Frida, Frida Kahlo, Carla Gutiérrez
Photo courtesy of Sundance

‘Frida’ Documentary Explores Honest Expression Versus the Institutionalization of Art

Frida Kahlo speaks from beyond her grave about the institutionalization of art and culture and the dangers posed by intellectuals warming their precious asses. 

Carla Gutiérrez
18 January 2024 (Sundance)

In my life, I’ve only painted the honest expression of myself. To say what I couldn’t say in any other way. I paint because I need to.

– Frida Kahlo

Director Carla Gutiérrez’s documentary Frida uses the personal testimony of Mexican surrealist painter Frida Kahlo‘s letters, writings, and an illustrated diary, to intimately tell her story. The words we hear, spoken by actress Fernanda Echevarría Rivero, are Kahlo’s own. 

An interesting and colourful character, Frida Kahlo was never afraid to be different in her youth; dressing in men’s clothes and expressing her bisexuality in later years positioned Kahlo at the crossroads of art, politics, and sexuality. How Gutiérrez communicates this and sustains the vivacious energy of her subject showcases her skill as a filmmaker.

Frida is a love letter to an artist the director has admired since first discovering her in college. “I found a place to express my feelings by looking at her art,” Gutiérrez said in her online introduction at the Sundance Film Festival 2024. This affection never dulls the film’s clarity, and whether we’re familiar with Kahlo’s art or not, the film seduces us with its insight and creativity. Gutiérrez successfully achieves her ambition to create an intimacy between the audience and Frida Kahlo, the person and artist. 

Similar to how Shakespeare’s work lends itself to re-interpretation, animation infuses Frida Kahlo’s paintings with movement. Frida‘s other effective creative flourishes include coloring parts of black-and-white archival footage. Gutiérrez’s approach is vibrant, uniting her creative expression with Kahlo’s. Setting aside reverence, Gutiérrez instead celebrates her subject’s creativity by daring to re-interpret. She creates a spiritual connection between the film’s aesthetic and its subject. The documentary bridges Kahlo’s honest self-expression in painting with cinema, re-interpreting her work for new generations.

Expanding her role from a documentary film editor on Cesar’s Last Fast (Perez and Parlee, 2014), When Two Worlds Collide (Brandenburg and Orzel, 2016), RBG (Cohen and West, 2018), and The Last Out (Gassert and Khan, 2020), among others, Gutiérrez plays to her strengths in her directorial feature debut. The emphasis on cutting together archival footage with Kahlo’s paintings, alongside the spoken excerpt, risks presenting Frida Kahlo as a technical exercise. Gutiérrez, however, meticulously crafts a journey narrative. She identifies three milestones that shaped this iconic feminist to highlight its narrative. This is helped by the soundtrack that imposes a musical arrangement that sounds more like raw emotions. 

Frida opens on the image of an art studio with paint brushes and canvas. Gutiérrez covers Frida Kahlo’s childhood and relationship with her parents before deciding to study medicine. This is the first glimpse we see of her individuality, comfortable being considered different by her peers, wanting to study with men, and choosing to wear men’s clothes. After this sprightly introduction, we reach the first milestone, when, in 1925, the 18-year-old Frida Kahlo was seriously injured when a bus she was on was struck by a tram, thrusting a metal handrail through her pelvis. It was a traumatic injury that would impact her for the rest of her life. 

Audiences are drawn to the struggle with adversity and Frida Kahlo’s early life has the making of a captivating story. She resembles a mythical phoenix rising from the ashes. “I want to be productive with the health I have left,” she says after spending two years in casts. She begins painting in her bed as she recuperates and discovers her political identity – a child of the Zapata Revolution of Mexican peasants who overthrew the Porfirio Díaz dictatorship in 1911. “I feel the pain of the oppressed. I feel the need to fight for them,” Kahlo says. “That’s why, as soon as they allowed me to walk after the accident, I joined the Communist party.”

Headlines in the newspaper read, “Mexican art reflects new values” and “Art and revolution”. Indeed, Frida Kahlo was thrusting herself into this reimagining of Mexico. However, she encounters adversity that she’ll be unaware of until 1939, when she ends her ten-year marriage to the notorious womanizer and painter Diego Rivera

Her marriage is the second milestone. He was impressed when Kahlo first sought Rivera out to ask for his opinion about her paintings. “Her canvases revealed an unusual expressive energy,” said Rivera. Before and during their marriage, she continues to paint, which is how she processes the miscarriage she has in New York while accompanying Rivera on his American adventure. Gutiérrez, however, suggests she’s stuck in Rivera’s shadow. In time, an ill decision with a mural commissioned for the Rockefeller Centre in New York prematurely ended Rivera’s time in America. Returning home in 1933, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo would be instrumental in Mexico offering Leon Trotsky the Russian Marxist Revolutionary safe haven from Stalinist Russia.

So begins the third milestone, as Gutiérrez explores Kahlo’s sexuality and her affairs, beginning with Trotsky and his secretary Jean Van Heijenoort, to painters Ignacio Aguirre, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jacqueline Lamba, illustrator Josep Bartolí, photographer Nickolas Muray and artist and architect Isamu Noguchi. These affairs led to a power shift in the marriage to her adulterous husband, leading to a temporary divorce. Realising being reliant on a man was time lost, Kahlo committed herself to paint as a source of self-reliance. 

Gutiérrez effectively peels back the layers to gradually reveal Frida Kahlo’s ascendancy in surrealist art. The gender politics of her tumultuous marriage and expressing her sexuality encompasses broader themes and ideas. The larger picture of her relationship with Rivera, whom she remarried a year later, with strict stipulations, positions Kahlo as a leading feminist figure. She embraced her sexuality and believed it was good to have sex, even with someone she didn’t love. The role her sexual affairs played in liberating her from her marriage and the following creative productivity interrogates the relationship between sexuality and creativity. 

A compelling chapter in Frida is the arrival of the surrealist leader, French writer and poet André Breton, in Mexico. Frida Kahlo’s paintings were conceived with no knowledge of surrealism, yet they expressed the ideas he and his surrealist friends shared. With his support, she exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and in Paris, although she found displeasure with the surrealist community. 

“These people make me want to vomit,” says Kahlo. “They sit in the cafés for hours warming their precious asses. They talk endlessly about ‘culture’, ‘art’, and ‘revolution’. They poison the air with theories that never come true. I hate surrealism. It’s a decadent manifestation of bourgeois art. I am so sick of the whole affair. To hell with everything. Fuck everything concerning Breton and this lousy place. Let them eat shit.”

Frida Kahlo’s writings reveal her entertainingly blunt and honest thoughts that extend to American high society. It’s impossible to fully explore her rich life in a single film. Gutiérrez trusts the audience to reflect on how we relate to Kahlo’s art and politics and the themes and ideas her singular life encourages us to consider. Her responses to the surrealists remind us that we must guard against the institutionalization of art. Now, 70 after her death, Kahlo reminds us that art is driven by personal expression. It’s as though she’s speaking to us from beyond the grave to warn us about the present-day institutionalization of art and culture by capitalism, as much as the dangers still posed by intellectuals warming their precious asses. 

Frida screened in the US Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. It will be released on Prime Video on 15 March 2024.