I love Frida Kahlo. Artist. Feminist icon. Lover of monkeys and bold fashion.
But I’ll admit that I haven’t always understood her art. I could feel the powerful pull of her paintings, but I didn’t understand them. Why is there so much blood and horror alongside the sublime? I could tell they told a personal story, but I didn’t know hers.
Frida in America: The Creative Awakening of a Great Artist (St. Martin’s Press, 2020) tells that story. University of San Francisco art history professor Celia Stahr follows Frida and her muralist husband, Diego Rivera, through the three years the Mexican couple spent in Gringolandia, focusing on Frida’s development as an artist, particularly in Detroit.
Stahr’s book is an excellent primer on the meaning of Frida’s work. She draws from the artist’s personal papers, as well as the unpublished diaries of Frida’s friends, to show how her experiences in Detroit shaped her as an artist. But Stahr is an art historian writing about Frida through the language of art, not a biographer weaving the story of one of the 20th century’s most enduring artists. Readers wanting to know what Frida and Diego ate and which places they frequented while here will be disappointed — although there are a few gems. Did you know the Fisher Building once featured real banana trees and macaws that visitors could feed?!
Still, it’s exciting to read how Detroit would be critically important for Frida the artist. It was here that she found her mature artistic voice and style. But it was a breakthrough born of tragedy: She miscarried at Henry Ford Hospital on July 4, 1932. “The profound and disturbing nature of the entire experience of her miscarriage, including the time she spent in the hospital, unleashed a torrent of creative energy in Frida,” Stahr writes.
In the end, Frida would produce five iconic works while here in Detroit, including “Henry Ford Hospital (The Flying Bed).” And Stahr’s excavation of their meaning sheds light on both a woman finding her voice and a city in the throes of the Great Depression.