Going to the Frida Kahlo exhibition current at Tate Modern in London is like entering the shrine of a secular saint. The rooms are thronged. People peer closely at the paintings, many of them very small. They seem afraid to talk much above a whisper.
There are a number of reasons for this reaction. One is Hayden Herrera’s highly readable biography of the artist, first published in 1983, and now established as a classic feminist text. Another is the feminist movement’s general need for heroines, which has had a similar effect on the posthumous reputation of Georgia O’Keeffe. A third, probably the most powerful, reason is Kahlo’s own personality, which combined self-assertion, defiance and masochism in almost equal proportions. In this respect Kahlo can be compared with a slightly later generation of English-language poets, male and female. Prominent among them are Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.