‘Frida,’ but not all the Frida they knew

Times Staff Writer

Mexico City

EveryONE’S a critic, but the opinions of four elderly viewers at a preview screening of “Frida” here this week carried unusual authority because of their personal connection to the subject, Mexican surrealist painter Frida Kahlo. Arturo Garcia Bustos, Guillermo Monroy and Arturo Estrada all took art classes from Kahlo in the 1940s and remained intimate friends until her death in 1954. They are known in Mexico as “Los Fridos” for their disciple-like devotion to the artist. A joint exhibition of their work is installed at a gallery here.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Nov. 15, 2002 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 15, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 12 inches; 438 words Type of Material: Correction
Frida Kahlo -- A Nov. 8 Calendar story about Frida Kahlo and the new movie about the artist misquoted Kahlo’s friend Guillermo Monroy as saying: “She was a woman without poses or affection.” The correct quote is: “She was a woman without poses or affectation.”

Rina Lazo, who is married to Bustos and who was an assistant to Kahlo’s husband, muralist Diego Rivera, also attended the screening. Like the Fridos, she spent many hours at the Kahlo home, Casa Azul, which is now her museum and shrine. Watching the preview brought back a flood of memories of the woman they described as at once humble and highly sociable, politically militant and irresistibly charismatic, a painter who with her husband assiduously courted publicity but would have never guessed her fame would reach today’s proportions.

Kahlo’s work has generated enormous interest in recent years with her paintings fetching upwards of $5 million at auction. To her fans, feminists and collectors, Kahlo long ago attained mythical status for overcoming the effects of polio and serious injuries suffered in a trolley accident, and for establishing her own reputation despite Rivera’s huge shadow. But to her former students, Kahlo was a flesh-and-blood amalgam of charm, quirks and skills. How closely did their memories jibe with what they saw on the screen?


They all gave Mexican actress Salma Hayek credit for her performance and for bringing the biopic to the screen after a years-long struggle. But they slammed the movie’s nudity, historical liberties and what they asserted is a one-dimensional look at a protean persona by stressing carnal aspects over her political commitment as a Communist and pacifist.

“A movie is a not a carbon copy of reality. A film director is like a painter organizing his picture, and he has the liberty to arrange the elements as he sees. But it could have been more complete,” said Monroy, 78, an art teacher and painter based in Cuernavaca.

All praised the film’s cinematography and director Julie Taymor’s effort to translate Kahlo’s surrealistic technique to film. But the movie failed to capture the revolutionary ferment in which Kahlo and Rivera worked and their intense love for all things Mexican, they contend.

The three men have been known in the local press as Los Fridos since 1947, when they painted a mural on Kahlo’s favorite neighborhood bar. The appellation doesn’t bother them. Although all went on to successful careers, they admit the defining moments in their lives were their associations with Kahlo.

All made several day trips with Kahlo to places she loved: the pyramids at Teotihuacan, the colonial city of Puebla and the indigenous market at Toluca. They went to movies together (Charlie Chaplin and Ava Gardner were among her favorite actors) and read Walt Whitman poetry together. She inspired all to pursue careers in the arts.

Bustos, 76, just completed a cycle of murals at the Oaxaca state government building. Now retired, Estrada, 77, was long the director at the Esmeralda Art Institute, the government-sponsored school through which they met Kahlo. Monroy held several arts administrative posts in Chiapas and Guerrero states before his retirement in 1992.

“She radiated light and happiness,” Monroy said. “She was very maternal and encouraging, which made the fact that she couldn’t have children all the sadder. But we never saw her depressed despite all the surgeries she underwent.”

Bustos said the movie’s most touching scenes were of Kahlo attending her one-woman show at a Mexico City gallery shortly before her death, so ill that she was brought in an ambulance.


“She saw the people waiting in the streets who had come to see her and all of Mexico’s leading cultural lights inside. But we never thought of it as her farewell appearance. We never thought she would die so young,” Bustos said.

Monroy struggled to explain his former maestra’s fame, saying it is due to her revolutionary works but also an extraordinary magnetism that no film could ever capture.

“She was a woman without poses or affection. She was very warm and sexual, like a bouquet of flowers in movement. Everyone wanted to know her,” he said.

“The whole world fell in love with her -- men, women, her friends and journalists. First came exhibitions of her work, then the books, and now the movies. With all its faults, this movie is contributing to that fame. And as long as the Fridos live, we’ll keep talking about her.”


Said Estrada: “She died 48 years ago, and it seems like yesterday.”

Lazo, who helped Rivera paint several murals in the decade before his death, said Alfred Molina’s portrayal of her former maestro is the best she’s seen on screen. But she found the language unnecessarily gross and the movie too focused on the sexual escapades of the couple.

“The movie was good in that it didn’t show Frida as a victim or a tragic personality, which she never was, and it showed the tenderness between the two of them. But it presented a vulgar atmosphere, whereas they were both extremely refined people. It was too bad they had to resort to commercial resources to create box office,” said Lazo, 74.

Previews of the movie, set to open in Mexico on Nov. 20, are already generating controversy for the explicit sex scenes and because the movie’s dialogue was filmed in English, a sore point for Mexicans, for whom Kahlo is a national treasure. Theaters here will show a version with Spanish subtitles.


Guadalupe Loaeza, a columnist at the Reforma daily newspaper who also attended the Tuesday screening, said that Kahlo would have been mortified that the movie made such a naked appeal to commercialism, given her distaste for most things American.

“For a movie on this most Mexican of women, I had to do simultaneous translation in my mind as I watched. It was horrible,” Loaeza said. Her column Thursday was headlined pejoratively: “Frida Made in the USA.”