It’s likely that Frida Kahlo’s face is better known than her paintings. Then again, the same could be said of many public figures. Surely more people own some form of paraphernalia with Marilyn Monroe plastered on it than have seen her movies. Images of Ruth Bader Ginsburg are common, but how well known are the cases she argued?
Frida Kahlo, the new documentary from Ali Ray, looks to correct that oversight. In the span of 88 minutes, Kahlo’s story is told cradle-to-grave via a bevy of art historians, gallery curators, archival footage, excerpts from Kahlo’s diary and letters, and her paintings. Naturally, Kahlo’s paintings take center stage. They are discussed in detail, lovingly photographed with curiosity by cinematographers Joshua Csehak and Mario Gallegos, and given an appropriate amount of space for the viewer to digest. It’s like going to the museum and paying extra for the guide.
Produced by Exhibition on Screen, Frida Kahlo is the 24th documentary from the fine arts-focused distributor. Some of the offerings in their catalog cover movements, but most focus on an individual artist: Hieronymus Bosch, David Hockney, Michelangelo, Cézanne, and so on. These docs are made in cooperation with top museums and galleries to present the work in context and are available for streaming or DVD purchase. Sometimes to see great art requires a steep plane ticket. Exhibition on Screen looks to level that obstacle.
That grants art lovers much greater access to study and learn. The only drawback is that Frida Kahlo is information first, aesthetics second. You will learn a ton about Kahlo’s life: From the life-longing injuries sustained from a tram accident when she was young to her on, off, on-again marriage to muralist Diego Rivera. “There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the tram. The other was Diego. Diego was, by far, the worst,” Kahlo writes to a friend.
You will also learn plenty about her paintings, how her style developed over the years, how it was misinterpreted and appropriated by the surrealists—“I have never painted dreams, I only painted my own reality,” Kahlo wrote in another letter—and how modern-day scholars and curators see her work. As one points out, Kahlo painted over 100 pictures in her life, and one-third of them were self-portraits. Elsewhere, another adds that you can see in Kahlo’s paintings, “A desperate need for somebody to love her.”
The talking-head interviews are a nice mix of English and Spanish-speaking experts, and most of them are direct. Frida Kahlo does not wax poetic about its subject, though there are some filmed reenactments of Kahlo. Thankfully they are brief and used primarily as filler. The movie’s focus remains on the work.
Frida Kahlo will open at the Denver Film Center’s virtual theater on Friday, Nov. 27. It is presented in partnership with the Denver Art Museum’s exhibit, “Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism.” As of this writing, DAM is open to the public but under COVID Level Red restrictions. Which makes Denver Film’s release of Frida Kahlo all the better: Whether you don’t want to or can’t go out, you can still spend an hour and a half with these magnificent works of art.
Frida Kahlo (2020)
Directed by Ali Ray
Produced by Phil Grabsky
Exhibition On Screen, Not rated, Running time 88 minutes, Opens at Denver Film’s Virtual Theater Nov. 29.