By Jan Nielsen
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Becoming Frida Kahlo reveals the extraordinary life of a rebel artist

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This BBC documentary does justice to the life—and influence—of the now iconic artist and communist Frida Kahlo
Issue 2844
A black and white photo shows a line of seven people including Frida Kahlo marching

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera march on Labor Day 1929

Frida Kahlo is one of the most iconic figures of the twentieth century and now one of the most recognisable artists in the world. Whether you know lots or little about her this new three‑part series for BBC Two is a must watch.

Becoming Frida Kahlo includes newly unearthed photographs, rare archive footage and interviews with family members and leading art critics. It explores the political and social influences behind the art of this extraordinary woman.

During her life, she lived in the shadow of her hugely famous husband Diego Rivera. Her New York Times obituary in 1954 read “Frida Kahlo, wife of Diego Rivera the noted artist, was found dead in her home today.”

But she was a groundbreaking artist in her own right, breaking many of the taboos surrounding women’s lives. Her art expressed the emotional and physical pain of miscarriage, abortion, disability, physical pain, betrayal and loss. The surrealist Andre Breton, an intimate friend and ardent supporter, described her work as “a ribbon around a bomb.”

Frida was born at the time of the Mexican revolution—one of the first social upheavals of the twentieth century. It became a beacon across the world and Frida personified many of the new freedoms that had been won.

Bohemians and radicals flocked to Mexico and she both moved in and was influenced by these circles. She identified with the Mexican revolution her whole life.

On her visits to America, she consciously dressed in a traditional Mexican way much to the discomfort of much of the bourgeois establishment. She joined the Communist Party as a young woman under the influence of her Italian friend and lover Tina Modotti.

She also experienced directly the discrimination of the Jim Crow laws and witnessed the beginnings of the Great Depression. She painted and railed against these injustices in a deeply original and startling way.

It’s refreshing to see a programme which does justice to the range of women who influenced and loved her in addition to Modotti. This is in welcome contrast to the usual portrayal of Frida as the subordinate player in her relationship with Rivera.

She was indeed deeply in love with Diego and, as the programme stresses, he too was with her. The programme explores in a nuanced and sympathetic way their brave attempt at an open relationship, and references the often very painful ensuing complications. She was a modern woman who was nobody’s “little wife”—and was candidly honest and outspoken

Becoming Frida Kahlo features many of her of her most famous paintings and analyses them through the prism of her life as a rebellious woman.

For Frida there were few taboos around the female experience she did not challenge. Throughout her life she gave agency to this approach. This programme goes a long way in explaining why a woman of dual heritage, disabled, bisexual, a communist and artist remains so relevant and popular.

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