spread to the fashion and movie world."

Hollywood has been speculating about which of many projects about Kahlo will be produced. Art historian Herrera said her book has been sold to an independent producer, who hopes to develop it as a cable television film.

Madonna has expressed interest in playing Kahlo in a film and Luis Valdez is considering a project based on "Frida Kahlo: The Brush of Anguish," a 1990 book by Martha Zamora. Robert De Niro also has a project pending on the life of Rivera.

Herrera, who lived in Mexico during her youth, has a new book on Kahlo, "Frida Kahlo: The Paintings," (Harper Collins, $40). It resulted in part from Herrera's attempt to find out what keeps people in Kahlo's grip when they stand in front of her paintings.

"It's pretty complex. I'm not sure that I'll ever know for sure," she said, laughing. "There are always secrets in good art, aren't they?"

The current exhibit features seven paintings by Kahlo, who lived a large part of her life as a partial invalid as a result of a traffic accident.

Some critics have questioned whether Kahlo--who put up with her womanizing husband--is an appropriate role model for feminists in the 1990s.

"You can't malign someone because they have a complex relationship with their husband. It doesn't devalue her because she was dependent in some ways, because she was also very independent. There is so much in her life that is strength, and so courageous," Herrera said.

"Diego was doing these huge paintings whose values were so different from hers. People feel Frida is speaking to them, she understands. She knows what each of us has gone through in some moment in our life. It's harder to be passionate about Rivera's vision of the Mexican Revolution than it is to be passionate about a woman having a miscarriage."

Was the image Kahlo created in her painting the real Frida or a myth? "She created a mask, a mythology," Herrera said. "There are things that you want to know but she won't tell you. Yet she insists on telling you other things at the same time. That may be a lot of her attraction--giving and holding back at the same time."

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