Citation
Reading Frida

Material Information

Title:
Reading Frida a critical analysis of director Julie Taymor's representation of Frida Kahlo in Frida, (2002)
Creator:
Meyer, Lea Bett
Publication Date:
Language:
English
Physical Description:
ix, 80 leaves : ; 28 cm

Subjects

Subjects / Keywords:
Frida (Motion picture) ( lcsh )
Frida (Motion picture) ( fast )
Genre:
Criticism, interpretation, etc. ( fast )
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )
Criticism, interpretation, etc ( fast )

Notes

Bibliography:
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 78-80).
General Note:
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Statement of Responsibility:
by Lea Bett Meyer.

Record Information

Source Institution:
|University of Colorado Denver
Holding Location:
|Auraria Library
Rights Management:
All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
262681572 ( OCLC )
ocn262681572
Classification:
LD1193.L58 2008m M49 ( lcc )

Full Text
READING FRIDA:
A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF DIRECTOR JULIE TAYMORS
REPRESENTATION OF FRIDA KAHLO IN FRIDA, (2002)
by
Lea Bett Meyer
B.A., University of Puget Sound, 1995
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
and Health Science Center
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Humanities
2008
T
!al


This thesis for the Master of Humanities
degree by
Lea Bett Meyer
has been approved
by
Brad
>rd Mudge
L'J)xk
Dati


Meyer, Lea Bett (M,H)
Reading Frida: A Critical Analysis of Director Julie Taymors Representation
of Frida Kahlo in Frida, (2002)
Thesis directed by Professor Margaret L. Woodhull
ABSTRACT
In 2002, Director Julie Taymor released Frida (2002), a biopic film
representing the life and work of artist Frida Kahlo. The film has been highly
acclaimed internationally, particularly gamering praise for its stunning visual style.
Though the directors visual innovations challenge popular filmic conventions,
certain qualities of the film recalls the traditional Hollywood point of view. In effect,
Taymors representation of Kahlo normalizes the artists life story and posits her art
from a traditional masculine, Euro-American point of view. The following study will
highlight some of the ways in which this happens. I will argue that Frida diminishes
Kahlos subversions of social and political order and provides the public with a
disingenuous lens through which to consider the artists work. My critical analysis of
Taymors representation of Frida Kahlo in Frida is aimed at exposing the normalizing
discourses that the Hollywood film industry produces and recovering the social and
political engagement of Kahlos art.


This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis.
I recommend its publication.


DEDICATION
I dedicate this thesis to my mom and to my aunt.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT
Special thanks to Margaret Woodhull for inspiring and challenging me through a long
writing process; thank you to Susan Linville and Bradford Mudge for providing
direction; thank you to family and friends for extending support and encouragement.
Thanks also to the Institute for International Education for funding my travel
and studies in Mexico.


TABLE OF CONTENTS
Figures.................................................................ix
CHAPTER
1. INTRODUCTION
Encountering Frida Kahlo....................................1
Masculinist Discourses......................................3
Euro-American Frameworks....................................7
Kahlo as a Point of Departure..............................10
Julie Taymors Frida, (2002)...............................12
Artistry and Commercial Success............................14
Analyzing the Biopic.......................................17
Conclusion.................................................18
2. NARRATIVE FRAMEWORK
Introduction...............................................20
Wife/Artist................................................21
Autobiographical Paintings.................................23
Frida and Diera Rivera.....................................26
My Dress Hangs There.......................................30
Self Portrait with Cropped Hair............................35
vii


Conclusion
38
3. SEXUAL SPECTACLE
Introduction...........................................39
Sexual Drama...........................................40
The Gaze...............................................43
Bisexual Spectacle.....................................47
Body Image.............................................54
Conclusion.............................................58
4. POPULAR APPEAL
Introduction...........................................59
The Popular Celebrity of Frida Kahlo...................60
Happy Ending...........................................63
The Hollywood Model....................................66
The Dream..............................................67
Melodrama..............................................70
Cinematic Other........................................71
Conclusion.............................................75
5. CONCLUSION
BIBLIOGRAPHY.......................................................78
vm


LIST OF FIGURES
Figure
1.1 A Few Small Nips........................................................2
1.2 Traditional Retablo.....................................................8
2.1 Frida and Diego........................................................26
2.2 The Wedding Portrait, from Frida (2002)................................28
2.3 My Dress Hangs There...................................................31
2.4 My Dress Hangs There from Frida (2002).................................33
2.5 Self Portrait with Cropped Hair........................................35
3.1 Preparatoria Sequence..................................................41
3.2 Tango Sequence.........................................................50
3.3 The Broken Column......................................................55
3.4 Scar Sequence..........................................................56
4.1 Viva la Vida...........................................................64
4.2 The Dream..............................................................68
4.3 The Dream, from Frida (2002)...........................................69
4.4 Painting the Broken Column, from Frida (2002)..........................73
IX


CHAPTER 1
INTRODUCTION
Encountering Frida Kahlo
Impressed by the distinctive qualities that characterize artist Frida Kahlos
work, I traveled to Mexico City to see her original paintings. My trip was like a
treasure hunt. Searching various collections in Mexicos capital, I hoped to find certain
paintings by Kahlo that had captivated my attention. I started my search with a visit to
the artists infamous blue house in Coyocan. Her home is now the Frida Kahlo
Museum archived with the artists books, wardrobe, jewelry, journals, bed and other
relics. The artifacts of Kahlos life that are preserved in the blue house are fascinating.
Yet, very little of the artists work is on display there. So, I continued my search,
visiting several museums in Mexicos capital.
The most moving experience that I had during my exploration of the artists
original paintings occurred in the Dolores Olmedo Patino Museum. A 16th century
hacienda with large tropical gardens, the museum belongs to, and is named after, a
wealthy socialite who was a patron of Diego Rivera. In fact, Dolores Olmedo Patino
still lives in part of the hacienda. In addition to a large collection of Riveras work, one
room of this magnificent mansion is filled with Kahlos artwork. Here, I discovered
many of Kahlos original works, the most impressive of which was A Few Small Nips.
1


I remember being rather startled when I saw the painting. Of course, I had seen
reproductions of A Few Small Nips, but seeing the original was a different experience.
Surprisingly delicate in size, the image was overpowering. In this painting, Kahlo
depicts a dead woman lying on a bed, naked except for a stocking and shoe on one foot.
Her posture is contorted while her body is gouged with stab wounds and covered with
blood. A man stands above the bed holding a knife, his white shirt splattered with
blood. Red paint spills onto the floor, even spotting the frame with the authors violent
exclamation. Above the scene, two birdsone white and one blackhold a banner
that says: Unos Cuantos Picititos, (A Few Small Nips).
Fig 1.1 A Few Small Nips, 1935
Now why would an image like this inspire me to travel to Mexico City?
Obviously, Kahlo is not the artist for anyone looking for visual bliss. Instead, Kahlos
art has impressed me because of its brash challenge of normative discourses. Kahlos
2


imagery upsets the masculinist tradition in which Mexican history is situated and it
disrupts the masculinist institution of the art-historical canon. Her work furthermore
displaces the Euro-American frameworks that structure art-historical discourses. A Few
Small Nips is but one painting by Kahlo in which the artist overthrows social and
political order.
Frida Kahlos subversion of normative discourses marks her as an ideal site for
critical inquiry. This thesis examines director Julie Taymors representation of Frida
Kahlo in the film Frida, (2002) against a critical reading of Kahlos work and
biography. Using a contemporary feminist and postcolonial lens, I argue that Taymors
biopic about Kahlo normalizes the artists biography to appeal broadly to a popular
audience and thus minimizes the subversive quality of her work.
Masculinist Discourses
Kahlo is extraordinary as a woman who worked as a painter in Mexico in the
middle of the 20th century. In an article titled, Why Have There Been No Great
Women Artists? Linda Nochlin describes how social conventions have historically
excluded women from the institutions and education that are necessary to the
development of an artist. If women were encouraged in the arts, she explains, it was
as a hobby and not as a serious undertaking. The real work of women, was socially
defined as that which is in service to husband and children. According to Nochlin, a
woman who dedicated herself to her artwork in the manner requisite of greatness
3


would be working against a tide of negative social implications that Nochlin names as
diversion, selfishness, egomania, or, at the unspoken extreme, castration (166).
Kahlos occupation as a painter thus identifies her as an exception in what was
traditionally considered a masculine occupation.
Because she is exceptional as a female artist in her time, Kahlos work
challenges the normative perspective of traditional works of art. Since most artwork,
historically and during Kahlos lifetime, has been produced by men, the normative
perspective of recognized works of art is largely constructed from a masculinist point
of view. Masculinist discourses center around the masculine subject, marginalizing
the feminine. In this tradition, males and masculinity tend to be associated with
power and agency while females and femininity are conceived as passive and are
made the object of masculine authority. Kahlos imagery interjects a critical feminine
perspective into the history of art and into Mexicos history, challenging the
conventional, patriarchal point of view.
In the case of A Few Small Nips, the painting depicts a story that the artist read
about in a newspaper in which a man accused of stabbing his unfaithful wife to death,
(or, in another account, his girlfriend), said upon arrest, But I only gave her a few
small nips (Lindaur 33, Herrera, 180). Kahlos image engages external (masculine)
affairs by picturing a local social and political issue. The artists graphic depiction of
the violence inflicted by the man upon the woman for her sexual transgression
4


emphasizes the irony of the mans understated testimony. The image thus produces a
criticism of the male subject.
Considering Kahlos image within the tradition of Mexican history, art history
scholar Margaret A. Lindaur claims that A Few Small Nips depicts a socially resonant
attitude toward actively promiscuous women (33). She refers to the powerful stigma
passed down in Mexican mythology through the story of La Malinche. Known as the
indigenous mistress of Heman Cortes (Hemdando Cortez), La Malinche is charged
historically with acting as an accomplice to the Spanish conquistadores, aiding Cortes
in his defeat of the Aztec Empire. In the collective Mexican mind, La Malinche is
considered a traitor to the indigenous Americans, ultimately responsible for the Spanish
colonization of Mexico.1 Kahlos image of the unfaithful wife, then, must be seen as
part of a larger discourse that highlights masculinist fear of womens treachery in
Mexican society.
The writings of Octavio Paz, Mexican writer and Nobel Laureate in Literature,
furthermore highlight the influence of the mythologized figure, La Malinche, in
contemporary Mexican culture. In El Laberinto de la Soledad (The Labyrinth of
Solitude). Paz wrote a chapter called Las Hijos de La Malinche (The Children of
1 La Malinche is stigmatized despite the fact that she likely had little choice in her circumstance, as
Jean Franco demonstrates in her book on gender and representation in Mexico. Franco calls La
Malinche a much exchanged woman. She was, according to Franco, bom in Nahuatl-speaking
territory, given to merchants who took her to Tabasco where she learned Maya and where she was
given as a gift (along with other women) to Cortes. Franco goes on to explain that, La Malinche
became Cortes mistress and interpreter, bore him a son, and continued to act as interpreter after being
exchanged yet again and given in marriage to one of his captains (xix).
5


Malinche), recalling the popular mythology that holds that the Mexican people descend
from La Malinche (80). As the mother of mestizo Mexicomestizo meaning of mixed
Spanish and Indigenous ancestryPaz claims that La Malinche is la chingada, which
means the fucked one. He explains that to descend from la chingada is shameful to
Mexicans and that therefore they condemn the feminine (72-73).
To be sure, the word chingar has specific gender implications. El macho,
writes Paz, is the great chingon (70). The following passage from The Labyrinth of
Solitude illustrates how sexuality is perceived in Mexican culture in regard to gender:
Chingar is to do violence to another, i.e. rape. The verb is
masculine, active, cruel: it stings, wounds, gashes, stains. And
it provokes a bitter, resentful satisfaction. The person who
suffers this action is passive, inert, and open, in contrast to the
active, aggressive, and closed person who inflicts it. The
chigon is the macho, the male; he rips open the chingada, the
female, who is pure passivity, defenseless against the exterior
world (Paz, 70).
Based on this conception, Lindaur posits that la chingada is a complex cultural
classification that suggests a womans innate culpability, associated with her
sexuality, as the base cause of European penetration and domination of pre-colonial
Mexico (34).
Placing A Few Small Nips within the context of Mexican history helps to
demonstrate the powerful subversion that Kahlos imagery interjects into the
historical dialogue. The artist posits the mans condemnation of the womans
treachery from a critical feminine perspective. Ultimately, A Few Small Nips defends
6


la chingada and condemns el chingon. Thus, the painting produces a criticism of the
masculinist framework in which Mexican history is situated. Since women rarely
authored public artworks during Kahlos lifetime, the perspective that she offers
through this painting also subverts the broader masculinist ideology that is preserved
by traditional art-historical discourses.
Euro-American Frameworks
The small size of the painting also contributes to the meaning that Kahlo
invested in A Few Small Nips. The artist painted the scene in the tradition of a
Mexican retablo or recuerdo. Kahlos biographer Hayden Herrera defines the retablo
genre as small votive paintings that offer thanks to a holy agent for misfortunes
escaped (Fig 1.2). These works, she writes, which are also called ex-voto
paintings, depict both the event and the holy agent of miraculous salvation (47). The
woman in A Few Small Nips, however, did not escape misfortunea fact which
intensifies the irony employed by Kahlo.
Probably because it lacks the element of salvation, Joan Borsa classifies this
painting more generally as a recuerdo, which she identifies as a keepsake made in
memory of a person (37). Nonetheless, Herrera claims that Kahlo specifically styled
her work according to the tradition of the retablo. She writes that like a retablo
painter, Kahlo painted A Few Small Nips on a sheet of coated aluminum, outlining her
image and then filling in the detail (150). According to Herrera, a retablo stresses
7


dramatization, often substituting fantasy for fact. The color choices are odd, writes
Herrera, the perspective is awkward, space is reduced to a rudimentary stage, and
action is condensed to highlights (151).
Figure 1.2 Traditional Retablo
"El dia 1 de Octubre de 1925
acontecio que la sehora Teodora Jaime
encontrandose gravemente enferma de
una fuerte disipela se la encomendamos
al nino de los atribulados que si la
aliviaba le llevaba un retablo
mandandoselo concedido la
dedicacion."
"On the 1st of October of 1925 it Mrs.
Teodora Jaime became gravely ill with "
disipela" (probably a skin infection). She
put herself in the hands of the Holy
Infant of the Afflicted and stated that if
she would be relieved of illness she
would make a retablo granting him the
dedication.
8


Many art theorists and historians have called Kahlos painting style
primitive or naive. Yet, Borsa argues that these critics typically frame their
discussion of Kahlos work within a universal art historical, descriptive,
Euro-American narrative framework, where subject matter, composition, colour, etc.
are categorized as common elements of art language. Thus, most art historians that
evaluate Kahlos work have failed to recognize her style as a conscious political
strategy. Alternatively, Borsa suggests that Kahlos retablo style distinguishes her
work from the European tradition, incorporating Mexican popular art into high art
practices (37).
Often Kahlo is usurped into the art-historical category of Surrealism. Such
categorization provides an example of how her work may be misunderstood if it is
analyzed in conventional terms, like those used by Herrera. Kahlos use of fantasy,
which is more apparent in other works, is a reason that she is often misclassified as a
Surrealist. Yet, comparing Kahlos work with the preconditions for the category of
Surrealist produces a conception of her art as lacking training or knowledge. In his
article Rise of another Rivera, published in Vogue (1938), Bertram Wolfe observed
that Kahlos exhibition with the Parisian Surrealists marked her distinction from that
group:
Though Andre Breton, who will sponsor her show in Paris, told
her she was a surrealist, she did not attain her style by
following the methods of that school ... Quite free from the
9


Freudian symbols and philosophy that obsess the official
Surrealist painter, hers is a sort of naive Surrealism
(Herrera, 262).
While he distinguishes her from the Parisian Surrealists, Wolfes description
of Kahlos style as naive Surrealism implies a lack of sophistication and ignores the
distinct cultural and ideological premises of Kahlos work. This framework is based
in the tradition of the Euro-American art historical canon and it overlooks the specific
Mexican and feminine premises of Frida Kahlos art. For her part, Kahlo did not
consider herself a Surrealist. I never knew I was a Surrealist, she said, till Andre
Breton came to Mexico and told me I was. The only thing I know is that I paint
because I need to and I paint always whatever passes through my head, without any
other consideration (Herrera, 254).
Kahlo as a Point of Departure
In fact, Kahlos work cannot be so simply defined, for her work challenges
social as well as artistic categories. As the artist asserts her feminine perspective in A
Few Small Nips, so she substantiates her Mexicanidad. The bold and challenging
subject matter that Kahlo presents in this painting is exemplary of the imagery
throughout her body of work. Kahlos paintings disrupt normative ideologies in many
respects. A woman, Mexican, mestiza, socialist, bisexual, and person having lived with
multiple disabilities, Kahlo possesses a point of view that broadens artistic and social-
10


historical discourses. Her art offers various perspectives which are often overlooked or
suppressed.
As a student of the visual arts and of Spanish language, I have encountered
Kahlo as a point of departure for my understanding of the history, culture, and politics
of Mexico in the 20th century. Her artwork has provided me with an alternative to the
dominant ideologies that frame Mexicos mythologies. My desire to expand this
counter-perspective and to challenge the ideas that I undoubtedly take for granted
not only about Mexico and art practices, but about my own experiences in the
worldguided me in my journey to Mexico City.
As I stood in a room surrounded by Frida Kahlos paintings, I found the
treasure that I was looking for. Expressive of intricate intelligence and distinct
vision, Kahlos imagery challenges the ways that we are conditioned to see. Looking
at a painting like A Few Small Nips, viewers have to ask why an artist would produce
such a violent image and then title it with ironic humor. Furthermore, the style and
presentation of her work confronts viewers who have been conditioned by the
dominant ideologies of the art-historical canon. Kahlos images shock us into
realizing the pretenses of the ways in which we are accustomed to seeing and
perceiving.
11


Julie Taymors Frida, (2002)
Shortly after I returned from this trip to Mexico, in the Fall of 2002, director
Julie Taymor released her biopic film about Frida Kahlo, titled Frida. I had heard
about the film during its production and was eager for its release. I was especially
excited because the film was directed and produced by women. The only other
feature that I know of about Kahlos life was made by Mexican director, Paul Leduc,
in 1992. Leducs film, Naturaleza Viva, which translates to English as Alive Still
Life, is a rather profound work. However, the directors representation of Frida Kahlo
seems to be ridden with gender stereotypes.
Naturaleza Viva is an experimental film with a non-linear plot and slow,
painterly camera work. These techniques emphasize the visual and sensual in a
manner that is complementary to Kahlos artistic style. However, Leduc shows
Kahlo giggling more often than he depicts her engaged in intelligent discussion. The
director also rarely shows Kahlo in the act of painting in Naturaleza Viva. Margaret
Lindaur argues, furthermore, that Leducs point of viewwhich projects fragmented
and disconnected impressions of Kahlos life presumably from the point of view of
the artist on her death beddenies Kahlo credibility as the author of her life, (60).
In certain ways, Leducs representation of Frida Kahlo seems to engage the
stereotype of feminine passivity. So, I was hoping to see a more active and
empowered version of Kahlo in Taymors Frida.
12


In some ways, Taymors representation of Kahlo empowers the artists image.
In an interview with Dezso Magyar of the American Film Institute, the director
argues that The feminist icon that Frida Kahlo was in the 1980s played much more
of the abused female that stood up, but still had to go through this womanizing
bastard of a husband, (Q & A with Julie Taymor) Taymors perspective deviates
from the view of Kahlo as a victim. She says, Frida adored her husband. As
monstrous as he was with his infidelities, they really loved and supported each other
as artists. And she wanted to be with him, (Ibid). In her version, Taymor represents
Kahlo as a partner in the relationship rather than as a victim. Taymors narrative
furthermore emphasizes Kahlos heroic effort to paint despite her tumultuous
relationship with Rivera and her physical disabilities.
Yet, in certain respects, Taymors Frida reinforces the frameworks that Frida
Kahlos artwork attempts to diminish. Particularly in the instances in which Taymor
invents the artists life to fulfill her biopic vision, the director portrays issues of
gender, ethnicity, sexual identity, political difference, and disability from a rather
conventional point of view. She then situates the artists paintings within the filmic
narrative so that the audience is inclined to use the biopic representation of Kahlos
life to interpret the artists work. In effect, Taymor diminishes Kahlos subversions
of social and political order and provides the public with a disingenuous lens through
which to consider the artists work. The remainder of this study will highlight some
of the ways in which this happens.
13


Artistry and Commercial Success
Certainly, as a director, Julie Taymor advances the filmic genre in many ways.
Prior to making Frida, Taymor had been acting, directing theater, and designing sets
for 35 years. She showed an interest in theater as early as age 7, and by ten, Taymor
was involved with Bostons Childrens Theater. During high school, she traveled to
India and Sri Lanka with Experiment in International Living, and during her summer
of travel with the group she first experienced traditional Asian performance. Back in
her hometown of Boston Massachusetts, at age 15, Taymor became the youngest
member of Julie Portmans Theater Workshop. After finishing high school, she
traveled to Paris to study Mime (Blumenthal/Taymor, 10).
In 1970, Taymor enrolled in Oberlin College where she created her own major
in Folklore and Mythology studying the Ritual Origins of Theater. She earned part of
her degree by correspondence while she apprenticed with various theater companies.
In 1973, she attended a summer program in Seattle, American Society for Eastern
Arts. Then, following her graduation in 1974, Taymor earned a Watson Fellowship
to spend a year in Eastern Europe, Indonesia, and Japan (Ibid, 12-13). Following her
year of travel, Taymor stayed in Bali, where she lived for 5 years, founding her own
international theater company before returning to the United States in 1979 (13-20).
Taymor made her debut as a feature length film director in 1999 with the film
Titus, an adaptation of Shakespeares Titus Andronicus. An experimental work, Titus
14


ignores historicity, juxtaposing impressions of Mussolinis Italy with the original
plays setting in ancient Rome. One of Shakespeares most severe tragedies, Titus is
incredibly violent. Unlike Hollywood violence, however, the sort of aggression
displayed in Taymors Titus is not entertaining. Rather, the violence shown in the
film is horrifying, even absurd. The impact of Titus is similar to that of Kahlos
painting, A Few Small Nips, in that it produces a critical reaction.
In an interview with Maria Garcia of Film Journal International. Taymor says
that although she considers her first film a personal success, Titus did not fare well in
the box office. It didnt get much attention, the director recalls. ... I would say
that it frightened people in the businessthey dont know how to handle a movie like
that, to build a bridge between that and commercial filmmaking, (2 of 6). While her
first film was pigeonholed as an art film, Frida seems to have provided the director
with the bridge that she desired, connecting her artistry with commercial success.
Taymor intended for her second major feature film to reach beyond the art
establishment. In 2001, a year before Frida, the director told Dana Calvo of the Los
Angeles Times, I hope this is not an art-house film, I hope it goes beyond that.
According to Calvo, Taymor hoped that the film would appeal to moviegoers who are
not necessarily familiar with Kahlos artwork, (3). I will argue that Taymors desire
to create a film that would achieve popular and commercial success compromised her
representation of Kahlos life story.
15


The director discredits the idea that her film should represent a real life. In an
interview with the Los Angeles Times, the director told interviewer, Maria Garcia:
Some people think film is about holding a mirror up to life
and saying, This is real. Not in my world. My dreams are as real as
my waking life. I think too much is being made of recreating real life.
As soon as you put a camera on, youre already in a false environment.
Once you do that, then you should use all the powers of your
imagination to create the image.
(Garcia, 4 of 6)
No doubt, filmmaking is a creative act and Taymor is renowned specifically
for her innovative visual techniques. Among many clever innovations in her
representation of the life of Frida Kahlo, Taymor created 3-Dimensional paintings to
represent Kahlos artwork; she devised montage sequences styled after Kahlos
diaries; she recreated scenes from the movie King Kong figuring Rivera as Kong and
Kahlo as the woman with whom he became enamored; and she included a fantastic
skeleton animation, which she commissioned from the Brothers Quay. These
experimental techniques demonstrate Taymors intellectual sophistication and they
exemplify the directors exquisite craftsmanship.
Nonetheless, in certain instances, Taymors creative vision seems to
compromise the films critical value. While in many ways Frida is an art film, in
certain respects the film assumes the form of the standard Hollywood biopic. Many
of the qualities that distinguish Kahlos life and art are diminished in the directors
translation of the artists life to a popular film. In the following chapters, I will
16


identify such instances and demonstrate how they compromise Taymors
representation of Frida Kahlo.
Analyzing the Biopic
Since the film has been highly acclaimed, and has been shown extensively to
international audiences, Taymors Frida has a strong influence on peoples
conception of the artist and her work. In his book about the biopic film form,
Bio/Pics, George F. Custen posits the biopic as an important genre in Hollywood
filmone that has had a great influence on the American publics conception of
history. Custen compares the biopic to any history, pointing out that history is always
mediated and transcribed to a time and place other than an actual occurrence (11).
Nonetheless, a film may be a persons only point of contact with a historical
subject. For this reason, Custen argues that regardless of our awareness of a biopic as
a fictionalized account, the film becomes a point of reference about the persons life.
Custen suggests that rather than asking if a film distorts the life that it represents, for
certainly it does, it may be more constructive to ask: What factors shape the
construction of history in these particular mediations? (11). Since Kahlos art
subverts normative discourses, examining the ways that Taymors representation of
17


the artist normalizes Kahlos life and art may help us to identify the factors that
perpetuate normative discourses in contemporary Hollywood2.
Conclusion
In 2002,1 expected to see a representation of Frida Kahlo that recognizes the
subversive qualities of Kahlos artwork. Seeing the artist as a more or less typical
Hollywood specimen was a grave disappointment. Yet, almost everyone that I have
talked to loves Taymors Frida. The directors brilliant craftsmanship has wooed
audiences worldwide. Each time that someone praises the film, I realize how
important it is for me to become articulate about my perception of Taymors work.
It is a challenge now for me to separate my appreciation for Taymors
craftsmanship from my critical assessment of her biopic representation of Frida
Kahlo. The directors treatment of Kahlo in Frida is indeed innovative in many
ways. However, for the purposes of this study, I intend to focus on a critical analysis
of Taymors misrepresentation of her subject, Frida Kahlo. For, as I have posited in
this introduction, in certain ways the director subjects Kahlos life to the conventions
of Hollywood film and produces a normalizing representation of the artist.
2 My analysis of Julie Taymors representation of Frida Kahlo in Frida is part of a larger idea that
considers the construction of the lives of famous Latin American historical figures in the American
biopic film genre. I intend, in the broader scope of this project, to compare Taymors construction of
Kahlo to the representation of Ernesto Che Guevera in The Motorcycle Diaries (Walter Salles,
2004).
18


In the following chapters, I will analyze the manner in which Taymor tailors
the narrative content of Kahlos biography, I will examine the directors use of
sexuality as a spectacle in Frida, and I will consider specific qualities of the film
which align it with the Hollywood model. Using what I have learned about Kahlos
life and art, I seek to reveal the specific ways that the director manipulates and
distorts the artists image to appeal to the film audience. My critical analysis of Julie
Taymors representation of Frida Kahlo in Frida is aimed at exposing the normalizing
discourses that the Hollywood film industry produces and recovering the social and
political engagement of Kahlos art.
19


CHAPTER 2
NARRATIVE FRAMEWORK
Introduction
In the following chapter of my critical analysis of Julie Taymors
representation of Frida Kahlo in Frida, I will examine the narrative
framework that the director imposes on the artists life story. Without a
doubt, a director has to limit the content of a biopic film. As Taymor
explained in an interview with Dezso Magyar of the American Film Institute,
it is not possible to treat an entire life in 2 hours, and so, from the outset, a
director must decide on a point of view, (Q & A with Julie Taymor).
The point of view that Taymor devised to represent Kahlos life in
Frida uses the love story between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera as a narrative
framework. Taymor said to Magyar that this love story is the part of Kahlos
life story that appealed to her personally. The couple is infamous for a
tumultuous relationship that involved a series of mutual infidelities, and
Taymor explained that she was interested in telling the story of the partnership
that endured such turmoil, (Q & A with Julie Taymor).
Taymors love story is certainly engaging. However, this narrative
framework seems to limit the artists life to what is traditionally considered
20


feminine domain. Furthermore, the director uses a selection of Kahlos
paintings as chapter markers to delineate the narrative structure of the film.
The films formal structure, which places Kahlos artwork directly within the
context of her domestic partnership, seems to omit the broader social and
political engagement of Frida Kahlos artwork. In this chapter, I will examine
Taymors narrative framework and demonstrate how the directors
contextualization of Kahlos art within this framework significantly confines
the meaning of the artists work.
Wife/Artist
To begin with, Taymors use of the love story as a framework for
Kahlos life story seems to engage with the feminine stereotype. The filmic
narrative, which pivots around Kahlos relationship, situates the artists life
within the domestic (feminine) domain. Her artistic career, though an external
(masculine) pursuit, revolves specifically around her relationship in the film.
In effect, the director produces a gendered representation of the artists life
which overlooks a great deal of Kahlos engagement in what is traditionally
considered masculine domain.
Kahlos identity as a wife is similarly highlighted in biographies about
Kahlo and in critical readings of her work. Margaret Lindaur dedicates a
chapter of her book, Devouring Frida, to analyzing how Kahlos identity has
21


been cast as a Wife/Artist by various historical and critical sources. Lindaur
posits that the artists social and gendered positions are not absolute but
rather are rendered by the very discourses used to describe them, (6).
In her analysis, Lindaur targets the biography of Frida Kahlo by
Hayden Herrera, which Taymor cites as the reference for Frida. She observes
that in Herreras account of Kahlos life, the artists marriage coincides
significantly with her development as an artist:
When she was considered an adoring wife, her painting
was presumed to be a hobby; disillusioned by marital infidelity,
her creative work became a career; and concurrent with
accepting the particularities of her relationship with Rivera, her
painted production came to be considered a commemoration of
their personal and political partnership, (13).
Because Taymor specifically uses Kahlos relationship with Rivera as
the framework for her film, the director seems to be particularly inclined to
bind Kahlos career to her relationship. Furthermore, the narrative structure
of the film, which posits Kahlos paintings as chapter markers for the love
story, seems to assign the artists work to the specific role of commemorating
this relationship. As Lindaurs argument suggests, Taymors representation of
the artist contributes to the body of social and gendered interpretations of
Frida Kahlos life and art.
22


Autobiographical Paintings
Taymor said in an interview that Kahlos life appealed to her as a
filmic subject specifically because the artists work was autobiographical.
Its very hard to know why an artist paints that way, the director claimed,
.. but what is different about Frida and what gave me the hook into it was
that her paintings are autobiographical, {Q & A with Julie Taymor). Like
Taymor, many critics and historians have interpreted Kahlos artwork as an
autobiographical account of the artists life.
Without a doubt, there is an autobiographical element to Kahlos
artwork. Indeed a significant portion of the artists work is based in self-
portraiture. Yet, Kahlo used her self as a point of departure for sophisticated,
diverse expressions, locating her self as a subject within the larger context of
her social and political historicity. What is more, many of Kahlos artworks
image subjects that are external to Kahlo.
Contemporary feminist critics have challenged traditional readings of
Frida Kahlos artwork, arguing that interpreting the artists work as
autobiography is itself a gendered reading. In her article Frida Kahlo,
Marginalization and the Critical Feminine Subject, Joan Borsa posits:
Despite the now well-worn phrase generated by
feminist activity in the 60s and 70s, the personal is
political, critical responses continue to gloss over
23


Kahlos complex reworking of the personal, ignoring or
minimizing her interrogation of sexuality, sexual
difference, marginality, cultural identity, female
subjectivity, politics and power (26).
Ultimately, reading Kahlos artwork as autobiography limits her work to the
internal, feminine domain and perpetuates the exclusion of womens ideas
from external, masculine discourses.
In fact, Taymor said that she does not view Kahlo as a political artist.
In the interview with the American Film Institute, Taymor states that Diego
was political, but that Frida was more interested in what was inside. She says:
If you read her diaries, Diego, Diego, Diego that was her feminism, (Q &
A with Julie Taymor). It is true that many of the artists diary entries refer to
Rivera, and the artists reveries regarding this unconventional relationship
may offer insight into Kahlos critical point of view. Yet, Kahlos diaries are
also filled with specific political references and it is not accurate to suggest
that she was not political like Rivera.
Following is one example from Kahlos diaries in which the artist
makes overt political declarations:
1st. Im convinced of my disagreement with the
counterrevolution imperialism fascism religions -
stupidity capitalism and the whole gamut of bourgeois
tricks -1 wish to cooperate with the Revolution in transforming
the world into a classless one so that we can attain a better
rhythm for the oppressed classes
2nd. A timely moment to clarify who are the allies of the
Revolution Read Lenin Stalin Learn that I am nothing but a
24


small damned part of a revolutionary movement. Always
revolutionary never dead, never useless, (Kahlo, 251).
Indeed, in many instances throughout her diary, Kahlo addresses her political
thoughts and alliances. Taymors point of view, which regards Kahlo as an
artist who was primarily concerned with what was inside, seems to understate
the artists political commitment.
Contrary to Taymors conclusion that Kahlo was not political, Joan
Borsa argues that Kahlos artwork engages the political to an even greater
degree than that of Rivera, (40). Borsa describes Kahlo as a self-trained artist
working outside of the high-art traditions of Europe and the United States
who embraced popular art practice in Mexico at the time, (31). She posits that
the Mexican muralists of Kahlos time, on the other hand, were more
susceptible to the established art systems as their livelihood depended on
commissions from major corporations and institutions (40). Borsas argument
recovers the notion that Kahlos artwork is purposefully political.
Certainly, there is evidence of Kahlos critical point of view in Frida.
Taymor portrays Kahlo participating with Rivera in socialist actions.
Nonetheless, the directors effort to contextualize the artists work within the
love story dislocates Kahlos art from her politics. The meaning of the work
relates to her relationship in the film and not to her political ideology.
25


Frida and Diego Rivera
Taymors representation of Kahlos painting Frida and Diego Rivera
in Frida provides one case of study through which to investigate the
transformation that occurs in Taymors contextualization of Kahlos artwork.
The original painting is a portrait of the couple (Fig 2.1). Kahlo and Rivera
stand side by side and her hand sits in his. Kahlos head tilts toward her
partner while Rivera is figured holding a palette and brushes. In many ways,
the painting seems to be a traditional portrait. Riveras tools identify him as a
professional painter and Kahlos posture is submissive in relation to her
husband.

Fig. 2.1
Frida and Diego, 1931
26


Yet, the painting is headed with a banner that is inscribed with the
following words: I painted this portrait in the beautiful city of San Francisco
California for our friend Mr. Albert Bender, and it was in the month of April
in the year of 1931In her analysis of Kahlos work, Lindaur posits that this
inscription, less obvious than the visible palette in her husbands grip,
designates Kahlo as an active artist. Lindaur argues furthermore that since
Albert Bender was an art collector, Kahlo effectively identifies herself as a
professional painter by dedicating her work to him (19). This is an example
of how Kahlos art subverts normative gender coding.
Taymors representation of Frida and Diego Rivera in Frida gives
viewers a significantly different perspective from which to consider Kahlos
work. The director presents the painting as if it were a snapshot from the
couples wedding ceremony. In the opening of the scene, the film frame is
frozen on a reproduction of the painting. Then, the director superimposes an
image of Alfred Molina and Salma Hayek as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.
Gradually, the painting is animated as two actors dance among the guests in
the wedding scene.
27


Fig. 2.2
The Wedding Portrait, from Frida
In his contemplation of the reproducible image, Walter Benjamin
expresses his general skepticism about the reproduction of original works of
art. He claims that as images become easily reproducible, the aura of the
original is depreciated.
By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of
copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the
reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own
particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced (74).
By reactivating the object, Benjamin means that the new context activates the
object with new meanings and associations detached from the original.
Taymors 3-Dimensional wedding portrait, which substitutes for
Kahlos painting, Frida and Diego Rivera, provides an excellent illustration of
28


the discrepancy implicated by Benjamin. The painting that was filmed in this
scene is a reproduction of the original work which is painted by the films
stage crew. Not only is the image adapted to portray the actors in the film, it
is also reformatted to fit a movie screen and to accommodate the animation
which is superimposed onto the original. So, the audiences experience of the
painting is far removed from Kahlos authentic work.
Also, as Walter Benjamin points out in his contemplation of the
reproducible image, viewing a film and viewing a painting are vastly different
experiences. In the case of film, he argues that the camera forces a
perspective that is contrived without regard for the whole. He posits that
viewing a painting, is a private experience subject to the control of the viewer,
whereas viewing a film is a contrived collective experience.
The painting invites the spectator to contemplation;
before it the spectator can abandon himself to his associations.
Before the movie frame he cannot do so. No sooner has his
eye grasped a scene than it is already changed. It cannot be
arrested (240).
Taymors representation of Frida and Diego Rivera indeed creates an
experience of the artists work which is contrived. The portrait that Taymor
uses as a wedding portrait was actually painted 4 years later than the wedding,
which took place in 1928. Taymors use of the portrait as a scene from the
wedding gives viewers the perception that the image is a literal representation
of the couple on their wedding day. This literal interpretation precludes a
29


closer reading of the subversive meaning of the composition. What is more,
the inscription, which I have argued is quite significant to the meaning of the
work, is not even legible in the film.
Experiencing Frida and Diego Rivera come to life, in the filmic
representation of the painting is a pleasant surprise and no doubt a clever
technique by Taymor. Yet, the directors representation of the painting
dramatically changes the context of the artists work. Taymors
representation of Kahlos art detracts from the critical signification of the
original work.
My Dress Hangs There
The representation of Kahlos painting, My Dress Hangs There, offers
another example of how the artists work loses its political significance in the
context of Taymors narrative framework. In the painting, Kahlo posits a
traditional Tehuana dress hanging on a line between a toilet bowl and a trophy
against a background of industrial, religious and political emblems of North
American culture (Fig. 2.2). At the bottom of the painting, Kahlo pastes
together a photo-collage of various masses of people organized in protest.
The image is clearly critical of North American capitalist culture.
30


Fig 2.3 My Dress Hangs There, 1933
The dress that hangs in the image represents the traditional Tehuana
dress of the Indigenous women of Tehuantepec. Kahlo wore this style of
clothing as a political statement that contested Spanish imperial degradation of
indigenous America. Lindaur distinguishes the politics of Kahlos dress from
the general post-revolutionary Indigenista movement (which celebrated
Mexicos liberation from Spain and valorized Mexicos Indigenous cultures).
She describes the specific feminist significance of the Tehuana dress:
The women of Tehuantepec held mythic status among post-
revolutionary indigenistas who idealized Mexicos cultural
past. A popular narrative tells how the women of
Tehuantepec maintained their traditional matriarchal social
structure in which women held primary economic and
political positions (126).
31


Kahlos figuration of the Tehuana dress, then, is a referent not only to
Mexicos indigenous past, but it is a sign of feminine empowerment within
contemporary Mexican culture.
In the artists body of work, she often figures herself wearing
traditional Tehuana clothing. For example in Frida and Diego, Kahlo paints
herself wearing a Tehuana dress. In contrast, the dress is empty in My Dress
Hangs There. Like the toilet and the trophy imaged in the painting, the
Tehuana dress seems to be on display. The image suggests that the more
profound signification of the dress cannot be realized amidst the North
American landscape.
In an article titled, Her Dress Hangs Here: De-frocking the Kahlo
Cult, Oriana Baddeley discusses how various American fashion designers
mimicked Frida Kahlos wardrobe after she became a popular celebrity in
American culture. Baddeley points out that while Kahlos representation of
herself in the Tehuana dress was a feminist and anti-colonial political
statement, the dress is reduced to a fashion statement in American culture. Or
worse, according to Baddeley, Kahlos look comes to signify stereotypical
images of Mexico, (12). The sense invoked by the empty dress in My Dress
Hangs There recalls Baddeleys description in that it suggests that the dress is
reduced to a spectacle in North American culture.
32


In Frida, Taymor shows Kahlo envisioning My Dress Hangs There
after she tells Rivera that it is time to leave the United States and return to
Mexico. In the scene, Kahlo imagines the dress hanging outside as she looks
out the window of her urban American apartment, (Fig. 2.3). Taymor said
that she created the vision prior to showing the painting in order to suggest the
impression from which Kahlo may have drawn the image, (Q & A with Julie
Taymor).
Fig. 2.4 My Dress Hangs There (from Frida, 2002)
Immediately following this shot, the director figures the artist hanging
a Tehuana-style blouse on a line back in Mexico. In contrast to her frustration
in the previous scene, Kahlo appears content to be home and the clothes on
33


the line are a suitable part of the environment. Seeing the imagined painting
in the scene is quite interesting. Nonetheless, Taymors contextualization of
My Dress Hangs There reinterprets the meaning associated with this image.
In many ways, the scene translates the dress into a symbol of the
artists homesickness for her native Mexico. There is some political context
from which to consider Kahlos longing for home. However, in keeping with
her narrative framework, the director highlights the trials of the relationship
during this time as the major reason for Kahlos negative experience of the
United States. Most significantly, there is no context in which to understand
the feminist or anti-colonial signification of the dress in the directors filmic
representation.
Taymors interpretation of My Dress Hangs There recalls Herreras
assertion that Kahlo used Tehuana clothing in her life and work to please
Rivera and bind him to her, (278). Kahlos biographer suggested that the
artist figured herself in Tehuana clothing in her art when she was in harmony
with her husband while the European Frida in the artists paintings referenced
the discord in her relationship. Like Herreras interpretation, the context in
which Taymor presents the empty dress in Frida relates the signification of
the dress most directly to Kahlos relationship with Rivera. This point of view
diminishes feminist signification that Lindaur assigns to the Tehuana dress.
34


Self Portrait with Cropped Hair
Taymors representation of Kahlos painting Self-Portrait with
Cropped Hair provides one more example of the way that Taymors
contextualization of Kahlos work in Frida limits the political signification of
the artists imagery. In the original image, Kahlo figures herself sitting in a
chair, wearing a mans suit (Fig. 2.4). She holds a pair of scissors while her
hair is cropped short and long tresses are strewn about the floor. At the top of
the painting, Kahlo has inscribed the words and melody of a popular Mexican
song. The song translates to English as Look, I loved you for your hair; now
that you are bald I dont love you.
Fig. 2.5 Self Portrait with Cropped Hair, 1939
Kahlos masculine configuration of herself in the painting seems to
signify the artists engagement within the masculine sphere. Kahlo was, in
35


fact, known to wear masculine attire occasionally. In the film, Taymor
references this notiononce by reconfiguring a family photo from 1926 in
which Kahlo wore a mans suit, and again, when Kahlo greets Rivera wearing
masculine clothing during his visit to her familys home. Presumably,
wearing masculine attire granted the artist a degree of masculine privilege.
The strategy of adopting a mans attire has a history with other female
artists. Linda Nochlin claims that in the 19th century Rosa Bonheur wore her
hair cropped short and she adopted a masculine clothing style, (173).
According to Nochlin, the artist called her trousers her greatest protectors,
saying: Many times I have congratulated myself for having dared to break
with traditions which would have forced me to abstain from certain kinds of
work due to the obligation to drag my skirts everywhere, (174). Like the
statement made by Bonheur, Kahlos masculine configuration of herself in
Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair produces a critique of womens exclusion
from the masculine sphere.
In her filmic representation of Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair,
Taymor contextualizes the painting within Kahlos experience immediately
following Riveras affair with her sister. Kahlo separates from Rivera in the
film because of the affair, and Taymor shows the artist wearing a mans suit
and cutting off her hair in despair. This is another instance in the film in
36


which Taymor creates a 3-Dimensional painting of Kahlos original work.
So, when we see the painting, the image of Kahlo comes to life.
Like the 3-D wedding portrait, Taymors representation of Self-
Portrait with Cropped Hair places the painting literally within the context of
the filmic narrative. In this context, the act of cutting off her hair appears to
be a desperate reaction by Kahlo to Riveras infidelity. Furthermore, at this
point in the film, the artist determines to sell her paintings so that she can
make a living without Riveras support. In this context, Kahlo is pushed into
the masculine sphere because of Riveras betrayal. The feminist critique that
seems apparent in the original painting is not apparent in Taymors
representation of the work.
To realize the power that Kahlos biography has as an interpretive
context for her art, it is worth comparing Taymors contextualization of A Few
Small Nips with that of Lindaur. According to Lindaur, Kahlos career
became successful before her marriage deteriorated. During the late 1930s,
Lindaur claims, Kahlo became an increasingly successful artist,
unquestionably traversing a male-dominated domain by actively producing
marketable art, (40). Within this context, Kahlos image of her masculine
self in A Few Small Nips carries a different meaning than that signified in
Frida.
37


In the context provided by Lindaur, the words to the song that Kahlo
uses to narrate the painting: Look, I loved you for your hair; now that you are
bald I dont love you, suggest that the relationship broke-up precisely
because of Kahlos traverse into the masculine domain. This interpretation
images a more empowered Frida Kahlo than that offered by Taymor in her
filmic representation of the painting.
Conclusion
Director Julie Taymors biopic representation of Frida Kahlo frames
the artists biography as a love story and presents Kahlos artwork as chapter
markers within the artists experience of her relationship to Diego Rivera.
Ultimately, this perspective limits the scope of the artists life and severs her
art from its engagement in external affairs. While a director must manipulate
biographical information to suit the biopic film form, the narrative framework
that Taymor imposes on Kahlos life may impede audiences from exploring
the critical aspects of Kahlos life and work.
38


CHAPTER 3
SEXUAL SPECTACLE
Introduction
In the third chapter of my discussion of Julie Taymors Frida, I will analyze
specific scenes constructed by the director in order to demonstrate how she uses
sexuality as a spectacle in the film. Frida Kahlo was known to have challenged social
sexual roles by actively expressing her physical desire with both men and women.
So, to a point, Taymors displays of sexuality in the film communicate the idea of a
woman who acted upon her desire without conforming to restrictive social mores.
Yet, the directors dramatization of the artists sexuality seems to be constructed
largely in an effort to thrill the film audience and provide viewers with voyeuristic
pleasures. In formulating sexuality to concede to the voyeur, Taymor makes a
spectacle of Kahlos sexuality.
In particular instances, Taymor exaggerates and invents moments of sexuality
to heighten the drama of the film. What is more, in the moments in which the director
invents Kahlos biography, she formulates sexuality using a relatively conventional
perspective. For this reason, Taymor diminishes the potential of these instances to
describe Kahlo as a sexually liberated figure. The director furthermore tends to
display idealized physical bodies in sexual moments in the film. This manner of
39


representing the body is inconsistent with representations of sex and body in Kahlos
artwork. Overall, Taymors spectacular representation of Kahlos sexuality has a
normalizing effect on the artists challenge of sexual norms in her life and in her art.
Sexual Drama
The opening scene in Frida provides an excellent illustration of Taymors use
of sexuality as a spectacle. In this scene, the director manipulates the biography that
she used as her source of information to dramatize and sexualize the action of the
film. Immediately following the titles, the film relays a story of Frida Kahlo teasing
Diego Rivera while he worked painting a fresco in the preparatoria where she studied
as a youth. The young Kahlo, played by Salma Hayek, alerts her classmates that
Rivera has a naked woman in the auditorium, and, leading a small group of students,
Kahlo sneaks into the auditorium to spy.
There, we see Rivera, played by Alfred Molina, painting while a naked
woman sits posing for him. Then Lupe Marin, Riveras mistress, played by Valeria
Molino, descends from the steps of the auditorium. Why is this whore still here?
Tell me mi amor. Are you planning to have her after lunch or have you fucked her
already? she shouts. She throws the basket she is carrying that contains Riveras
lunch, saying that all he needs is his food and his slut to paint his murals. After
Marin storms off, Rivera says to the model, so much for lunch ... although I could
40


eat you perhaps ... wrapped in a tortilla ..She giggles and lies back, never saying
a word.
Rivera remains completely dressed in painting coveralls, as he kisses the
naked breasts and body of the model. Taymor cross cuts this scene with images of
the students watching from above. Each time the camera returns to Rivera and his
lover, their bodies are framed more closely (Fig. 3.2). The final shot is a close up in
which the womans face is cropped from the picture and the camera lingers on her
breasts. At this point, Riveras face is hidden in the shadows while the womans
breasts are highlighted with a spotlight. Then, Kahlo interrupts the foreplay, shouting
Look out Diego, Lupe is coming back!
Fig 3.1 Preparatoria Sequence
41


This scene starts the film off with a bang. According to the biography by
Hererra, Kahlos infatuation with Rivera indeed started while he was painting the
mural at the Preparatoria in 1921-1922. So, in part, Taymor must have chosen to start
with this scene in order to begin her love story chronologically. Yet, to optimize the
filmic format, Taymor condenses a great deal of information, imposing extraneous
details onto a single fictionalized incident. Following is the information provided by
the biography:
A succession of beautiful models accompanied Rivera
on the scaffold. One was his mistress, Lupe Marin (he
married her in 1922). Another model was the well-
known beauty Nahui-Olin, who posed for the figure
representing erotic poetry in the Preparatoria mural and
was a painter herself. Frida liked to hide in the
doorway, and if Lupe was on the scaffold, she would
call out: Hey, Diego, here comes Nahui! Or when no
one was with him and she saw Lupe arriving, she
would whisper loudly, as if Diego were about to be
caught in some compromising situation, Watch out,
Diego, Lupes coming! (Herrera, 31-32)
So, the entire idea that Rivera has sex with a model in the auditorium is a
fiction. It is true that Rivera was reputed to have relations with many women,
including the models that posed for him; however the implication that he had sex with
them in public is Taymors idea. Furthermore, in the biography, Kahlo pretends to
warn Rivera in order to cause conflict between the women. In the film, the warning
is in jest; however Rivera is truly caught in a compromising situation by Kahlo. So,
42


Taymor manipulates the biography in this moment and creates a portrayal that is
more exciting for viewers.
The Gaze
Taymor may use the seduction scene to allude to the fact of Riveras
promiscuity, but it seems evident that she creates this display of sexuality in order to
titillate the audience, and draw them into the narrative. The zoom-in perspective,
which flaunts the sex scene, facilitates this gratuitous function. Presumably the
camera reflects the attention of our protagonist, the young Frida Kahlo. However,
while the point of the scene is presumably to establish the early development of
Kahlos attraction to Rivera, Taymor makes the model the object of desire.
Curiously, the sexuality in this instance seems to be styled in order to appeal to male
desire.
In Ways of Seeing, John Berger explains that the visual arts have inherited this
perspective, termed the male gaze, from traditional European art. Women are
depicted in a way quite different way from men writes Berger, not because the
feminine is different from the masculine-but because the ideal spectator is always
assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him. He
argues that classic oil paintings functioned to affirm the wealth and dominion of
patrons and that the female nude in this tradition was postured submissively to imply
the patrons possession of her body (64).
43


No doubt, Hollywood inherited the tradition of framing sexuality for the
male gaze. We are so accustomed to seeing the female body objectified for the
pleasure of the male viewer that it is easily taken for granted. In the preparatoria
scene, Julie Taymor seems to have assumed the traditional, patriarchal point of view.
Certainly, the model in the scene is sexualized in a way that Rivera is not, and the
woman is portrayed as passive, while the man controls and possesses. These
characteristics do not reflect Kahlos life, or Herreras biography; they are qualities
of Taymors film adaptation.
To be sure, according to the Herrera biography, part of Riveras appeal to
women was that he appreciated their sensitivity and intelligence, claiming to find
women superior to men (86). Yet, Taymors conception of this affair does not
present us with an engaging, intelligent woman. The model in the film is nothing
but a submissive body upon which Rivera directs his sexual will. Especially if we
are to assume that the model represents Nahui-Olin, the painter and rival of Lupe
Marin, her utter passivity in the scene seems unbelievable. As she was a painter, we
might presume that she would be particularly engaged in Riveras work, even while
she posed as a model. It also seems unconvincing that she would sit quietly while
being insulted by Marin.
In her classic essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey
describes how in cinema, the presumed male viewer derives voyeuristic pleasure by
relating with the action of the central male figure, (749). The filmic figure becomes
44


an ego ideal for the male spectator, who regresses to the mirror stage described by
psychoanalyst, Jaques Lacan, and misrecognizes himself in the capable male
protagonist.1 In the preparatoria scene (and in other instances in Taymors
portrayal), Rivera seems to fulfill an ego ideal role for male spectators.
In this instance, Taymor offers the audience the vicarious pleasure of
Riveras domination of the passive feminine body. Mulvey explains that from the
male perspective, the woman as object of the gaze represents a castration threat that
requires for her either to be fetishized or to be exposed as weak and guilty and in
need of rescue or punishment. This way, her image can generate male pleasure,
despite the threat associated with her body. When fetishized, the woman may be
associated with flat space so that she has an iconic status rather than the kind of
agency associated with three-dimensional space (747). Taymor appears to have
formulated the model in the preparatoria scene in the iconic sense that Mulvey
describes, and her role seems primarily aimed at advancing the pleasure of the male
viewer.
The formulation of sexuality as a spectacle framed from a masuclinist
perspective seems particularly unsuited to represent Kahlos early sexual desire for 1 2
1 Jacques Lacan describes the moment in which a child first recognizes her own image in the mirror
as one that is crucial to the construction of the ego. This occurs at a time when the childs physical
ambitions are greater than his motor capacity. According to Lacan, in this moment, the child imagines
the mirror image to be a more perfect self than the body that she experiences (Mulvey, 749).
2 Sigmund Freud determined that womans lack of a phallus represented a threat to the male child
because upon discovering his mothers lack of such he experiences a fear that his own phallus could be
castrated, (Mulvey 746-747).
45


Rivera. In the preparatoria scene, Kahlo is posited as a spectator. Even though she
is the subject of the film, and is actively looking in this instance, what Kahlo sees is
a display of feminine passivity. The idea that she is seduced by this masculinist
sexual display is then implicit in the films narrative. This representation of Kahlo
contradicts the notion of the artist as sexually liberated or advanced and it introduces
the sexual dynamic between Kahlo and Rivera from a relatively conventional point
of view.
Kahlos look in the preparatoria scene may be compared with the look of
women in the film audience. Film theorist Mary Ann Doane speculates the
following regarding the female gaze:
Given the structures of cinematic narrative, the woman who
identifies with a female character must adopt a passive or
masochistic position, while identification with the active hero
necessarily entails an acceptance of what Laura Mulvey refers
to as a certain masculinization of spectatorship. (765)
By positing Kahlo as the spectator in this scene, and insinuating that she is attracted
to Rivera based on his domination of the passive feminine icon, Taymor places
Kahlo in a masochistic position. In terms of women in the film audience, whether a
woman identifies with Kahlo watching from the balcony, the model, or Riverathe
implied source of erotic pleasure is the passive submission of the feminine to the
masculine. So, Taymors representation generally places women in a masochistic
position and subjects all viewers to the masculinization of spectatorship to which
Mulvey and Doane refer.
46


As I have demonstrated, Taymor not only dramatizes the sexuality of the
story to titillate the audience, she inscribes the scene with stereotypes of gender and
sexuality. Taymors presentation of the submission of the feminine to the masculine
in this scene confuses the notion of Kahlo as sexually liberated and it also
contradicts the principals represented in Kahlos art. Especially for viewers who are
not familiar with Frida Kahlo, Taymors manner of representing gender and
sexuality in the preparatoria scene of Frida may be remarkably misleading as a point
of reference from which to consider the artists life and work.
Bisexual Spectacle
As the director uses sexuality as a spectacle to entertain the audience in the
preparatoria scene, so Taymors formulation of Kahlos bisexuality in Frida seems to
be fairly spectacular. The director invents several instances in the film in which Kahlo
has sexual encounters with women. These encounters communicate the notion of the
artist as sexually experimental. However, Kahlos relationships with women are never
shown to be of significance to her. Indeed, Taymor limits Kahlos relationships with
women to physical/sensual encounters and eliminates any intimate or emotional
substance. Furthermore, even when the film refers to the artists bisexual experiences,
the narrative focus remains fixed on Kahlos primary heterosexual relationship. In
effect, Taymors representation of Kahlos bisexuality never threatens the notion of
the artists basic heterosexual identity.
47


The director may have formulated her representation of Kahlos bisexuality in
order to maintain focus on the love story between Kahlo and Rivera. However, the
point of view that Frida presents may have a normalizing effect on Kahlos sexual
identity. Ultimately, the perspective that the director assumed regarding Kahlos
bisexuality simultaneously allows the film to titillate the audience with the spectacle
of lesbian sensuality without threatening the male ego or the heterosexual norm.
In the first lesbian encounter depicted, Taymor stages Frida Kahlo (Salma
Hayek), dancing an erotic Tango with Tina Modotti, played by Ashley Judd. Kahlo
and Modotti did not actually have a sexual relationship or share a sensual dance in
public. So, this is another moment in which Taymor inscribes her own vision onto
Kahlos sexual identity. The director may have invented this scene based on a detail
from Herreras biography of Frida Kahlo. Herrera reports that Kahlo said that she
began to be very interested in Rivera when he shot a phonograph at a party given by
Modotti (87).
In the film, Rivera shoots the phonograph in a fit over a political argument
with David Siquieros, another well-known Mexican artist with whom Rivera was
known to have a political rivalry. Then, to settle the argument, Modotti offers to
dance with whoever can take the biggest drink of tequila. After the two men take a
turn with the bottle, Kahlo, steps in and out drinks them both, winning the dance with
Modotti. The scene is bawdy and cheeky. Kahlos behavior in Taymors scenario is
48


indeed subversive of gender roles. In a social context in which masculinity dominates,
Kahlo assumes masculine authority. She is la gran macha of the scene.
The artists commanding role in the tango scene may appeal to heterosexual
men and women in the audience. Nonetheless, the scene does little to describe
Kahlos bisexual identity. The dance that follows is more of a spectacle than it is a
bisexual encounter. In Taymors production, the two women wear scant, seductive
dresses while they dance in the center of the room, literally in front of an audience at a
party (fig 3.3). Rivera is shown among the spectators and he watches the women
together. When Kahlo finally kisses her partner at the end of the song, Diego and the
rest of the crowd applaud. Then, Kahlo takes a bow.
The scene has little to do with the way the women feel about each other and
much to do with their performance for the crowd. In many ways, Taymors
representation of Kahlo and Modotti dancing is akin to the sort of inauthentic lesbian
performance that one might see in a strip club for men. In fact, Kahlos seduction in
the scene is really aimed at Rivera. The sensual dance provides a lesbian spectacle
for Rivera and for the other guests at the party, and it provides the same spectacle for
the film audience. Mulvey expains that it is a traditional filmic tactic to display
woman as a spectacle in the narrative of a film in order to provide the spectacle for the
(male) audience while maintaining narrative unity, (384). Taymor seems to employ
this tactic during the tango scene by making a spectacle of the sensuality shared by
these women.
49


Fig. 3.2 Tango Sequence
It is worth comparing this depiction of Kahlos bisexuality by Taymor with
the representation of the artists bisexuality presented by Paul Leduc in Naturaleza
Viva. Leduc staged a love scene between Kahlo and a girlfriend that takes place in
the artists kitchen while the two women are cooking and singing and drinking. As
opposed to the scene described in Taymors Frida, in this case, the women are alone
A sense of intimacy builds between them, and then the tension erupts into an
awkward kiss.
50


The domesticity of this scene hints at the feminine stereotype, however in
Leducs portrayal, the representation is not beautified as it is in Taymors film. The
kiss between the women is clumsy and as a spectator one feels intrusive. Leducs
depiction of Kahlos bisexuality seems far more sincere than Taymors. In his
version, sexuality seems to be more an expression of the feelings shared between the
women and less of a spectacle fashioned for the voyeuristic gaze.
Another important distinction between the portrayal by Leduc and Taymor is
that in Naturaleza Viva Kahlos bisexuality has nothing to do with Rivera. On the
other hand, each time that Taymor represents Kahlos bisexuality in Frida, the
director maintains the narrative center on the artists relationship to Rivera. The main
purpose of the tango scene, for example, is to describe the relationship that is
emerging between Kahlo and Rivera. The scenario insinuates Riveras attraction to
Kahlos bold and rebellious nature, and this may reduce the impression made in the
preparatoria scene where Kahlo is attracted by Riveras domination of the passive
feminine icon. Nonetheless, the narrative focus during the tango scene centers on
Kahlos heterosexual relationship. In the subsequent scenes that describe Kahlos
bisexual experiences in Frida, the narrative similarly maintains focus on the artists
relationship to Rivera.
For instance, the second time that Taymor represents a sexual relationship that
Kahlo has had with a woman, the director uses dialog to maintain the films focus on
the artists relationship with Rivera. The scene takes place in an American diner
51


where Kahlo and a lover share breakfast.3 The woman, who was also a lover of
Riveras, says I never thought I would hear myself say this, but... you were better
than your husband. When Kahlo becomes uncomfortable, her lover asks why she
puts up with Riveras affairs. Kahlo says, Look, Diego is how he is, and thats how
I love him. I cannot love him for what hes not. Anyway, my sweet Gracie, I get
along just fine. Then Kahlo reaches under the table and slides a hand up the
womans thigh.
The scene is funny and it is provoking. However, rather than representing a
private, intimate affair, the director assigns this scene the dual objective of describing
Kahlos relationship with Rivera. The womens conversation centers on Rivera and
his infidelity. The dialog during this scene furthermore seems to imply that Kahlos
pursuit of women is in response to Riveras affairs rather than an authentic expression
of sexual desire or emotional intimacy. This is a perspective that is also perpetuated
by Kahlos critics and biographers. Joan Borsa argues that critics and biographers
tend to infer that Kahlos relationships with women were an act of retaliation toward
her unfaithful husband. Borsa argues that Whether sexual, sensual, platonic, etc. ...
accounting for the prominence women played in Kahlos life would help to alleviate
the sensationalized versions of her reliance on her husband, Diego Rivera, (27).
The third and final representation of Kahlos bisexuality takes place in Paris
where the artist has sex with Josephine Baker, the American Jazz singer. Taymor
3 Some critics refer to this character as Grace Jones, but in the films script Taymor wrote (maybe
Georgia OKeefe?) (Sunshine, 90).
52


represents Kahlos Paris experience in a series of visual images using a voice over of
Kahlo reading a letter to Rivera to narrate the sequence. First, we see Kahlo watching
Baker perform. Then Kahlo touches Bakers shoulder in a crowded elevator and the
singer turns to her with a smile. Next, the women are alone in a room. Kahlo lies
naked on the bed while Baker stands before her and slips out of her dress. The body
of the actress that plays Baker is hyper-fit, and, with the camera angled behind Baker,
the audience enjoys the striptease from behind. Then the camera pans to frame the
bed while the women roll around naked together. The relationship between the two
women is entirely physical and the scene is stunningly sexy.
At the conclusion of the Paris sequence, Kahlos voiceover informs Rivera,
Paris has been good to me but without you it means nothing. The conclusion of the
scene dismisses the affair as insignificant and implies that the artist may have initiated
a sexual relationship with Baker because she could not be with Rivera (who had
divorced her to be with another woman). So, this is another instance in which Taymor
creates the impression that the artists bisexual identity was overpowered by her
heterosexual partnership with Rivera. While the directors primary intention may
have been to keep her story line simple, her construction of the artists sexuality is
hetero-centric and may preclude serious consideration of Kahlos bisexual identity.
53


Body Image
As she does in the preparatoria scene, Taymor repeatedly features naked
female bodies throughout Frida. Meanwhile, although he appears in several sex
scenes in the film, Rivera is never undressed before the camera. As I have argued,
Taymor seems to favor the patriarchal point of view by objectifying the female form.
Yet, perhaps another reason that she chooses not to show us a nude Rivera is due to
the characters infamous obesity. The director seems to favor the Hollywood
tradition of presenting viewers with idealized physical bodies. Again, referring to
Lacans analysis of a childs first experience of self-recognition in the mirror, the film
audience may derive visual pleasure by identifying with a more perfect self.
While it may be pleasurable to see idealized physical forms, this way of
representing the body contradicts Kahlos experience of the body as well as
representations of the body in her artwork. Kahlo had polio as a child, leaving one
leg deformed, and then suffered from a tragic accident involving a bus in which she
was pierced from the hip through the vagina. She underwent many operations and
had to wear protective or reconstructive corsets a great deal of the time. She also had
several miscarriages due to her physical condition following the accident, and late in
her life she had to have her foot amputated.
Kahlos body was a major source of suffering and her artwork depicts the
body as imperfect and burdensome, not as a beautified source of erotic pleasure. In a
feminist reading of Frida Kahlos artwork, scholar L. Bakewell addresses the de-
54


erotification of the feminine body in Kahlos work, arguing that, By presenting
blemished, imperfect, bloody bodies, Fridas paintings avert rather than invite the
male gaze (Bakewell, 171). Taymor does address this aspect of Frida Kahlos life
and work. In many scenes of the movie, Kahlos body is being repaired, she has a
limp on and off, and she talks about the troubles that her body gives her.
Taymor also gives attention to some of Kahlos more difficult paintings. The
directors treatment of the painting The Broken Column, for example, seems to retain
the stark quality of Kahlos original work. Taymors rendition of the painting is a 3-
D animation, projecting a fantastic episode onto the artwork. Yet, like the original,
the filmic painting features the artists naked torso while showing her spinal column
crumbling, her body held together by a brace, her flesh pierced with nails, and tears
streaming from her eyes (Fig. 3.4). In this example, in the film as in the painting, the
body is rather uncomfortable to look upon because it is tormented and decrepit.
Fig. 3.3 The Broken Column, 1944
55


However, when we see Kahlos body in sex scenes in Frida, the
representations conform to idealized notions of beauty. The scene in which Taymor
depicts the first sexual experience between Kahlo and Rivera offers a telling example.
As they begin to make love, Kahlo tells Rivera that she has a scar. He asks to see it.
Then, Rivera strips her to her underwear to inspect the scar, which is a single mark on
an otherwise idyllic body. As he does so, the camera frames the actresss lower back.
Then the camera cuts to a frontal view, cropping Kahlos body at the shoulders and
pubic area, thus focusing on her bare stomach as Rivera kisses the scar.
Fig 3.4 Scar Sequence
56


Riveras kiss allows Kahlo to feel more comfortable with her imperfection
and this may be a moment that surpasses basic Hollywood notions of sexuality. Yet,
the image of the scar hardly averts the gaze. Like the other representations of
sexuality in the film, the scene is styled to be a source of visual pleasure for the
viewer. The severity of Kahlos injuries is largely understated in the portrayal.
In an article called, Erasing Queemess/Constraining Disability: Filmic
Representations of Queers with Disabilities, Shoshana Magnet assesses the
construction of Frida Kahlo as a disabled bisexual in Taymors Frida. She argues
that the film essentially erases the effects of Kahlos multiple disabilities as well as
her identity as queer. Magnet claims that when Kahlos sexuality is depicted in the
film, she is also shown as able bodied, (4). Certainly, this is the case in the love
scene between Kahlo and Rivera during which the scar is the only suggestion of
Kahlos physical complications.
Magnet argues further that the artists queer and disabled identities never
intersect in the film, (2) It is indeed the case that Kahlo performs her sensual tango
with Modotti in the film with no sign of the leg that was withered by polio or the
many complications brought about by the accident. Nor is the artists disabled
identity apparent in the subsequent scenes that depict her bisexuality. The sex scene
with Baker may offer a most striking example since the scene takes place toward the
end of Kahlos life when her physical conditions had worsened. Throughout this
rather graphic love scene, Kahlo does not appear to be disabled in any way.
57


As Magnets argument suggests, Taymors representation does not seem to
accommodate for Kahlo as simultaneously physically disabled and sensual or
physically disabled and queer. The directors presentation of The Broken Column
may provide the most authentic and complex representation of the body in Frida.
Describing Kahlos presentation of self in The Broken Column, Lindaur argues that,
Her apparently indifferent gaze also accommodates voyeuristic pleasure, for, in a
discomfiting juxtaposition, Kahlos tortured body also is erotic, (59). Taymors
animation of this painting is one case in which Kahlos body is depicted as both
disabled and erotic in the film.
Conclusion
Though Frida Kahlo is reputed to have been subverted sexual roles in her life
and art, Taymors representation of Kahlos sexuality in Frida posits the artists
sexual identity from a relatively traditional point of view. When she describes
encounters that challenge traditional values, the director nonetheless frames sexuality
largely from a patriarchal and heterosexual point of view. She also presents viewers
with fairly stereotypic images of the body despite Kahlos perilous experience of the
body and the challenging representation of body in the artists work. Taymors
representation of Kahlos sexuality in Frida seems most inclined to provide viewers
with traditional voyeuristic pleasures. The directors point of view thus compromises
the subversive qualities of Kahlos life and art.
58


CHAPTER 4
POPULAR APPEAL
Introduction
In chapter four of my critical analysis of Julie Taymors representation of
Frida Kahlo in the film Frida, I will give further consideration to characteristics of
the film which contribute to its broad popular appeal. In the second chapter, I
discussed the narrative framework that the director uses to tell Kahlos life story and
argued that framing the artists life story as a love story normalizes Kahlos life and
art. In the third, I analyzed the directors spectacular representations of sex and body
in the film and described how this quality diverges from Kahlos biography and
contradicts the subversive ideologies presented in the artists body of work. These
aspects of Frida introduce some of the normative qualities of the film.
Next, I will discuss the directors representation of Frida Kahlo as a popular
celebrity as well as her romanticized representation of the artists native country,
Mexico. Taymor seems to use specific Hollywood filmic strategies to create a story
about the artists life which appeals broadly to a popular audience. In this chapter, I
will compare Taymors biopic with the Hollywood model and I will explore the
affects of normalizing Frida Kahlos biography from a Euro-Amercian point of view.
59


The Popular Celebrity of Frida Kahlo
To begin, Julie Taymors representation of Frida Kahlo depicts an artist who
is significantly more agreeable than the person that one might encounter amidst broad
research about the artist. Of course, it is impossible for a director to include every
detail of a persons life in a biopic film. Yet, it seems significant that the film
excludes details about Kahlo that complicate the general impression of the artist as a
popular celebrity.
In Bio/Pics, George F. Custen argues that in the Hollywood biopic, lives of
famous people are made to fit within particular contours (4). To support his claim,
Custen offers the example of the representation of Cole Porter in the film Night and
Day. The director of this film changes the fact that Porter was gay, positing, rather
that he married an older woman out of convenience. Custen argues that the biopic
about Porter, in effect, normalizes the heterosexual marriage and inhibits the concept
of an alternative lifestyle in the public eye, (17).
In certain respects, Taymor seems to employ the Hollywood model,
constructing Kahlo as a popular persona. I have already discussed the normalizing
affect of Taymors narrative emphasis on Kahlos primary heterosexual relationship.
This is one aspect of Taymors representation which likens the film to the Hollywood
biopic. Though it is bolder than Porters Night and Day in that the film shows
Kahlos physical relationships with women, Frida does not recognize the significance
of Kahlos relationships with persons of the same sex.
60


Another notable edition that Taymor makes to Kahlos biography is her
exclusion of Kahlos racially prejudiced points of view. Hayden Herrera includes a
letter in her biography of Frida Kahlo that the artist wrote while she was living in the
United States with Rivera. In it, Kahlo writes, I dont particularly like the gringo
people. They are all boring and they all have faces like unbaked rolls (especially the
old women), (119). This letter reveals a rather prejudiced point of view by Kahlo in
regard to Euro-Americans.
In Frida, Taymor references Kahlos more general criticisms of the North
American Capitalist system, but she does not include any such degrading comments
regarding North American people. This detail is not essential to the filmic narrative,
and notably, this is an attitude which might repel the films North American audience.
Therefore, this editorial choice has a substantial affect on the films appeal to a broad
popular audience.
Another edition that Taymor makes to Kahlos life story is the erasure of
Kahlos duplicity. For example, the director does not address the fact in the film that
Kahlos political alliance changed from Trotskyism to Stalinism. Taymor
acknowledges this decision in an interview with the American Film Institute saying
that this was too much information to address in a 2 hour film (Q & A with Julie
Taymor). The decision to exclude this information simplifies the filmic narrative and
in doing so, it affects the audiences perception of Kahlos life. The artist comes
61


I
across as a more consistent and reliable character than she seems to be in more
thorough biographies.
In fact, in The Trouble with Frida Kahlo, Stephanie Mencimer writes that
after Trotsky was assassinated, Kahlo turned on her old lover. She reports that Kahlo
bad-mouthed Trotsky in an interview. He irritated me from the time that he arrived
with his pretentiousness, his pedantry because he though he was a big deal.
(Mencimer, 8). The idea that Kahlo verbally berated Trotsky after his death
drastically changes the filmic portrayal of this relationship.
The relationship between Kahlo and Trotsky is essential to the plot of Kahlos
life as it is laid out by Julie Taymor in Frida. In the filmic narrative, Kahlo and
Rivera host Trotsky while he is in political exile from Russia. Although his politics
are not well articulated in the film, the general perception that Taymor creates is that
Trotsky is admired by Rivera and Kahlo. During his stay in her house, Kahlo and
Trotsky develop an intimate relationship which the director takes great care to
describe as one which is inspired by mutual respect.
The idea that Kahlo not only changed her alliance to Trotskys political
ideology, but that she became critical of Trotsky on a personal level after his death
seriously compromises Taymors representation of the artist. This information
complicates the pleasant impression that the film creates of the relationship and it
implicates a certain level of hypocrisy on Kahlos part. By excluding information
62


which complicates the plot of the film, Taymor creates an improved representation of
Frida Kahlo.
Mencimer argues that the smartening of Kahlos image is part of the problem
with representations of Frida Kahlo. Because it seems a woman must become a
saint to gain admittance to the Met, there is a great tendency by Kahlo's marketers to
overlook the less appealing part of her biography. Mencimer posits that polishing
Fridas image reveals a lack of confidence in her artwork. She argues that no such
posture defends the image of well-known male artists, (9 of 10).
While women might celebrate Kahlo's success, writes Mencimer, it may be
that real progress has come when a woman can be remembered both as a great artist
and as a despicable cur, (as Frida was called by her countrymen, Nobel laureate,
Octavio Paz). Mencimer is in favor of revealing the dark side of Kahlos narrative,
arguing that otherwise the public is deprived of a full understanding of her work. (10
of 10). Indeed, Taymors filmic representation of the artist seems to deprive the
public of a broader point of view from which to consider Kahlos work.
Happy Ending
The ending of Frida is another point in which the director seems to
manipulate the content of Kahlos biography to popularize her filmic vision. Taymor
inscribes Kahlos life story with a fictional happy ending. The director uses a
montage sequence to represent the final period of the artists life. Beginning when
63


the couple re-marries, Taymor condenses 10 years of the relationship into a few
minutes of film. The sequence begins with the couple floating on a marimba while a
musical ensemble floats by playing the song, Viva la Vida.
The title of the music is borrowed from the last painting that Kahlo produced
and it translates to English, live life. Kahlos original painting, Viva la Vida, (Fig.
4.1), provides an interesting comparison to the conclusion of Taymors film. Kahlo
produced this painting in 1954, the final year of her life. Like Taymors biopic about
Frida Kahlo, the title of the painting seems to assert the artists triumph over
suffering. Yet, in reality, the painting is poorly crafted relative to Kahlos previous
work, and the image lacks the critical engagement that sparks her early paintings. In
a sense, Kahlos Viva la Vida evokes a sense of the artists failing competence in the
final period of her life.
Fig. 4.1 Viva la Vida, 1954
64


In the filmic conclusion, Taymor references a degree of dysfunction. For
example, she includes an instance when Kahlo has a fit of anger and Rivera storms
off, and she includes images in which the artist is confined to her bed and addicted to
morphine. However, Taymors representation severely understates the problems that
Kahlo and Rivera faced during their second marriage. Herrera reports several details
in her biography of Frida Kahlo which Taymor omits from her conclusion to the film.
Herrera claims that the relationship between Rivera and Kahlo was erratic
after they re-married and that both Kahlo and Rivera continued to have extra-marital
affairs (422). In fact, she writes that Kahlo attempted to commit suicide near the end
of her life and suggests that the reason for the attempted suicide was related to the
woman staying in Riveras studio at the time, (Emma Hurtado, who became Riveras
fourth wife after Kahlo died), (417-418).
Taymors representation of the relationship during this period is far more
optimistic than the biographical account by Herrera, which the director used to inform
her production. Again, the director was limited to 2 hours of film, and so she could
not provide viewers with every detail. Yet, the impression that she creates is that the
couple lives happily ever after. In Taymors love story, Kahlo and Rivera appear to
have overcome their problems, but in reality they did not.
65


The Hollywood Model
It is useful at this point, to consider the Hollywood filmic model. In The
Classic Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960, Bordwell,
Staiger and Thomas define the terms of Classic Hollywood filmmaking:
1) The story is mainly set in a present, external world and
is largely seen from outside the action, although point-of-view
shots, memories, fantasies, dreams, or other mental states
are sometimes included.
2) The film focuses on one character or a few distinct individuals.
3) The main characters have a goal or a few goals.
4) In trying to attain their goals, the main characters must confront
antagonists or a series of problems.
5) The film has closurea sense of resolution or completion
at the end of a narrativeand often the main characters succeed
in reaching their goals (happy endings).
6) The emphasis is on clear causes and effects of actions;
what events happen and why are clear and unambiguous.
7) The film uses unobtrusive filmmaking techniques.
(Phillips, 224)
In many ways, Taymors narrative seems to be cast within the Hollywood
scheme. The story is mainly set in a present external world, with supplementary
point-of-view shots and fantasies. Also, as I argued in the first chapter, Kahlos life is
simplified to a love story in Frida and the goals and obstacles that she faces relate to
the trials of her relationship with Rivera. Furthermore, Taymor emphasizes clear
causes and effects by relating Kahlos paintings directly to her experiences with
Rivera. Then, the story ends happily when the couple overcomes all obstacles to
66


share their final years together. In these ways, Taymors account of Kahlos life
seems to be tailored to suit Hollywood conventions.1
The Dream
Taymors reinvention of Kahlos painting The Dream, which the director uses
to mark the event of the artists death, further heightens the appeal of the film to a
popular audience. In the original work, Kahlo figures herself lying in her bed, which
is floating among the clouds (Fig. 4.2). Vines grow over the bed and engulf the
sleeping figure. A Judas skeleton lies on the canopy above the bed.1 2 The skeletons
head rests on a pair of pillows that mimic the pillows on which Kahlo rests her head
below. In the skeletons hands, the artist paints a spread of flowers, and entangling
the skeletons legs, she paints a string of fireworks.
1 Taymors work departs from the Hollywood model in other respects. For example the director
challenges the conventional use of unobtrusive film-making techniques. Taymors visual
experimentation is complimentary to Kahlos creative work is precisely that which distinguishes
the film as a work of art.
2Ellen McCracken notes that paper-mache figures of Judas skeletons are part of the celebration of Holy
Week in Mexico and that they are set on fire as part of the festivities. She records that Kahlo indeed
kept a Judas figure mounted above her bed, (251).
67


Fig. 4.2 The Dream, 1940
Taymor creates a 3-Dimensional representation of this work in Frida,
animating the bed as it floats among the clouds and then sparking the fireworks and
showing the bed being consumed by flames (4.3). Most significantly, in contrast to
the original painting in which Kahlos face is stoic, in Taymors simulation, Kahlo
(Salma Hayek) has a smile on her face. The director notes that she added the smile to
insinuate that the painter had a joyful exit from life, (252, McCracken). Then, in
conclusion to the film, the director freezes the image of Kahlo smiling on her death
bed as the credits roll. Meanwhile, the credits are narrated by the lyrics of a song that
Taymor wrote: Woman so weary spread your unbroken wings/ Fly free as the
swallow sings ....
68


Fig. 4.3 The Dream, (from Frida, 2002)
Taymors representation of the painting seems to alter the ideas in the original
work. In Kahlos painting, the vines that grow over the sleeping figure suggest the
inevitability of death and describe the experience as a natural part of the life cycle.
Yet, the Judas skeleton strung with fireworks seems to present an unnatural threat. In
the filmic version, Kahlos death is literal. The threat of the fireworks which entangle
the skeleton has been realized, and as the artist faces her death, she appears happy.
The words to the song and the image of the artist smiling in the face of death
emphasize the notion that Kahlos death released her from suffering.
Taymors recreation of The Dream seems to give viewers a sense of triumph
by asserting Kahlos life over her death. The filmic narrative strays from Kahlos art
and from her biography seemingly to provide a pleasing resolution to the filmic
narrative. The final scene in the film is exemplary of how the director adapts Kahlos
biography to provide a popular audience with a satisfying filmic experience.
69


Melodrama
Ultimately, Taymors representation of Kahlo evokes a sense of melodrama.
Film scholar, Linda Williams, makes a thorough study of melodrama in a book called,
Playing the Race Card. If emotional and moral registers are sounded, writes
Williams, if a work invites us to feel sympathy for the virtues of beset victims, if the
narrative trajectory is ultimately concerned with a retrieval and staging of virtue
through adversity and suffering, then the operative mode is melodrama, (15).
Taymors adaptation of Kahlos biography seems to exemplify the melodramatic
qualities discussed by Williams.
In Frida, the challenges facing Kahlo are those of physical disability and the
suffering caused by a tumultuous relationship. The fact that the director excludes
compromising elements of Kahlos biographysuch as examples of the artists racist
sentiments or of her duplicitymay heighten the audiences sense of empathy for the
struggles of the main character. Then, the films ending valorizes Kahlo as a figure
who prevailed over suffering. Thus, Taymor seems to create a melodrama of Kahlos
biography. The melodramatic qualities of the film, which create a heroic impression
of Frida Kahlo, increase the characters appeal to a popular audience.
70


Cinematic Other
Another important aspect of Frida which contributes to the films popular
appeal is Taymors representation Mexico. Taymor is not from Mexico, so
inevitably, she creates a filmic representation of Kahlo which articulates difference.
The most obvious indication of difference in the film is language: Frida is made in
English, whereas Kahlos native language was Spanish.
The director explained simply in her interview with the American Film
Institute that she doesnt speak Spanish. She stated that for this reason, it was
important to her that many members of the cast and crew were Mexican. Taymor
specifically said that she didnt want to make a gringo production of Frida, (Q &A
with Frida Kahlo). So, the director attempted to balance the affects of directing a
film which represents the life of a character from a different country and culture.
Nonetheless, Mexican critics were skeptical about the film. John Hecht wrote
in the Hollywood Reporter that Frida received mixed reviews following a private
screening for Mexican Media. Apparently many among the audience felt that the
story of Frida and Diego was trivialized by the Hollywood rendition. The most
common criticism was that the film was not made in Frida and Diegos native
language, (1 of 2). Taymor responded to the criticism saying: It is sad to see how
much emphasis there is on separation. ... This is a story about an artist whose
language is imagery, and I hope that this film brings people together, (ibid).
71


While the director may identify with the character as a visual artist, inevitably
the film creates an experience of Kahlos culture. In fact, film scholar Ana M. Lopez
calls Hollywood an ethnographer of the Americas, arguing that the American film
industry has a powerful hand in creating public notions of ethnicity.
Thinking of Hollywood as ethnographer, as co-producer in
power of cultural texts, allows us to reformulate its relationship to
ethnicity, writes Lopez. Hollywood does not represent ethnics and
minorities: it creates them and provides its audience with an
experience of them, (68).
Lopezs argument suggests that Taymors biopic about Kahlo provides the film
audience with a contrived experience of the artists ethnicity and that the experience
affects public notions in regard to Mexicanidad.
In fact, Taymors composition of Mexico seems to be created to appeal to a
broad public audience. Significantly, the directors comment that she hopes that the
film brings people together seems to indicate a desire on her part to tell an optimistic
story about Kahlo and about Mexico. Like the concept of an improved representation
of Frida Kahlo, Taymor seems to provide viewers with the experience of an improved
Mexico.
In an essay called Hybridity & Supra-Ethnicity in Plastic & Filmic
Representation: Frida Kahlos Art & Julie Taymors Frida," film scholar Ellen
McCracken argues that Taymors representation of Frida Kahlo is shaped by
contemporary preoccupations. Throughout Frida, McCracken posits, the director
72


strategically copies, alters and amplifies Kahlos visual referents to indigenous
Mexican culture, reconstructing the past as a pleasurable experience.
As an example, the writer refers to the scene in the film in which Kahlo paints
The Broken Column (Fig. 4.4). Here, the artist paints a nude portrait of herself
wearing the brace that is figured in the painting. In the film, Kahlo has a red reboso
(scarf) draped over her shoulders which does not appear in the painting. The reboso
covers the artists body, but it seems to function duly as a signifier of Kahlos
ethnicity in this scene.
Fig. 4.4 Painting the Broken Column (from Frida, 2002)
Another example of the directors representation of supra-ethnicity in Frida,
is the scene in which Kahlo and Rivera take Trotsky and his wife, and Andre Breton
to visit the pyramids of Teotihuacan. There, Kahlo and Trotsky climb to the top of a
pyramid where they speak intimately while the audience enjoys the nostalgic
representation of Mexicos ancient culture. As McCrackens argument suggests, this
scene seems to amplify the pyramids as a visual referent to indigenous Mexican
73


culture, reconstructing the past as a pleasurable experience for the contemporary
audience.
McCracken compares Taymors amplification of the artists ethnicity in the
film to the relationship with Kahlos ethnicity by the French art establishment when
the artist first showed her work in Paris in 1939. She recalls that Kahlo was invited to
participate in the exposition Mexique which was organized by Andre Breton and
Marcel Duchamp. Following the exhibit, the Louvre purchased, Fridas Kahlos 1938
Self Portrait, The Frame the first painting in its collection by a Latin American
artist. McCracken writes that this particular portrait is overwhelmed by abundant
colorful ethnic motives and that Frida was disappointed that the French were not
interested in her more complex paintings.
Just as the painting represents an exotic image of Mexico that the art
establishment in France desired in 1939, the supra-ethnicity in
Taymors film speaks to American audiences need in 2002 for
cheerful, colorful, exotic, and nostalgic images of Mexico, perhaps to
counteract the threatening images of third world othersimmigrants,
terrorists, Latino gangsthat so pervade our news media, (256).
In essence, Taymors representation of Mexico in Frida is like the
representation of Kahlos dress in the Euro-American fashion industry. Venerated for
its exotic beauty and stripped of cultural and historical complexities, Mexico, like
Kahlos dress, is reduced to a fetish for Euro-American consumers. Thus, Taymors
film contributes to the normalization of Mexican culture from a Euro-American point
of view.
74


Conclusion
In this chapter, I have analyzed characteristics of Julie Taymors Frida which
contribute to the films popular appeal. Though in certain aspects, Taymor expands
the Hollywood tradition, I have demonstrated many ways in which the director seems
to employ the Hollywood model. In formulating her biopic based on traditional
notions, Taymor constructs a representation of Frida Kahlo and of Mexico that
appeals broadly to a Euro-American audience. In effect, Taymor portrays the artist as
a popular celebrity and she creates a fetish of Mexican ethnicity.
Because the film is postured to appeal broadly to a popular audience, Frida
seems to inhibit a complex understanding of the artist and her culture. Yet, the film
may inspire viewers to undertake a more thorough study of Kahlo and her work. In
her critical writing about Kahlo and her art, Joan Borsa emphasizes the importance of
considering Kahlos paintings and the accounts that she herself authored.
This seems particularly important in light of the variety of the material
that now describes and interprets Kahlos production, especially the
proliferation over the past year that indicates Frida and her art are
increasingly being promoted as cultural fetishes, exotic symbols
appropriated by fashion magazines, major art exhibitions, book covers,
etc. to signify Latin American (Mexican) culture and otherness, (28).
As Borsas statement suggests, in the end, only Kahlos first-hand accounts are an
accurate representation of the artist and her work.
75


CHAPTER 5
CONCLUSION
In this thesis, I have analyzed Julie Taymors representation of Frida Kahlo in
the biopic film Frida, (2002). Using a contemporary feminist and postcolonial lens, I
have argued that Taymors biopic about Kahlo normalizes the artists biography to
appeal broadly to a popular audience and thus minimizes the subversive quality of her
work. Having encountered Frida Kahlo in my studies in Visual Art and in Spanish
language, I held high expectations when I first viewed Frida. In 2002,1 expected to
see an empowering and enlightening vision of Kahlo, especially by a woman and by a
talented and artful director like Julie Taymor. From the opening scene, I was shocked
and disappointed by the films normative qualities.
Because I had a broader experience of Frida Kahlo and of her art before
viewing the film, I was struck immediately by the particular manner in which Taymor
manipulates Kahlos biography. Like the rest of the audience, I was captivated by the
directors experimental visual style and by her seamless craftsmanship. Yet, I was
constantly frustrated at the points in the film during which the director minimizes the
powerful subversive qualities of Kahlos life and art.
Using what I have learned about Kahlos life and art, I have tried to reveal the
specific ways that the director manipulates and distorts the artists image. I
considered the films narrative framework, its use of sex as spectacle, and its
76


formulation for a popular audience. I hope that my critical analysis of Julie Taymors
representation of Frida Kahlo in Frida exposes the normalizing discourses that the
Hollywood film industry perpetuates and recovers the social and political engagement
of Kahlos art.
77


BIBLIOGRAPHY
Baddeley, O. Her Dress Hangs Here; De-frocking the Kahlo Cult.
The Oxford Art Journal 14.1 (1991): 10-17.
Bakewell, L. Frida Kahlo: A Contemporary Feminist Reading.
Frontiers A Journal of Womens Studies 13.3 (1993): 165-89.
Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical
Reproduction, Illuminations. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.,
1955. 219-253.
Berger, John. Wavs of Seeing. Great Britain: British Broadcasting Corporation
and Penguin Books, 1972.
Blumenthal, Eileen and Julie Taymor. Julie Tavmor Playing with Fire:
Theater. Opera Film. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1995.
Borsa, Joan. Frida Kahlo: Marginalization and the Critical
Female Subject. Third Text 13 (1991): 21-40.
Calvo, Dana. Feeling Fridas Pain. Los Angeles Times. 15 July 2001.
http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/mexico/frida-film.htm
Custen,George F. Bio/Pics. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992.
Doane, Mary Ann. Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator.
Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Gerald Mast,
Marshall Cohen, Leo Braudy. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1992. 758-772.
Franco, Jean. Plotting Women: Gender and Representation in Mexico.
New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.
78


Frida. Dir. Julie Taymor. Perf. Salma Hayek, Alfred Molina, Mia Maestro,
Valeria Molino, Ashley Judd, Roger Rees, Edgard Norton, Geoffrey Rush,
Diego Luna, Antonio Banderez. Miramax, 2002.
Frida: Naturaleza Viva. Dir. Paul Leduc. Perf. Ofelia Medina, Juan Jose Gurrola,
Salvador Sanchez, Max Kerlow, Claudio Brook.
Madera CineVideo, 1992.
Garcia, Maria. (2002). Portrait of Frida: Julie Taymor Captures Legendary
Mexican Artist. Film Journal International. 105.10 (2002) 14-15.
Hecht, John. (2002). Mexican Critics Cool to Frida, Hollywood Reporter.
376.2 (2002) 3-5.
Herrera, Hayden. Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo. New York:
Harper & Row, Publishers, 1983.
Kahlo, Frida. The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait. Mexico D.F.:
Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers in association with La Vaca Independiente
S.AdeC.V. 1995.
Kahlo, Frida. The Letters of Frida Kahlo: Cartas Aspasionadas. Compiled by
Martha Zamora. Trans. Jorge Gonzalez Casanova with assistance
by Daniela Garaiz. S.F. California: Chronicle Books.
Lopez, Ana M. Are all Latins from Manhattan? Hollywood, Ethnography
and Cultural Colonialism. Mediating Two Worlds: Cinematic Encounters
in the Americas. London: British Film Institute. 1993. 67-80.
Lindaur, Margaret A. Devouring Frida: The Art History and Popular Celebrity
of Frida Kahlo. New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1999.
Magnet, Shoshana. (2005). Erasing Queemess/Constraining Disability:
Filmic Representations of Queers with Disabilities and Frida
and Double the Trouble, Twice the Fun. Canadian Woman Studies 24.2-3
(2005): 171-176.
McCracken, Ellen. Hybridity & Supra-Ethnicity in Plastic & Filmic Representation:
Frida Kahlos Art & Julie Taymors Frida. Interdisciplinary Journal
for Germanic Linguistics & Semiotic Analysis. 8.2 (2003): 243-259.
79


Mencimer, Stephanie. The Trouble with Frida Kahlo. Washington Monthly
34.6 (2002): 26-33.
Mulvey, Laura. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Film Theory and Criticism:
Introductory Readings. Eds. Gerald Mast, Marshall Cohen, Leo Braudy. 4th
ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. 746-757.
Nochlin, L. Why Are There no Great Women Artists? Women. Art & Power.
New York: (publisher), 1991. 145- 178.
Phillips, Williams H. Film: An Introduction. 2nd Ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins,
2002.
Paz, Octavio. El Laberinto De La Soledad. Mexico: Fondo De Cultura Economica,
1959.
Q & A with Julie Taymor. American Film Institute. Moderated by Dezso Magyar,
2002.
Williams, Linda. Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White
from Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson. Princeton: Princeton University Press,
(2001).
80