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You could call Self-Portrait With Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird the Mona Lisa of Texas. Frida Kahlo’s iconic painting is the most popular object owned by the Harry Ransom Center, the University of Texas at Austin’s cultural research institution. It is loaned out for museum exhibitions more often than anything else in the Ransom’s collection of one million books, 42 million manuscripts, five million photographs, and 100,000 works of art.
While more than a third of Kahlo’s paintings are self-portraits, this one is particularly intense, made in early 1940 during the brief period when the artist and her longtime but always philandering husband, the great muralist Diego Rivera, were divorced. The duality and symbolism that characterize her work are there, but subtle: Her slight downward gaze looks both direct and distant, resolute and vulnerable. The monkey on her right shoulder tinkers, engrossed, with the necklace, causing her to bleed, while the black cat on her left shoulder is in anxious-aggressive mode. The thorn necklace creeps rootlike down Kahlo’s chest. The wings of the dead hummingbird dangling from it mirror the shape of her unibrow and shadowy mustache. Lacy white butterflies and surreal dragonfly flowers flit above her face. Tracy Bonfitto, the Ransom’s curator of art, says the piece is purposefully hung at about eye level so that viewers can sense its intimate, face-to-face scale. It’s almost like you’re meeting Kahlo in person. Examining the canvas, you also realize how intentionally she painted.
A few days before visiting the Ransom, I saw—well, glimpsed—Thorn Necklace in a different way, at Lighthouse Artspace in Dallas. It appeared many, many times larger than life-size among the projected images in “Immersive Frida Kahlo,” the latest digital sound and light production from the creators of “Immersive Van Gogh.” For the experience of feeling like I might be stepping inside a Kahlo painting, I paid $40, plus ticket fees and parking (weekend and VIP tickets and yoga classes cost much more). Also running at Houston’s Lighthouse Artspace, the show is on view in both cities through May 29.
Lighthouse’s Van Gogh blockbuster is the leader in a mini industry of art-themed immersive shows, with more than 4.5 million tickets sold to date. (It’s also the one featured in the Netflix rom-com Emily in Paris.) There is cutthroat competition for these Instagram-era exhibits. and few artists with enough global celebrity to draw crowds. A Frida Kahlo spectacle—or two—was inevitable.
The dynamic of any immersive show depends on the architecture of its space. In massive black-box rooms or small galleries, projected images span 360 degrees, bathing viewers in a funhouse energized with loud, emotive music. In Dallas, “Immersive Frida Kahlo” visitors roam through four spaces, including a mezzanine overlooking the largest gallery and a claustrophobic room with mirrored columns that add dizziness to the dazzle. One massive video plays simultaneously throughout all the show’s rooms: a forty-minute loop divided into loosely themed scenes choreographed to a mystifying mix of songs. I am not the only visitor who felt the disconnect of recordings by Florence and the Machine and Elvis Presley in the original soundtrack; in March, more culturally appropriate music by Mexican composers replaced those artists, although other strange song choices remain.
As I walked into the show, Kahlo’s giant face peered into the room from behind arched “windows,” chopped, screwed, and layered into a video collage that made me imagine Kahlo as a prisoner in a European mansion. (Which, come to think of it, she kind of was.) Soon, the version of Kahlo from her 1943 painting Roots, in which she lies on a barren landscape with vines emerging from her body, was floating in the middle of a wall. The vines grew. A passionate Italian song emanated from the room’s speakers: Gabriella Ferri’s Grazie alla vita (“Thanks to Life”).
As the music turned ominous and electronic, animated images of leaves, roots and animals—elements from other Kahlo paintings—filled the walls. Eventually they formed a primordial forest where colorful pre-Columbian figures popped up and moved, puppetlike, toward a pyramid. In a scene set to “Ave Maria” (never mind that Kahlo denounced religion), images of swaying dresses from Kahlo’s full-body self portraits waved against a brilliant sky as if if they’d been plucked on hangers from her closet, bloodstains and all, and hung out to dry on a breezy afternoon.
The show’s creators haven’t digitally dismembered quite everything Kahlo painted. A number of her works are projected intact, including a group of “canvases” angled so they appear to be propped on easels in a faux museum exhibit. But it’s all such a chimera that visitors who know Kahlo’s paintings could make a game of sussing out what images are pulled from where. Guests who were hoping to learn something new will more likely leave in the dark, since there’s no coherent visual narrative or explanatory voice-over to put the mishmash into context. I felt as though I were witnessing a stream-of-consciousness fever dream, maybe touring Kahlo’s brain during her last moments on earth as bits and pieces of her memory floated by.
This is perfectly fine if you just want to be entertained. The true draw is being immersed in twenty-first-century wizardry. Digital master Massimiliano Siccardi, who also created “Immersive Van Gogh,” lures eyeballs seductively. It really doesn’t matter whose art he incorporates, so long as the featured artist has box-office mojo.
When she died in 1954, Kahlo may have been the most famous woman in Mexico. But outside of her native country, only cultural elites knew who she was. At that point, her modest success as an artist was eclipsed by her celebrity as the magnetic wife of the legendary Rivera. Today she is a cultural icon, “the only artist whose brand rivals Van Gogh’s,” says Mari Carmen Ramírez, curator of Latin American art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. “Every cultural minority you can think of identifies with her: women, all people of color, indigenous, queer.”
It’s not just the art that brings fans to Kahlo, it’s the story her works tell. She cultivated a persona with her signature style (the unibrow hinting at her gender fluidity, the Tejuana costumes honoring Mexico’s Indigenous ancestors and hiding her injured body), her tabloid-ready affairs (most sensationally with Leon Trotsky, Isamu Noguchi, and possibly Josephine Baker), her political activism (um, Communist). Perhaps most of all, fans are drawn to the brutal honesty in her depictions of physical and emotional pain.
Fridamania took hold in the late seventies and early eighties after the first Kahlo biography was published. Curators had already begun looking seriously at Kahlo’s art, but interest grew when feminist and LGBTQ activists discovered her. “She became an emblem for all these movements and a signifier for nonconformity,” Ramírez says. “The narrative of her life took over.”
Kahlo might not have objected. Her face is instantly recognizable in part because she painted it so often. She also loved being photographed. If Instagram had existed during her lifetime, she’d have been the queen of it. As it is, the account @fridakahlo has 1.2 million followers. Google “Frida gifts,” and you’ll find cycling jerseys, mugs, candles, and toys. Ramírez says the avalanche of Kahlo merchandise grew after members of the artist’s family capitalized on her legacy, trademarking and licensing her name through their Frida Kahlo Corporation.
“Immersive Frida Kahlo” might fill a void for those who need a Frida fix, but for those who want to actually immerse themselves in her art, I recommend face time with a canvas she touched. “An artwork like our Kahlo self-portrait is not just an image, it’s an object,” says Bonfitto, the Ransom’s curator. “As an in-person viewer, you encounter its physicality, you can see its brushwork, you can imagine Kahlo creating it.”
The Ransom acquired its two Kahlo paintings, Self-Portrait With Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird and Still Life With Parrot and Fruit, well before the dawn of Fridamania. The canvases came to Austin in the mid-sixties within a trove of artworks from Nickolas Muray, a photographer who was one of Kahlo’s many lovers and a lifelong friend. Often, Self-Portrait With Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird is on tour for long stretches. This year, it’s home through early fall, hanging in a hallway niche.
I waited less than a minute behind another visitor for a close-up view. A young couple from Detroit happened upon the iconic painting after me. They were visiting the center for the first time and didn’t know they’d discover a real Kahlo there. It kind of made their day. That made mine too.