In 1932, Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera were dining with other guests at the Detroit home of Henry Ford, the automotive titan and noted antisemite. (The city had commissioned Rivera to paint a series of murals devoted to the theme of modern industry.) During a lull in conversation, with a characteristic mixture of seeming naivete and provocation, Kahlo asked her host, “Mr. Ford, is it true that you are Jewish?”
Kahlo never denied her own Jewish roots, but in most discussions of her life and work they have faded into the background, before the iconic image of la mexicana. By now, everyone is familiar with her — the tiny, dark-haired woman wrapped in hand-woven shawls, long skirts and embroidered blouses, crowned with braids, sporting ornate silver jewelry or pre-Columbian jadebeads and star-ing out at the viewer in photographic portraits by Imogen Cunningham or Manuel Alvarez Bravo with such uncanny intensity. And most people have at least a passing knowledge of her work — the self-portraits, in particular, where the peculiar beauty of her face is accompanied by monkeys, set against wild tropical blossoms or framed with lace a la tehuana.
In fact, if we are to believe the evidence of her own painted genealogy, Kahlo inherited her signature heavy eyebrows from Henriette Kaufmann, her Jewish paternal grandmother, who moved with her husband Jakob (also Jewish) from Hungary to Germany, where their son Wilhelm was born in 1872. When Wilhelm was 19, he immigrated to Mexico, changed his name to Guillermo and eventually married Matilde Calderon, a woman of mixed indigenous and Latina descent. Yet he kept his thick German accent and his fondness for “The Blue Danube,” and when his fourth (and favorite) daughter was born in 1907, he gave her a German name, Frida, and enrolled her in the German school of Mexico City.
A small but resonant show now at New York’s Jewish Museum looks beyond Kahlo’s fervent embrace of mexicanidad (so in keeping with her own and her husband’s political ideals) to the complex strains of identity present in her work — Catholic, pagan, Hindu, cosmopolite — and in particular, her Jewish heritage. “I knew that she knew a lot about art history, Mexico and communism,” said Gannit Ankori, a lecturer in art history at Hebrew University and the exhibition’s curator, who studied the contents of Kahlo’s library in La Casa Azul, the artist’s home and now the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City. “But I wasn’t expecting to find books of Yiddish poetry there, or about hidden Jews persecuted by the Inquisition in Mexico. The Jewish aspect was really a surprise, and it helped me to decipher some of her most cryptic images.”
The show includes reproductions of several Kahlo paintings, but it focuses intently on a single original work: “My Grandparents, My Parents, and I,” a small panel of jewel-like precision, which shows the artist as a naked child, standing in the courtyard of La Casa Azul. She holds a red ribbon linking three couples — her parents (an image based upon their wedding photograph) and her two sets of grandparents, who float in the sky above an imaginary landscape where the Mexican desert meets the sea. A fetal artist-in-embryo hangs from the bow of her mother’s wedding dress; in the desert, a sperm penetrates a giant egg, while a cactus flower offers cross-pollination.
The composition, painted in 1936 — during Germany’s implementation of the Nuremberg racial laws — closely follows the Nazi genealogical charts that by then had made their way into Mexico’s German immigrant community. But Kahlo, an ardent anti-fascist, adapted them to her own purposes. Among the work’s other sources are an obstetrical manual found in her library and a book by the Yiddish poet and Mexican immigrant Isaac Berliner, which Rivera had illustrated.
The painting also stresses Kahlo’s affiliation with her paternal legacy. The child stands firmly on her father’s side, and Kahlo has altered Guillermo’s mother’s features to resemble her own. Guillermo was a photographer, who made his reputation with precise records of Mexico’s architectural heritage. He was also an epileptic, and his daughter, an artist who struggled most of her life with illness, adored him.
The few portraits he took were of family members. Frida was his preferred subject. Among the highlights of the Jewish Museum show are several of these vintage prints: Frida as a chubby 4-year-old holding a bouquet of roses, before her bout with polio at age 6 had withered her leg and altered her psyche; or Frida at 18, looking poised and dramatic in an odd, black satin dress that recalls an ecclesiastical costume, holding a velvet-bound volume and sitting surrounded by plants in the conservatory, just months before the tramway accident that shattered her slender body. His lens was the first to capture the penetrating gaze that would later fascinate the observers of her art.
My own son was born six months ago. His father is an artist and an immigrant. I often wonder about the strange mixture of influences already at work in him; the push-and-pull of this land, this language and that other one. Or rather, those other ones — for in both the immigrant’s story and my own, oceans are crossed and languages switched repeatedly. Kahlo’s painted family tree, with its fragile union of opposites perched between land and sea, proclaims a child’s birthright to be an enduring mystery, a legacy subject to multiple interpretations.