Our Lady of Pain

Frida Kahlo was the Mater Dolorosa of Mexican art. E Jane Dickson reads her baroque and ghoulish diary; The Diary of Frida Kahlo intro. Carlos Fuentes Bloomsbury, pounds 25

Ever since the Hayward Gallery's Frida Kahlo exhibition in 1989, the Mexican artist's images of tortured femininity have been the postcard of choice for arty, leftish women. In 1983, Hayden Herrera's lavish biography of Kahlo further bolstered her iconic status as a modern Mater Dolorosa, ready to assume the sufferings of women the world over. The publication of The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An intimate Self-Portrait, completes her apotheosis as martyr, myth and marketing phenomenon.

The facts of Kahlo's life are gruesome, but not without a kind of gothic grace. Born in 1907 in Mexico City, she suffered poliomyelitis as a child, and was left with a withered leg. In 1925 she was involved in a streetcar accident, resulting in multiple fractures of her pelvis, spine, neck and ribs. The impact of the collision drove a handrail in through her back and out through her vagina and her naked, skewered body was showered in gold paint. For the rest of her life she would recreate the grotesque glamour of this incident in highly worked and polished paintings which, literally and symbolically, exposed her mortified body.

In 1929 Kahlo married the muralist Diego Rivera, a key figure in the Mexican cultural revolution. Theirs was a complex, somewhat cussed affair, with strings of extra-marital lovers on both sides, but just as Kahlo managed to transmute physical agony into glittering spectacle, she strove to present her relationship with Rivera in epic terms, with the sensationally unprepossessing Rivera playing Frog Prince to her Aztec Queen.

Exulting in the title of "la grand ocultadora" ("the great concealer"), she hid her failing flesh under outfits of baroque magnificence. In his introduction, Carlos Fuentes recalls a concert at which the clanking of Kahlo's jewellery drowned out the overture from Parsifal. The point is that Kahlo, aware of her emergent status as a national monument, controlled her public image with almost masochistic rigour. Confronted by the chaotic, often inchoate entries in this journal intime, written during the last ten years of her life, one cannot escape a queasy sense of voyeurism. The facsimile edition of Kahlo's feverish scrawl and sketches (is that a genuine Kahlo tearstain or just a watermark?) is almost too lovingly reproduced, too ghoulishly authentic, turning her into a kind of Edwardian- Country-Lady-with-Mutilations.

Some of the entries in the Diary are small masterpieces; a livid landscape of burning pampas shows an unguessed at Expressionist streak; others, like the shattered image of a woman impaled on a pedestal with the legend "Yo soy la DESINTEGRACION" ("I am Disintegration") would break your heart. Mostly, however, the pages are filled with demented doodles and long tracts of semi-automatic writing.

Nor is Kahlo best served by her countryman Carlos Fuentes whose introduction is an undisciplined paean invoking every figure in Western art from Socrates to the Marx Brothers. In a final, wild-eyed flourish, Fuentes yokes Kahlo and Kafka together in an improbable mystic kinship. "FK, Frida Kahlo, Franz Kafka. Two of the greatest symbolic figures of the 20th century share their initials, their pain, perhaps even their positions in the world..." Two artists separated by sex, sensibility and hemisphere, and yet, you have to admit, those initials are pretty compelling. For heaven's sake, why not go the whole way and rope in Freddy Krueger and Felicity Kendal while we're at it?

Kahlo has been jolted on the bandwagon long enough. Perhaps, now that the last remnant of her closely guarded privacy has been offered up for public consumption, she will be allowed to rest. She was, undoubtedly, a notable woman. It would be a shame if she were remembered chiefly as a notelet.

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