Iconic Frida Kahlo before she was an icon

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

A Detroit News article that ran 84 years ago on Feb. 2 is the first rough draft of an international icon who was not yet an icon. The article is of a 25-year-old Frida Kahlo, who hadn’t yet made her mark as a painter.

The headline of the 1933 article makes it clear a big reason Kahlo is getting media attention is because she’s “wife of the master mural painter.” That would be Diego Rivera, who was creating the “Detroit Industry” murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

The couple lived in Detroit for 11 months, starting in spring 1932. Rivera was a world-famous artist and a one-man media sensation — local reporters and sometimes national press produced dozens of stories of his time here.

Only one of those local reporters appeared to notice Kahlo. That was Detroit News staff writer Florence Davies. Davies may have been the only woman covering the Rivera story in Detroit, based on research of newspaper stories of the day. In earlier stories, Davies had took note of Kahlo’s unique style and her “lightning wit.”

The 1933 article is about the fact that Kahlo happens to paint, or as the headline states, she “gleefully dabbles in works of art.” In the story, Kahlo is full of verve: “Of course, (Rivera) does pretty well for a little boy, but it is I am who am the big artist.”

When the 1933 article was posted on Facebook two years ago, many commentators saw the war of the sexes.

“This looks like a case of the editor sabotaging more honest reporting with a sensational headline,” wrote Nicole Audrey Spector, a journalist and author of “Fifty Shades of Dorian Gray,” who was one of the many Facebook commentators.

“Davies identifies (Kahlo) as a painter in her own right, ” Spector wrote.

“I think those instincts are right; the headline was probably written by a male and that reporter was working in a newsroom full of men,” said Andie Tucher, a professor at the Columbia Journalism School in New York on Wednesday. Tucher studies the history of U.S. journalism. After being sent a copy of the Detroit News story, she responded by email: “I HOPE Florence Davies didn’t write that hed,” using the industry jargon spelling for the word headline.

Nowadays, there’s a chance someone would write a headline about Diego Rivera and call him Frida’s husband. Her fame eclipsed his decades ago. Somewhere in the world there is an art exhibit featuring Kahlo’s work and it is likely a blockbuster show — like the Detroit Institute of Arts show two years ago.

One exhibit ended last month at the Philadelphia Museum of Art titled “Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910-1950.” It took a look at the art movement that flourished in Mexico. The image that promoted the show was a Kahlo painting she created in Detroit, called “Self Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States.” It’s one of the images featured in the 1933 Detroit News article.

Beyond art museums, Kahlo — she is more often just called Frida — is a global phenomenon. The Japanese electronics firm Samsung currently is using an image of Frida in an ad campaign promoting one of its cameras where Frida is taking a selfie. Amazon lists more than 2,000 book titles about Frida.

Two weeks ago, at the Detroit Women’s March, part of the global uproar over President Donald Trump, The Detroit News captured a marcher holding a sign with an image of Frida and the word “Fearless.”

The opera soprano Catalina Cuervo understands the Frida mystique as much as anyone. She played Kahlo in the opera called “Frida” that debuted two years ago. It was composed by Robert Xavier Rodriguez and co-produced by the Michigan Opera Theatre and the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts.

“She was a strong-willed woman, not afraid of speaking her mind and showing the world how proud she was to be a Mexican,” Cuervo said.

“We all know that in her life there were a lot of events that were tragic and difficult, but, that didn't stop her. Frida could have been a victim in the story of her life, but, she ended up being her own hero. And that makes her an example, an idol to many.”


Twitter: @LouisAguilar_DN