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The enduring popularity of artist Frida Kahlo is perhaps unmatched by only the most well-known artists in the western world: Van Gogh, Picasso, Dalí.
Celebrations of Kahlo’s life and the legacy of her artwork happen every year around her birthday – she was born Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón on July 6, 1907, in Coyoacán, Mexico – in locations from Phoenix to Denver to Williston, North Dakota.
In Latino-majority San Antonio, what started as one Kahlo birthday celebration has become two: the Frida Birthday Bash will take place at Brick at Blue Star Arts Complex on Saturday, July 7, from 7-11 p.m., and the third annual Frida Festival San Antonio is set for Saturday and Sunday, July 14-15, from noon-6 p.m. at the Wonderland of the Americas Mall.
The original birthday celebration, Frida Siempre: Presenté, almost immediately outgrew its location at Brick, overrun by enthusiastic fans. In its second year, the festival moved to the mall location to accommodate the estimated 8,000 Frida fans looking for handcrafted merchandise, replicas, and souvenirs featuring the artist’s famous self-portraits, and renderings of her by other artists and photographers.
The event at Brick is only a sneak peek of the full array of what 75 local and regional vendors will offer the following weekend, and is intended as a smaller, lower-key event meant primarily to thank Kahlo for her inspiration, said Fred Garza, co-chair of Frida Festival San Antonio 2018 along with Janie McClinchie, Que Retro Arts owner.
Garza said they work directly with the Frida Kahlo Corporation, partly owned by the Kahlo family, “to create an event that is a 100 percent, one-of-a-kind festival of work and art,” specifying that everything on offer is handmade.
Kahlo’s popularity is due, in part, to what she had to overcome to not just make her art, but to survive. At age 6, she was diagnosed with polio, and in a traffic accident at age 18, she suffered a broken spine and pelvis, and was impaled in the abdomen by a trolleycar handrail. She eventually suffered partial amputation of her right leg and at least two miscarriages.
As a self-described Chicana feminist and unmarried mother, San Antonio performance artist and writer Marisela Barrera said she admires Kahlo for her “brave, phenomenal” artwork.
“I respect how she maneuvered her life, and her love, and her art, in her own terms,” Barrera said.
Kahlo faced “a lot of oppression,” Barrera said, “not only physically and health-wise, but also marriage-wise. Through that, her art persevered.”
During recovery from the traffic accident, Kahlo took up painting, which eventually led her to Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, a dominating male force whom she married in 1929. While both had numerous affairs, they stayed married for 10 years, finally divorcing in 1939 only to remarry one year later.
Throughout, Kahlo documented her loneliness and pain, and the strangeness of her damaged body, even as she continued her political activity, teaching, and travel. Best known for her self-portraits, Kahlo unflinchingly detailed her unibrow and mustache, features rarely seen in depictions of femininity.
For a 1993 major exhibition of Kahlo’s work at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Curator Janet Landay said, “Kahlo made personal women’s experiences serious subjects for art, but because of their intense emotional content, her paintings transcend gender boundaries.”
Because Kahlo’s image is so widely known, Frida Fests often feature hundreds of lookalikes dressed in her signature Tehuana costume. A lookalike contest during a 2017 exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art was reputed to set a world record with an estimated 1,100 participants, all sporting four main Kahlo-esque features: a red or pink shawl, knee-length floral dress, minimum three flowers in the hair, and the famous unibrow.
For fans who wish to satisfy cravings for seeing actual Kahlo artworks, the closest are in Austin, in the collection of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.
Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird from 1940, Still Life With Parrot from 1951, and her dual-portrait drawing Diego y Yo from 1930, are infrequently on view, however, in part because they tour widely to other art institutions.
By coincidence, said curator Tracy Bonfitto, the very popular self-portrait will be back on view July 16, having been returned from an exhibition in Milan.
“I am in awe of the continual poignancy and power of both her story and her art,” Bonfitto said, mentioning that when she visited the Milan exhibition of numerous Kahlo paintings, “people were really grativating to our self-portrait in a powerful way.”
When not out on loan, Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird is generally on view at the Ransom Center. The other two works are available for research and viewing by the public by e-mailing or calling the center.