The Lost Secret: Frida Kahlo and the Surrealist Imaginary

Alyce Mahon

Abstract


André Breton’s discovery of the art of Frida Kahlo in Mexico in April 1938 guided the path his interests would take during and after World War II: towards the indigenous and mythical. His support guided Kahlo in turn as she soon enjoyed a solo show at the Julien Levy Gallery on East 57th Street in New York in November 1938. Involvement in major international shows followed: the ‘Mexique’ show at the Renou et Colle Gallery in Paris in 1939, the ‘Exposicion Internacional del Surrealismo’, at Ines Amor’s Galeria de Arte Mexicano in Mexico City in January 1940, the landmark ‘Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art’ exhibition at New York MOMA in 1940, and the ‘Exhibition by 31 Women’, at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century Gallery in New York in 1943. Kahlo stood on the borderline of Mexico, New York and Paris, uniting all three cities in their avant-garde aspirations. She offered an intensely personal and proto feminist iconography at a time of immense political and cultural anxiety and recognised and reinforced the potential of the feminine as revolutionary force. She thus played a key role in Breton’s ambitions for Surrealism but also in the geography of modernism itself. This essay considers how Breton and Kahlo’s relationship went beyond that of the once colonised (Kahlo) and the enamoured European (Breton), and argues that her appeal and feminine potential was rooted in an avant-garde internationalism and geopolitical vision which is all too often overlooked. Herein lies the real significance of the “lost secret” she could reveal.

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