WALTHAM — “All I’ve done is fail,” Frida Kahlo once said, cataloguing what she perceived as a lifetime of shortcomings. Odd words, considering her stature today. Among artists, her name-brand recognition has few rivals — Georgia O’Keeffe? Vincent Van Gogh? — and her stature as a feminist icon whose bold self-portrayals rejected conventional beauty myths feels carved in stone.
That, and the endless stream of exhibitions looking to benefit from that marquee value, can make it hard to grasp how close and constant her struggle for recognition was in her own lifetime. It might surprise that, for all her currency, Kahlo only had two solo exhibitions in her life: One in New York in 1938, and the other in Mexico City in 1953, a year before her death. She couldn’t simply make art — that was a luxury reserved largely for men like her husband Diego Rivera, whose shadow enveloped her almost all her life. No, Kahlo’s project necessarily included the constant making and remaking of something more elemental than her art; simply to be heard, she was perpetually remaking herself.
At the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, “Frida Kahlo: POSE” offers a sharp and revealing view into Kahlo’s lifelong reinventions. The show is presented in five chapters: Posing; Composing; Exposing; Queering; and Self-Fashioning, though they mix and overlap enough that the framework is less structural than suggestive.
It’s hardly the first of its kind, nor the most expansive; the latter distinction likely belongs to the Brooklyn Museum’s 2019 show “Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving,” an exhaustive dive into Kahlo’s self-positioning with ample macabre detail about the accident that almost killed her as a teen (an entire gallery was devoted to the array of medical apparatuses she wore during a life of chronic pain, from body casts and braces to the prosthetic leg she used after one of hers was amputated near the end of her life). While holistic, the show often felt illicit, slipping intimacy for spectacle. For a figure so conscious of her public persona, it seemed almost like a violation. Writing about it at the time, I was put off. “This may be an art exhibition,” I wrote, “but it feels more like a public dissection.”
POSE, meanwhile, is pocket-sized — mostly photographs, family albums and recreations of paintings, it occupies several small, swooping curves of wall in the museum’s back corner — and genuinely intimate. It begins with childhood pictures taken by her father, Guillermo, an accomplished amateur who would photograph her for years, instilling in her a sensitivity to the camera’s power. A set of pictures here by Guillermo, taken when Kahlo was in her early 20s, feels almost like an audition for her life to come: Her frank gaze echoes the hundreds of photos and paintings that followed.
A pair of portraits of Kahlo as a toddler—gleeful, hair in a bow, the pain that would define her still years away—is hung beside some early self-portrait sketching. It suggests the artist saw the two as one, a view that would serve her well. As Rivera’s stature in the United States grew in the 1930s, Kahlo had to take charge of her own image, or an eager press would do it for her.
The show explains that Kahlo got plenty of attention, but often from fashion and women’s magazines in the most patronizing of ways: “Wife of the Master Mural Painter Gleefully Dabbles in Works of Art,” read the headline of one newspaper feature in 1933. Big magazines like Time were worse. An article displayed on the wall here refers to her as “black-browed little Frida,” who “never knew she was a Surrealist until André Breton came to Mexico and told her so.”
Moving back and forth between San Francisco and New York with Rivera, Kahlo struck up friendships with creative people in their orbit. It was the dawn of true mass media, and photography was a powerful, ubiquitous tool. A grid of lush color portraits here by the photographer Nickolas Muray are hyper-real and saturated, which delighted the artist. They’re glowing emblems of Kahlo’s embrace of her Tehuacán heritage, with long, colorful skirts and billowing blouses that she fashioned as her visual trademark for American audiences (“The gringas really like me a lot and take notice of all the dresses and rebozos,” she wrote to her mother in 1930. “(T)heir jaws drop at the sight of my jade necklaces and all the painters want me to pose for them.”) “POSE” makes clear how useful they were: It displays an issue of “Coronet” magazine open to a page with Muray’s portrait of Kahlo swathed in a bright red shawl opposite a picture of the starlet Ginger Rogers in a low-cut dress.
For Kahlo, the camera was as much a tool for her as for the photographer wielding it. She exploited stereotypical notions of the exotic, and the romanticization of art and otherness both. The show includes a 1940 photograph in her studio that Kahlo stage-managed for Bernard Silberstein to suit the image she meant to project: She’s posed as if painting “The Wounded Table,” though she had long since finished it; she’s wearing a lace-fringed rebozo printed with frond and floral motifs. In the painting, Kahlo herself is surrounded by Mexican folkloric figures: a skeleton, a Judas figure, a Nayarit couple and is accompanied by Granizo, her pet fawn. Rivera, identified as a leader of the Mexican socialist-realist movement, had claimed his space; Kahlo, with her canny manipulation of a judgmental, probing press, would make one entirely her own.
The final chapter, “Queering,” uses hindsight to frame a vital part of Kahlo’s public projection of self. With her rejection of mainstream notions of feminine beauty—she famously cultivated a mustache and left her dark eyebrows thick and unplucked, drawing attention to what she described as masculine features—she’s evolved into both a feminist and LGBTQ icon. The show includes a reproduction of “Two Nudes in a Forest,” of two women sharing a tender moment, often cited as the artist’s articulation of a lesbian affair.
Kahlo was indeed famously fluid in self-presentation and sexuality, publicly and privately; the show includes family photographs by her father with Kahlo dressed as a man in a three piece suit and her hair slicked back. It might have been the impetus for “Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair,” 1940, a well-known self-portrait in similar attire, reproduced here.
How much of that was a pointed subversion of what we now call gender norms—a block of wall text here surmises that “in today’s terminology ... Kahlo rejected cisgendered, binary categories”—or a broader rejection in her time of the narrow view of femininity in which she never fit, we can’t know. What I feel confident in thinking is that Kahlo’s performative self served as a shield for an artist wracked by self-doubt; underneath it all was a very human and fragile figure, craving something real.
FRIDA KAHLO: POSE Through Jan. 2, Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, 415 South St., Waltham. 781-736-3434, www.brandeis.edu/rose