‘Frida’ author to speak at DIA

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

Biographer Hayden Herrera says she was as astonished as anyone by artist Frida Kahlo’s metamorphosis over the past 30 years into a pop-culture eminence.

“I was very surprised,” says Herrera, who wrote the 1983 “Frida” that became the basis for the 2002 hit film of the same name starring Salma Hayek. Herrera will speak about the Mexican artist at the Detroit Institute of Arts on April 28, part of the museum’s ongoing programming for the blockbuster show “Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo in Detroit,” which closes July 12.

Herrera says she started the book back in the 1970s. “It was my doctoral dissertation” at the City University of New York, she says, “At the time, nobody had heard of Frida Kahlo. I certainly hadn’t.”

But friends urged the graduate student in art history to see a Kahlo show in Mexico City, and Herrera took their advice.

“I saw the work and was completely astounded,” she says. “It was overwhelming.”

So Herrera wrote an article on Kahlo for Art Forum magazine, and then the remarkable happened — out of the blue, an editor at Harper & Row got in touch to ask if she’d be interested in writing a biography.

“I was still a student,” Herrera says. “I was kind of amazed.”

The project ended up consuming five years, much of that spent whittling a huge dissertation down to book size. “I had younger children at the time,” Herrera says. “I don’t know how I did it.”

Even more remarkable for a book that started as a dissertation, Herrera was able to sell the film rights. And how many academics can say that?

Once sold, the project kept moving from producer to producer, and at one point was going to be an HBO production.

“Finally,” Herrera says, “Miramax took it on, partly because Salma Hayek had a passion for the subject.”

Herrera says she read an early version of the script — “It had a lot of problems” — and ended up meeting with director Julie Taymor to discuss some of the dialog, which Herrera found unconvincing.

“I’d say, ‘Frida should say ‘Blah, blah, blah,’” she recalls, “and Taymor said, ‘You know nothing about movies. It should be ‘Blah, blah, blah.’ ” Herrera laughs. “And she was completely right.”

One hears horror stories from authors whose books were twisted and deformed by Hollywood, but this was not the case with “Frida.”

“I really liked the film,” Herrera says. “I was quite surprised. I thought it was beautiful and found it quite moving, in fact.”

The movie, of course, doubtless played the largest role in catapulting the once-obscure Kahlo into the mass-culture stratosphere. But Herrera is sure the artist — who died at age 47 in 1954 — would be pleased by all the adulation.

“This is a person who wanted to be known,” she says, “and she got her wish.”



Lecture on Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera

7 p.m., April 28

Detroit Film Theatre — Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward, Detroit

Free — but registration required. Search on dia.org for “Hayden Herrera”

(313) 833-7900