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Passion and politics

Helen Charman explores the work of 20th-century icon Frida Kahlo, whose paintings are full of symbolism, revealing her rich imagination and intense patriotism for Mexico

During 1932-33, Frida Kahlo went to the United States with her husband, the celebrated Mexican artist Diego Rivera. In this painting she explores the contrast between Mexico, where she was born, and the more developed, industrial and technological US. Rivera had been commissioned to produce murals for the Detroit Institute of Arts, showing the Ford production line at the River Rouge factory, and he grew increasingly enthralled with modern machinery and all that it could do. But Frida did not share his enthusiasm and spent most of her time wishing she was back in her familiar, agrarian Mexico.

This painting, entitled "Self-portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States", serves as a manifesto for Kahlo's Mexicanidad (Mexicanness) and shows her trying to shore up a sense of national identity when adrift from her homeland. Mexico is on the left of the painting and the US is on the right. The Frida of the portrait is standing on the border between the two countries.

In most of her self-portraits, she dresses as Tehuana, a generalised term referring to the women of the Tehuantepec, a region towards the south-west of Mexico. In part, her Tehuana dress was to please Rivera, but in the main it was a political and cultural statement as, after the Mexican revolution of 1910, the Tehuana had come to represent an authentic and independent indigenous Mexican cultural heritage in which the women were courageous and indomitable. Here, however, she presents herself in a frilly pink dress and lace gloves, though smoking a cigarette - a lady with a subversive streak.

Even more significantly, she clasps a small Mexican flag. The stone she stands on is inscribed "Carmen Rivera painted her portrait in 1932". We can only speculate why she chose to use this forename (Frida was born Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calder"n) and her husband's last name. Perhaps it was partly as a pretence of being proper - an ironic nod to the modest wifely identity which the press at the time used, disingenuously describing her as Rivera's "petite wife who sometimes dabbled in paint". Rivera, of course, knew better. He once introduced her to Detroit journalists as "His name is Carmen", with reference to Kahlo's sometimes androgynous nature.

It has been suggested that Rivera used the name Carmen in preference to Frida because he wanted to avoid a German name at the time of the rise of Nazism (the same reason that Frida herself dropped the "e" from her German name, Frieda).

The fecund Mexican landscape is shown in stark contrast with a technologically arid and technology-dominated United States. In the Mexican side of the painting, a fire-spitting sun and a quarter moon are enclosed in cumulus clouds, which create a bolt of lightning where they touch over a partially ruined pre-Columbian temple. The landscape is littered with a pile of rubble, a skull and pre-Columbian fertility symbols. By contrast, a single cloud over the USis nothing but industrial smoke from four chimney stacks of the Ford factory at River Rouge. Instead of encompassing the sun and moon, this smoke cloud dirties the US flag, whose artificial stars are a poor contrast to Mexico's real sun and real moon. Bleak skyscrapers also dominate the US landscape, in contrast with Mexico's cultural history, embodied in the temple on the opposite side. Mexico's blossoming exotic plants, on the bottom left, contrast with the cold and functional electrical appliances on the bottom right.

The machine nearest Frida has two cords. One connects with the Mexican lily's white roots, the other is plugged into the US side of the border marker, which serves as her pedestal. But which way does the power flow? While this painting makes clear her ambivalent feelings about the capitalist society of the US, it also draws attention to the politics of identity which fuel post-colonial debates. Biographer Hayden Herrera writes of how, "For Kahlo the personal became elided with the public sphere. Her body and experiences were used metaphorically to debate wider issues that were central to Mexican cultural politics."

l Frida Kahlo is at Tate Modern until October 9. As part of Tate Modern's fifth birthday celebrations, school groups are admitted free. Free entry for pupils under 18 is also provided for a limited number of tickets.

Booking is essential.

Tel: 020 7887 3959

* Frida Kahlo education open evening at Tate Modern on June 20, 6.45-8.30pm. Free. Booking is required.

* Frida Kahlo: Curators' Talk at Tate Modern Starr Audorium on July 22, 6.30-7.30pm. Free.

Tel: 020 7887 3959 Helen Charman, curator CPD, Tate Modern

Frida Kahlo 1907-54

Frida Kahlo was born near Mexico City. Her father was Hungarian-Jewish and her mother Mexican. She took up painting when severely injured after a bus crash. Her body, wracked with pain, is a recurrent theme. Between 1926 when she made her first self-portrait, and her death in 1954, Frida produced about 200 images. Despite an apparent naivety, her works frequently question power relations between developed and developing nations, the role of women within a patriarchal society, and how to reconcile the global histories and religions of East and West. She had a stormy marriage with fellow artist Diego Rivera.


Frida: The Biography of Frida Kahlo By Hayden Herrera Bloomsbury Pounds 9.99

Frida Kahlo (exhibition catalogue) Edited by Emma Dexter and Tanya Barson Tate Publishing pound;25

Lesson ideas

KS 1-2

Explore pupils' ideas about national costume and the celebratory role it can play in our richly multicultural society. If appropriate, invite pupils to bring in photos of themselves and family members in national costume and create a colourful display.

Stage a piece of performance art, creating a mini-carnival, and include dishes from pupils' cultural heritages. Photograph the event and use the images as the basis for a large-scale group collage.

KS 3-4

Ask pupils to research a local piece of public art, and to design their version of a contemporary monument to early 21st-century civilisation. What would pupils want future archaeologists to understand about the society who made it? Ask pupils to research a possible site for their monument and then ask them why they chose that spot. The monument need not be celebratory, but it should communicate something about the pupil's view on contemporary culture.

KS 5

Ask pupils to create a self-portrait, eg a Photoshop collage, in an idealised, utopian environment. As part of the process, ask them to create a mind-map of key ideas and associations, which can form an integral part of the piece, either through displaying it as a diptych or by layering the collage over the mind-map.

* A full-colour teacher's pack with five paintings by Frida Kahlo is available free from Tate Ticketing.Tel: 020 7887 3959

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