Frida in America
Frida in America boils down the life of artist Frida Kahlo to a small chunk of time – 1930 to 1933 – and focuses on her life at the side of husband Diego Rivera, following him from New York to Detroit to San Francisco as he paints murals for rich industrialists, and she develops her own foothold as a surrealist.
Kahlo’s feelings about America had always been ambivalent; while she took American lovers and had American friends (and rich art patrons) she always saw it as a land of greed and prejudice and horrifying levels of class disparity; “gringoland”, filled with white faces, “unbaked rolls.”
The book pulls apart both the strained times in which Kahlo lived. She traversed America during the height of the Depression, saw unimaginable squalor and splendor, experienced racist prejudice and saw the way that the privilege and money her husband accrued sheltered her. She fell in lust with women and men but remained obsessed with Diego always, was friends with the maternal grandparents of the Lindbergh baby and store clerk girls.
Though it’s several grades below Hayden Herrera’s perfect Frida: The Biography of Frida Kahlo, which served as the basis for Salma Hayek’s Oscar-nominated 2002 biopic Frida, Frida in America still does a good job of crystallizing a specific point in time of Kahlo’s life and delivering the details in well-sketched scenes that contextualizes Kahlo’s experiences through those months and years.
The most fascinating fresh tidbits in the book center around Kahlo’s friendships – with other women, with the doctor who would attempt to assist her with the physical problems that plagued her after a bus accident that would define her life, with Georgia O’Keefe, to whom she was attracted but did not consummate that attraction. While the juicier bits – like Kahlo’s bursts of temper, her miscarriage at Henry Ford Hospital, her tempestuous arguments with Rivera – have all already been milled over by many other biographers, Stahr’s ten years of research shows, and she keeps smartly to sources like Kahlo’s letters and the biographies of other artists to show who and what influenced Kahlo’s artistic growth.
And this book is about Kahlo’s art, her ideas, her techniques – in fact it’s one of the finest dives into such territory and it’s beautifully rendered. Stahr does a perfect job carefully explaining how Kahlo navigated her life.
There is some psychological muddling that doesn’t really come off – dives into Kahlo’s psyche only occasionally come off under Stahr’s pen – but there are also moments of great triumph and good use of the material at hand. Frida in America earns a solid recommendation.