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A pensive Frida Kahlo with flowers in here hair and several rings on her left hand.

Becoming Frida Kahlo: new BBC documentary paints a compelling portrait of the Mexican artist

Nearly 70 years after her death the brilliant Mexican artist Frida Kahlo continues to fascinate for her unique artistic language that interprets her physical and emotional pain, her unconventional relationships with men and women, and her complex marriage to the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.

She has been the subject of many books, the best known of which is Hayden Herrera’s biography and a Hollywood film, with Kahlo played by Mexican actress and producer Salma Hayek. Her now-iconic face continues to be emblazoned across bags, t-shirts, prints, fridge magnets, jewellery, cushions and myriad other products.

The latest incarnation of the painter is Becoming Frida Kahlo, a three-part documentary made for BBC Two. The series will delight Frida fans with its wealth of photographs and archival films featuring the artist in her private and public moments.

A woman called Frida Kahlo standing by a painting of two women who look like her.
Kahlo with The Two Fridas from 1939. Vintage Space/Alamy

The art of self-invention

Becoming Frida Kahlo promises to “strip away the myths to reveal the real Frida”. As I have noted before, this is a particularly tricky endeavour when dealing with an artist for whom self-invention was her craft.

In previous work I argued that questions of fact and fiction in the case of the Mexican artist are far from simple. The historical Kahlo created her own persona through art, dress and performances of self. She has become, to a degree, what her fans and admirers desire her to be: a symbol for Mexicans, Mexican Americans, Latinos in the US, feminists, and LGBTQ+ people all over the world.

Still, Becoming Frida Kahlo is a very comprehensive representation of the artist, and showcases the BBC at its best. It achieves this through rigorous research. Much of the narrative is driven by Luis Martín Lozano, professor and series consultant, and author of Frida Kahlo The Complete Paintings.

Mexican researchers Ruth Araiza Moreno and Lorenza Espínola Gómez de Parada also ensure a Mexican point of view infuses the series. The final credits reveal the impressive list of archives used to bring to audiences a treasure trove of photographs and film of Kahlo (and Rivera) from her childhood in the 1920s to the time of her death in 1954.

Finding Frida

Through intimate photographs, home movies and newsreels we feel as if we are with Kahlo and Rivera in Mexico, San Francisco, New York and Detroit, among other points on their travels.

This is complemented with voiceovers of Kahlo’s letters and her diary entries, along with those of close friend Lucienne Bloch while in the US, contemporary newspaper articles chronicling events in their lives, and medical reports detailing Kahlo’s worsening health conditions.

Self-portrait of Frida Kahlo showing a Mexican woman in a body brace.
The Broken Column (1944). The Artchives / Alamy

Expert witnesses include art historians from Mexico and the US. Testimonials from Kahlo’s Mexican art students (now elderly men), and family members round off this multi-layered and multi-faceted series.

Truths are thus approximated through many voices and images. There is no single narrator, no single oversimplified truth, rather many stories are revealed in this telling of Kahlo’s story. The stories flow as we discover new photographs, new films, new anecdotes, new theories.

Some of these are also likely to create new headlines, such as the revelation by Rivera’s grandson Juan Coronel Rivera, that he believed Diego may have helped Frida end her life in a final act of love when the pain was too much for her to bear.

This is a celebration of Frida Kahlo and less convenient truths are omitted, such as the fervent love for Stalin that she embraced towards the end of her life.

Important cultural figures

Viewers are offered a fascinating insight into the worlds inhabited by Kahlo and Rivera; neither are presented as isolated geniuses, but rather important cultural figures in a period of change and conflict.

A painting of a large man in a blue suit holding his palette and brushes and a woman in a red shawl and a green dress.
Kahlo’s Me and Diego Rivera from 1931. Archivart / Alamy

In episode one, we are taken to post-Revolutionary Mexico with its vibrant cultural scene, lively parties and fractious communist politics. In episode two we travel to depression-hit New York, and Ford’s repression of striking car workers in Detroit. Here we see the contradictions of the communist couple as Rivera works on mural commissions from wealthy capitalists such as Ford and Rockefeller.

Episode three returns to Mexico, but not before a stop off in Paris on the brink of the second world war and the Nazi invasion of 1940. We see Kahlo’s growing international success; she is invited to Paris to exhibit some of her paintings as the guest of André Breton, the French surrealist writer and poet. Breton claimed Kahlo as a surrealist on “discovering” her during his visit to Mexico in 1938. We also learn of her frustration with Breton and fellow surrealists who preferred talk to political action.

And at the centre of everything is Kahlo’s art which we see with new eyes as we learn the stories behind her deeply autobiographical, symbolic paintings. The series chronicles her politics, her miscarriages, Rivera’s infidelities, her physical agony.

Her embodied art is contextualised in her physical and emotional body. Telling a deeply personal story, her life, times and art are beautifully interwoven together here.

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