Frida Kahlo's father wasn't Jewish after all
Frida Kahlo herself was probably the source of the claims to her Jewish connection. But why?
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Fridas Vater: Der Fotograf Guillermo Kahlo
by Gaby Franger and Rainer Huhle
Edvard Munch: Die Selbstbildnisse
by Iris Muller-Westermann
Richard Avedon: Woman in the Mirror
by Anne Hollander
Schirmer Mosel/ The Richard Avedon Foundation
For decades now, ever since an international revival of interest in the paintings and life of Mexico's Frida Kahlo, art historians and critics, including this writer, have been writing that Frida's photographer father was Jewish, possibly of Hungarian origin. A new book devoted to Guillermo Kahlo and his photography reveals that he had no Jewish genes and stemmed from a long line of German Protestants.
Frida herself was probably the source of the claims to her Jewish connection. But why?
My guess is that German connections during the Nazi era were an embarrassment to her. Communists in particular were strongly anti-Nazi and Diego Rivera, Frida's great love and sometime husband, was an active communist. So of course was the nominally Jewish founder of the Red Army, Leon Trotsky, who was Frida's lover in Mexico City before he was murdered with an ice pick, at Stalin's orders. In 1949 Frida actually wrote to her father inquiring about his origins. The letter survives.
Carl Wilhelm Kahlo was born in 1871 in Pforzheim, to Lutheran parents whose antecedents, craftsmen, soldiers, gingerbread bakers and sluice keepers, have been traced back by Gaby Franger and Rainer Huhle to the 16th century. Carl Wilhelm fell out with his family and at age 19 emigrated to Mexico, changed his name to Guillermo and began work as an accountant before discovering photography. Not all his negatives have been recovered, but he left behind a frank and unpretty record of life in Mexico at the turn of the century that is astonishingly modern in approach.
Guillermo ran a professional studio and married a woman of mixed Spanish-Indian origin, who gave her daughters an ethnic link to both the rich and poor of Mexico.
Frida and her taciturn, enigmatic father were famously concerned with themselves. Frida's favorite subject was herself (she made a trademark of her eyebrows). Guillermo's most riveting images are his self-portraits. Both father and daughter produced self-images that are silent witnesses to the tragedies of life.
EDVARD MUNCH (1863-1944), the great Norwegian-born painter, painted many self-portraits, but they are not all delineations of his actually handsome physiognomy. Most are descriptions of mood and atmosphere and his presence is firmly felt even in symbolic narrative works in which his real face does not actually appear.
This collection is interesting because it reveals a wide range of painterly approaches. One early canvas is 90 percent Van Gogh. Some narratives are obvious, like The Dance of Life. But what to make of the cover image, Artist and Model, 1919, in which the girl (dressed) occupies the foreground, while the painter stands well behind her? The composition is powerful, the handling lively. But it is all enigmatic, with just a hint of the eroticism that powers so many of Munch's canvases. The lively gestural technique is just one of the facets that led the Nazis to attempt to destroy his work in German collections. These were transferred to a neutral Swedish collector at the 11th hour.
Author Iris Muller-Westermann is a curator of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm.
AMERICAN-JEWISH fashion photographer and portraitist Richard Avedon (1923-2004) was perhaps the greatest of his country's studio photographers. After serving in the wartime merchant marine, Avedon became the staff photographer for Harper's Bazaar and died in Texas while on assignment for The New Yorker, for whom he was staff portraitist for for over a decade. His in-your-face portraits were technically brilliant and humanly stunning.
Woman in the Mirror, a large-format half-century of portraits, was first published in English last year by the newly established Richard Avedon Foundation. The portraits of women, which range from a Wyoming waitress to the stunning Gloria Vanderbilt, include studies of Isak Dinesen, Elton John in drag, Rose Kennedy, Maria Callas, Katharine Hepburn, Brigitte Bardot and Louise Nevelson, as well as a naked Kate Moss and sundry other famous models and society ladies. Avedon dealt with versions of reality, all of them somehow dramatized, even when taken out-of-doors.