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The art of self-examination

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Julie Taymor's film of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo's jumbled, difficult life is painful to watch in many scenes.

"Frida" is an explicit, yet at the same time fantastical, exploration of her private life, including miscarriages, and affairs with men and women, as well as the tram accident that nearly killed her at 18. All of this detail also makes the film a fitting portrait of a painter whose more than 200 paintings nearly all overflowed with intense self-examination.

Director Taymor says she was inspired by Kahlo's mix of ruthless unsentimentality mixed with deep emotional needs. "Frida was singularly strong," says Taymor, "but she was also able to be vulnerable." Nothing in Kahlo's life was off limits to her, and therefore to her art, but that lack of restraint also brought great physical and emotional trials.

Painting was a means of survival to Kahlo, who often said that she could live only if she could paint. She took up painting in the wake of the accident, which her doctors did not expect her to survive. Her parents, a mother who was half-indigenous Mexican, and her father, a European Jew, provided her with art materials during the convalescence.

She defied medical expectations and "painted" herself well. The habit of clear-eyed self-examination was born of necessity and stayed with her for a lifetime. Who else was available to sit for the endless hours she spent painting in bed?

Only marginally successful as an artist in her lifetime, Kahlo has become a phenomenon since her death in 1954. She has been adopted by feminists around the world and women artists throughout the Americas.

Married twice to Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, who called her the better artist, Kahlo used self throughout her work. This struck a strong and important chord for artists in the second half of the 20th century.

"Frida was one of the first Mexican artists to look at herself," says Gregorio Luke, director of the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach. While the great Mexican painters of the mid-20th century were all painting history and social issues, Kahlo was steadfastly rooted in the personal, he says. "She is a vision of introspection. She paints her anguish, her sicknesses – all of it. And if you look at young Mexican painters today, they are all a bit more looking inside as a result of her work."

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