Her only subject matter was herself

    Fashion has inflated her reputation, yet Frida Kahlo had a fierce, at times great talent, says Waldemar Januszczak

    They have done so in a sequence and at a pace that I can describe for you with total confidence, because it happened right under my nose. The discovery, rise, expansion, over-inflation and ruination of Frida Kahlo have coincided neatly with my career as an art critic. I can vividly remember her being invisible on the radar: a complete unknown. I remember, also, the exciting selection of her self-portraits at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1982, which unleashed her on the post-colonial British imagination. I remember, too, the 1983 bio-graphy of her by Hayden Herrera that basically invented her, and which served recently as inspiration for the Salma Hayek biopic that cemented Kahlo’s inclusion in the tiny band of artists Hollywood has heard of and considers worthy of celluloid balderdash. Today, she is nothing less than the most famous woman artist in the world. Under our noses, at alarming speed, Kahlo has enlarged from nothing to everything.

    How she was able to achieve this spectacular transformation is obvious. In the poker game of politically correct contemporary aesthetics, Kahlo constitutes a perfect flush. She is a woman. She is Mexican. She is bisexual. She is disabled. If you put together a com-posite modern artist from the various bits of artist that a modern teaching programme at an American university finds most desirable, you would end up with her. She also scores heavily in assorted subsections of global trendiness. Her love life was exciting: she bedded Trotsky, for heaven’s sake. And that great on-off love affair with the huge, and hugely cruel, Diego Rivera is nothing if not the stuff of a Hollywood biopic. She was obsessed with her clothes. She was obsessed with her roots. And, most enticingly of all, I suggest, she was obsessed with herself.

    Most of the paintings gathered for us by Tate Modern are, inevitably, visions of Frida by Frida. This was a woman who could not resist gazing into the mirror at her own moustache. Kahlo’s fascination with herself is so intense that its energies seem to flow out of her pictures and into us: her self-portraits give us all permission to love ourselves. The sad found solace in her, and the flawed found a friend. Of course she’s popular. Worshipping Frida Kahlo is a round-about way of worshipping yourself.

    Yet Tate Modern, to its credit, I suppose, seems uninterested in any of the psychological aspects of Fridomania that made possible Kahlo’s remarkable storming of the global bedsit. The Tate is on a mission to ignore the babble and look at the pictures. Out of a tiny career corpus of 150 paintings, they have managed to bring 80 or so to London. It’s a thoroughly representative selection that finds itself involved here in the most enormous clash of scales, which commences with two tiny paintings set in a huge white vestibule, like a pair of postage stamps stuck to a large envelope. The one that doesn’t survive this trial by whiteness is called My Grand-parents, My Parents and I (Family Tree), which shows the baby Kahlo and her kin turned into a schematic family shrub growing out of the famous blue house in which they all lived. Painted in a self-consciously naive style that seeks to mimic that unlearnt enthusiasm of Mexican folk art, it doesn’t work because it is too obviously a copy of folk art’s mannerisms. Kahlo is clearly quoting from someone else’s reality.

    The same cannot be said of the second agenda-setter, a thunderously typical self-portrait from 1943, complete with unibrow, sideboards and moustache, in which our fiercely staring heroine inserts a skull in the middle of her forehead, where Cyclops had his eye. This is more like it. The two paintings are billed together as a rumination on mortality, and seek, it says here, to establish the cycle of life and death as Kahlo’s principal theme. But that’s just exhibition talk. Skull in the forehead or not, the brazen Kahlo self-portrait doesn’t feel like a rumination upon mortality: it lacks the requisite fearfulness. What it offers instead is a vivid example of Kahlo’s addiction to mind games. The unwavering stare fixes you. The monobrow and the moustache dare you to disapprove. The entire likeness buttonholes you with its in-your-face hunger for identity. It’s a painting about being Frida Kahlo.

    Her only subject.

    Kahlo was born in Mexico in 1907, though she liked to claim it was 1910. Her father, Wilhelm Kahlo, was one of those ubiquitous German voyagers who managed somehow to infiltrate the whole of Latin America. Her mother, Matilde, was a mestiza from Oaxaca. So everybody in the family shrub was half a somebody at heart. “Who am I?” screams Kahlo’s art, over and over. “Am I Mexican or European? Manly or feminine? Beautiful or hideous? Rivera’s woman or not?” And, of course, there is never an answer.

    According to the Frida legend, she was self-taught and only took up painting while recovering from a gruesome trolley-car accident when she was 18, which broke her spine in three places. Yet the first of her full-on self-portraits, from 1926, the year after her accident, shows no trace of pain, and presents an art-deco Venus with an overlong neck and fingers, and various extra vertebrae added to her height. It is too twee an image to be a good one. But it does make clear how elegant and middle-class Kahlo actually was before she embarked upon her fantastically fruitful pretence at being the complete Mexican.

    She is soon shopping around for styles, as artists starting out invariably do, and alights on Mexican folk art with the thoroughly contrived air of a debutante who has gone for the gypsy look. The most gory of these slumming-it pictures have a room devoted to them, which they don’t deserve. A mad slasher knifes his naked mate so keenly that her blood has splattered out of the picture and onto the frame; a head-on image of Kahlo being born, full-sized and extra-painful, belongs to Madonna. Blood and gore are, of course, totally today, and in the evil twilight of modern movie aesthetics, it is easy to mistake tons of exposed viscera for profundity. But the unfoolable white glare of this Tate examination makes Kahlo’s need to shock appear downright fraudulent.

    The show hesitates for two-thirds of its length. It is an impression heightened by the decision to combine a thematic hang with a chronological one. You never quite know where you are in Kahlo’s development. Exciting pictures pop up among dull ones. One moment she has progressed to sophisticated urban surrealism, the next she’s back to painting pub signs. But the dithering ceases when we finally reach this display’s indisputable and fabulous climax: a parade of full-blown Kahlo self-portraits from her one and only great period: the 1940s.

    It is here that the skull in the forehead belongs, among the assorted self-portraits with monkeys and parrots; and that thrilling image, also owned by Madonna, of Frida with a red ribbon woven into her hair that is curled down to her neck and seems poised to strangle her; and Frida in her wedding dress with Rivera’s portrait branded weirdly on her forehead. In their sheer fierceness, these extraordinary pretend selves are rivalled only by the self-portraits of Van Gogh, who also took up painting while convalescing in hospital, a circumstance that seems to have welded death to life in both their instances. There’s a touch of Rousseau in here as well, in the constant references to paradise and its beasts. But, unlike Rousseau, Kahlo is a descendant of Eve, and her beautiful jungle can never be innocent or unproblematic.

    The 1940s were an unusual time to ascend to such heights. While everywhere else was preoccupied with global events, Kahlo was entirely preoccupied with herself. It led to fantastic art. No question about that. But I’m not sure how forgivable it ultimately is to spend the darkest years of the war celebrating you.

    Having reached its climax, the show follows Kahlo downhill for its final chapter. In constant pain, from both physical injuries and the emotional ones inflicted on her by Rivera, she sought to deaden life’s cruelties with the usual cocktail of drink and drugs, which are artistically survivable, and religion, which isn’t. The final rooms are filled with ghastly new-age twaddle that culminates in an image of Kahlo as the global earth mother, cradling a naked Rivera on her lap as if he were a baby in need of nourishment, a role for which the mountainous Rivera is singularly ill suited.

    Thus, the Tate presents us with pretty much what you’d expect to find in the career of an artist whose reputation has been overinflated as absurdly as Kahlo’s. She is neither as good nor as important as so many imagine her to have been. But let’s not start the inevitable backlash just yet. The one great room in this show is a great room, indeed, and her achievements here do not deserve any underestimation.