This is a substantial biography of one of most iconic 20th century artists and a genuine feminist icon. Celia, after all, is an author who knows her stuff, given that she is a Professor on modern American and contemporary art at the University of San Francisco.
Ostensibly, the book focuses on Frida’s visit to the United States where, across three years, she not only established herself as a figure of fascination for the media and those in artistic circles, but during which time she also emerged from the vast shadow cast by her on her own terms as an artist – but also this was a period where the marital strains between these two icons and egos became too much to bear.
“Frida and Diego’s relationship was also buckling, but it wasn’t due to a lack of money or creature comforts. The emotional constraints of living in a foreign country where all eyes were focused on Diego and where Frida had to minor her behaviour and words had taken a toll.”
However, this 450-page biography is so much more as, after all, what is studying Frida without focusing on her formative years and her artistic output as well as her personal life? And Celia does both justice with the first 100 pages dedicated to Frida’s childhood – the influence of her father, her traumatic accident, and her fascination with identity – before moving on to examine how the USA and her time there influenced both her work and her life.
There are some fantastic passages in here; I particularly loved learning more about the friendship between Frida and Georgia O’Keeffe, understanding what art Frida was drawn to – who and what influenced her – and how she found herself in conflict with the Western art world, which was so often racist, sycophantic and false.
“In San Francisco, Frida had posed for Imogen and Edward, looking regal, intelligent, engaged and beautiful, albeit with hints of the “noble savage” in the way she was portrayed by those artists.”
Frida was an undeniably complex woman and Celia captures much of that internal and external conflict here but I respected her reluctance to spend too much gossiping about Frida’s personal life, instead focusing on how any relationship impacted on her art (it’s worth noting that I read this book with a copy of Frida Kahlo: Masterpieces alongside as Celia goes into great detail on the composition of Frida’s works, explaining their messages and the context in which each painting was created and finished).
This is a book that puts Frida the artist front and centre – and it is a most welcome book for doing just that.