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New Documentary Features an Unknown Side of Frida

A new documentary simply titled Frida Kahlo features an unknown side of the Mexican artist. Much of the world is familiar with her as a person: her style, her personal life, but not so familiar with her actual works of art. Kahlo is an icon for so many types of people and this film hopes to cultivate awareness of the powerful work she created that was such a huge part of her identity. 

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First and foremost, Frida Kahlo was an incredible artist. Since the ’70s, the world’s appetite for her talent has been unwavering. And yet, many modern admirers are arguably more familiar with her personal style – and her personal life – than her proficiency. Now a new documentary, called simply Frida Kahlo, provides a door into the Mexican painter’s world, and chiefly the powerful works of art she created within it.

“Kahlo has become an icon for so many disparate groups of people, admired for her politics, her approach to disability, gender fluidity, cultural identity and, of course, for her style of dress,” the film’s director Ali Ray tells British Vogue. “We only have to look at the sea of homeware, tote bags and T-shirts with her image on to see how many people want a piece of her – or at least a piece of what she represents to them. I felt that, despite all of this, the majority of her artwork remains relatively unknown. Being an artist was a huge part of Kahlo’s own identity, so although her personal life has been incredibly well-documented, it seemed strange to me that her life as an artist wasn’t. I wanted to address that.” The 90-minute film – now in cinemas – reveals Kahlo in all her guts and glory.

Ray, who spent a year on the film, a collaboration with Exhibition on Screen, read “every single book” about Kahlo that she could find. In a brilliant move, she brings academic and curatorial talent to the screen to share their insights into the artist’s impact, like Gannit Ankori (who helped with the V&A’s most recent exhibition); biographer Hayden Herrera; and Dr Adriana Zavala (an associate professor at Tufts University, who specialises in Latin American art), and the experts’ passion and knowledge for Kahlo is infectious. Members of Kahlo’s own family also feature.

“Filming in Mexico was fantastic,” says Ray, a first time visitor to the country. “I fell in love with the energy, colour and character of the place. Being able to spend time in Kahlo’s [Blue] house where she was born, lived and died, and [that] still has all of her possessions, trinkets, books and clothes was an incredible experience, and really helped me to get a better sense of her.”

The feature film will give even avid Kahlo fans a better sense of her, too. It touches on personal tragedy – how the artist’s life changed forever when she sustained terrible injuries in a traffic accident at the age of 18. Lumped with huge medical bills, she had to let go of her dream of becoming a doctor and give up her studies. You’re reminded of her fearless advocacy for women’s rights, how she defied beauty standards, and the many ways in which she used her decorative prosthetic leg to bring disabilities into the mainstream. Her depictions of miscarriage – a topic that is still frequently shrouded in shame and silence to this day – on canvas and her yearning for a child are also explored in depth.

“Kahlo was a prolific letter writer [many are now in the public domain], which revealed much about her character. The strong, confident, powerful figure that Kahlo is portrayed as publicly seemed to be a bit of a myth once I dug deeper,” says Ray. “She was more interesting than that, by which I mean she was a contradictory woman. Her letters reveal her to be vulnerable, emotionally fragile and also needy, but I liked learning that about her. It made her more real and accessible. None of us are one-dimensional and neither was she … She was an incredibly well-read, bright, politically engaged and academic woman.”

Kahlo’s unique sense of style is still instantly recognisable almost 70 years after her death in 1954. Ray says she learned a lot about how the artist’s dress pivoted to mirror her political mindset. “She began to dress in her familiar Tehuana style outfits in her early twenties, just after marrying [the artist] Diego Riviera,” explains Ray. “Until then she had dressed in a very European style. Her change in style was a political statement that she continued to develop throughout her life.” After the Mexican revolution, her look was greatly influenced by her roots. “For Kahlo, post-revolution cultural life was focused on embracing all things Mexican, and that influenced her to dress in the style of a traditional Tehuana woman, as part of her commitment to reclaiming her Mexican heritage.”

The Mexican artist died long before she became a global icon, but her work and rebellious spirit will continue to captivate generations to come. “Looking at Kahlo’s artwork today seems even more relevant during this time when we are all beginning to realise that sharing our vulnerabilities and our insecurities is okay, [it] reveals we are as real and complex as the next person,” says Ray. “That’s what her art showed us. Struggling with mental health issues, physical disability, trauma, a volatile marriage and alcoholism, Kahlo also lived a fabulously full, fascinating life that was equally full of passion, friendships, international travel, great sex and a fulfilling creative life as an artist. She did this ‘as well as’ experiencing the difficult challenges, not ‘in spite of’ them – there’s a difference.”