BOOKS | Frida Kahlo: The Gisèle Freund Photographs

Frida Kahlo at forty-four years old, 1951.

Gisèle Freund moved from France to Argentina at the outbreak of World War II. Having worked as a portrait photographer among the upper class, as she traveled through South America the artist now felt charged to change her calling. She observed, “Previously I had practiced the portrait, but to know the American continent I had only once choice: to become a photojournalist.” Freund was an inaugural member of Magnum Photos, and was entrusted with covering the most significant news stories of the southern hemisphere.

During her extensive travels, Freund became fascinated with indigenous Mexican art. She arranged an introduction to Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in 1950, photographing the pair together and alone. The photographs are collected in Frida Kahlo: The Gisèle Freund Photographs (Abrams), an intimate album featuring more than one hundred rare images, many of which have never been published before. Taken in the studio, in the garden, and in private moments, we are brought into the marriage of two minds, two spirits and souls forever intertwined.

Also: Design | Review: Munari’s Books

Kahlo is one of the most intriguing figures of modern times, an icon of freedom, beauty, and suffering. Her spirit is luminescent, in life and in death, and so we continue to ponder her image, much as she, one of our greatest self-portraitists, did. A portrait of the artist is always their subject, and for Kahlo, that subject was her vast inner world. “I am my own muse, I am the subject I know best. The subject I want to know better,” Kahlo said.

Frida Kahlo in her studio painting Portrait of My Father, 1951.

We know her by her self-image, one of searing passion, pain, and flame. “My painting carries with it the message of pain…. I wish I could do whatever I liked behind the curtain of ‘madness.’ Then: I’d arrange flowers, all day long, I’d paint; pain, love and tenderness, I would laugh as much as I feel like at the stupidity of others, and they would all say: ‘Poor thing, she’s crazy!’ (Above all I would laugh at my own stupidity.) I would build my world which while I lived, would be in agreement with all the worlds. The day, or the hour, or the minute that I lived would be mine and everyone else’s—my madness would not be an escape from ‘reality.’”

Frida Kahlo with her dogs in Coyoacán, Mexico City, 1951.

We feel her struggle, her triumph and her tragedy in every portrait she made, allowing us to contemplate ourselves in the same way. And as we do, it is easy to identify, and to cheer for Kahlo’s rule. We want her to win, because she is noble and she is bold, and she is willing to sacrifice herself on the altar of art.

Frida Kahlo in the garden of her house, 1951.

Frida Kahlo: The Gisèle Freund Photographs is a beautiful counterpoint to Kahlo’s work, giving us an outsider’s insight into her personality. Freund’s photographs show us the artist in a state of solace, time and again, almost as a way to preserve the infinite, fleeting moments where the pain of life had all but dissolved. Freund’s photographs are simple and sensuous, tender and understanding. Together, Freund and Kahlo speak a language of love, a dialogue, and a duet, a dynamic that exists in a space of understanding, gratitude, and humble respect. The book is a must for Kahlo aficionados. Her visage never fails to inspire.


All images: © Gisèle Freund / IMEC / Fonds MCC.