On Frida Kahlo’s Jewish Identity

This past Sunday, May 18th, marked the end of the Frida Kahlo exhibit this year at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. My friend Robyn and I caught it just before its expiry along with hordes of locals who had waited till the last moment. Outside, pregnant rain clouds were birthing a fury of elements, a meteorological interruption of the Philly Jewish community’s Israel [at] 60 parade festivities taking place in Logan Circle and Ben Franklin Parkway, just outside the museum. More about the parade in another post.

Robyn and I purchased our tickets and waited patiently in the long exhibit queue where we had an opportunity to look at Diego Rivera’s Liberation of the Peon (1931). Once through the entrance, we accepted the audio guides and commenced our study of the work of Frida Kahlo. Narration on the tour was provided by a device contained a small LCD screen, a keypad, and pause, stop, and play audio buttons, as well as attached earphones. To play the commentary for a particular image, one would simply press in the keypad the number listed next to the painting on the wall of the gallery. In addition to the audio commentary, informative text was also silk screened onto the walls of the gallery adjoining the paintings and photographs displayed.

This exhibit originally began its tour with the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The fancy Antenna Audio gadget that had been used in these earlier Kahlo exhibits was for some reason not used for this show at the PMA. I’m not certain why. Also, the audio provided was not that of the exhibit curator Hayden Herrera, or her assistant Elizabeth Carpenter, but from some other British man. (I’m still trying to find out who this is.) The narration began:

Frida Kahlo was born on July 6, 1907 in Coyoacán, a southern suburb of Mexico City, the third daughter of a German father and a mother of Spanish and Native American descent.

I was immediately perplexed. Wasn’t Frida Kahlo Jewish? if she wasn’t Jewish, was I the only one so misinformed? If she was, why the omission? Was it too early in the exhibit to navigate the complexities of Jewish identity for such an already complicated artist? I confess I began to feel a little annoyed. Was Frida’s father Guillermo (née Wilhelm) Kahlo’s Hungarian-Jewish ancestry so irrelevant and besides the point to exclude it? Frida’s indigenous ancestry heritage and Mexican socialist nationalism is well known because they are so much a part of her art work. But Frida herself claimed to be the granddaughter of Hungarian Jews that emigrated to Germany in the 19th century. Isn’t that significant? In an article on a 2007 Kahlo exhibit, Gannit Ankori, an Israeli art historian specializing in Frida Kahlo explained,

Kahlo testified “many times” about her Jewish identity, “stressing that her paternal grandparents, Henriette Kaufmann and Jakob Kahlo, were Jews from the city of Arad [in Transylvania].” Further, many people who knew Frida and Wilhelm, such as Frida’s biographer, Hayden Herrera, and Frida’s husband Diego Rivera’s biographer, Bertram Wolfe, personally repeated this fact.

Frida Kahlo with her paternal grandparents, Henriette Kaufmann and Jakob Kahlo.

Frida Kahlo with her paternal grandparents, Henriette Kaufmann and Jakob Kahlo.

It seemed a mistake to omit the fact that expatriate Eurpoean Jews made up an important core of the radical progressive political and art scene that Kahlo and her husband Diego inhabited, the most famous of whom was Leon Trotsky. This seems important since international political movements, socialism, communism, and anarchism accepted the contributions of Jews at a time when anti-Jewish sentiment was profound and ubiquitous. Although anti-Semitism persisted (and still persists) in the Left, Guillermo Kahlo and his daughter, could find sanctuary among contemporaries more enlightened than fascist nationalists.

Perhaps the omission of Frida’s Jewish heritage in the exhibit stemmed from ambivalence as to what to make of Jewish identity, secular/religious/national/ethnic/racial Jewish identity, let alone consider the specific question of how Frida understood herself as a Jew or of Jewish ancestry. Now I understand Judaism as not only a religion but also as a civilization with an enduring culture, the religious aspect of which cannot be easily or honestly excised. Judaism is the inspiration for Zionism, a modern nationalist and socialist movement of liberation and self-determination. So it’s omplicated and I don’t expect other Jews and especially non-Jewish art historians to think like Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan on this subject. If Kahlo’s Jewish ancestry was only understood to be a religious identity, then commenting on her Jewish parentage might be considered irrelevant and misleading.

But what did Kahlo think of her Jewish heritage? How did she self-identify?


Mes grands-parents, mes parents et moi (1936)

Mes grands-parents, mes parents et moi (1936)

After some research it was clear I wasn’t alone in my understanding. Frida’s Jewish identity was substantial enough to inspire a 2003 exhibition on Frida Kahlo at the Jewish Museum: “‘Frida Kahlo’s Intimate Family Picture,” curated by Ankori. The exhibit focused on a painting, “My Grandparents, My Parents and I,” in which Frida illustrated her connection to her immediate ancestors. Grace Glueck for the NY Times Art Review explains,

”My Grandparents” shows Frida as a small child, standing naked in the courtyard of the Casa Azul, the comfortable home built by her father in Coyoacán, then a village south of Mexico City, where Frida spent most of her life. (She died there, and it is now the Frida Kahlo Museum.) In her right hand she holds a ribbon that flows upward on either side of the picture to support floating portraits of each set of grandparents; the Mexican couple on the left, the Hungarian-Jewish pair on the right. (From her Kahlo grandmother [Henriette Kaufmann], Frida apparently inherited those awesome black eyebrows that almost met in the middle of her forehead.)

Fridas Vater: Der Fotograf Guillermo Kahlo (2005)

Fridas Vater: Der Fotograf Guillermo Kahlo (2005)

In 2005, Frida Kahlo’s genealogy on her father’s side was established by historical researchers Gaby Franger and Rainer Huhle for their book on Guillermo Kahlo’s photographic work, Fridas Vater: Der Fotograf Guillermo Kahlo (2005). The historians learned that Guillermo Kahlo was the scion of a long line of German Lutheran Protestants. Left uncertain was whether Frida’s Jewish ancestry was through her paternal grandmother, Henriette Kaufmann, or a complete fiction.

Personally, I’ll take Frida at her word. As cruel as it seems to me for an art exhiition curator to ignore Frida’s Jewish identity, it seems even more obnoxious to question it. I imagine that Henriette Kaufmann’s family was Jewish and hailed from Arad, not very distant from my own ancestral roots in Nagyvárad, Transylvania.

Perhaps more interesting than these genealogical questions is why Frida felt it important to claim and draw attention to her Jewish ancestry. What was the socio-cultural context that motivated her? Was Frida’s identification with Jews encouraged by her father or in the shadow of the Nazi’s terror, might he have preferred this to have remained a secret? Was it in vogue to have Jewish ancestry in artsy socialist circles in Mexico City? Or was Kahlo, in identifying her genealogy with Jews during the 1930s, declaring solidarity with another ethnic minority oppressed by fascists at the onset of Hitler’s campaign of extermination?

The complex construction of Kahlo’s identity and its relationship to anti-Nazi sentiments and Jewish sympathies was the subject of 2007 article in the Jewish Press by Menachem Wecker on a Kahlo exhibit in Washington, DC’s National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA). Wecker writes,

[Ankori] cited the position that Kahlo sought to distance herself from the Nazis based upon the fact that testimony about Wilhelm Kahlo’s Jewish background surfaced most frequently between 1936 and the 1940s. But she said over email, “I think in light of the new findings , these issues require further investigation. What is of great interest to me is not Wilhelm Kahlo’s ‘real’ religion, but Frida Kahlo’s construction of her self-image” insofar as it “impacted Kahlo’s self-image as manifested in her art.”

But later in Wecker’s article, Ankori does consider Wilhelm Kahlo’s “real religion” to be of interest, since besides Kahlo’s penchant for and mastery of her self-constructed image, she may very well have building a family tree to satisfy any doubts of her father’s identity in terms of both halakha (Jewish ritual law) and the Nazi’s ancestry laws. In short, what is relevant for Kahlo herself is whether her genealogy is Jewish enough to be murdered with her adopted semitic compatriots.

To Ankori, the question is whether Henriette Kaufmann was Jewish, since her Jewishness would make Wilhelm Jewish “according to both Jewish Halakha and Nazi laws.” If instead Wilhelm was a German Lutheran (Ankori says Lutheran, while Ronnen wrote Protestant), “why would Frida Kahlo ‘create’ a Hungarian Jewish genealogy for him and for herself?” Ankori wondered.

Even after Franger and Huhle’s book, for Jason Steiber, archivist at the NMWA, Kahlo remains a Jewish artist.

“I believe, without a doubt, that Frida Kahlo was a Jewish artist,” said Jason Stieber, archivist at the NMWA, through e-mail. But Stieber said other aspects of Kahlo’s identity played much greater roles in her life and work. “Frida was many things … and she embraced wholeheartedly everything that she was,” he said, noting that Frida “was proud of this lineage” and greatly delighted in “wheedling anti-Semites in America,” such as her famous inquiry put forth to Henry Ford of whether he was Jewish. Although she was an atheist, “she abhorred the Catholic religiosity of her mother,” and she “did embrace her Jewish ethnicity, if not the tenets of Judaic faith.”

“So yes, Frida was a Jewish artist,” Strieber continued, “however, I think she would have been more likely to refer to herself as a Mexican artist. Mexico held a very special place in heart and in her art.”

So I’ve been thinking about all of this and I’m left with an important quote that Wecker brings from an email in conversation with, Robin Cembalest, executive editor of ARTNews magazine, reveals the other side to the fascination with the question of Kahlo’s heritage.

“In my world the process of defining Jewish art, or what is Jewish in art, is both parlor game and intellectual exercise,” Cembalest wrote. “Either way, clearly it reveals as much about who is doing the assessing as it does about the figures we are claiming for our team.”

I think this is a remarkably clarifying and frustrating statement — clarifying in how it articulates how ethnic pride is commonly expressed by appropriating the achievements of individuals as evidence of community capabilities. It puts its finger on just that messy spot that an art historian might want to avoid in framing an artist’s life and work for public review. If art historians cannot see beyond chauvinist ethnic boosterism to understand the importance of identity politics in the lives and art of artists, then they are willingly blinding themselves to significant contextual meaning in understanding how artists like Frida understood themselves. I wonder what Frida would make of these questions and what she might say to art historians who might omit her Jewish identity.

I am proud of Frida Kahlo’s defiant solidarity with Jews in the face of fascism. But I want to underscore that as much as I feel this team pride (yay Jews!), I’d rather find in Frida yet another voice in what I consider to be an expansive psychedelic lineage woven through the universalist and panentheist fabric of esoteric and ethical Jewish thought. It calls to me. (Her work, “Moses (Nucleus of Creation)” (1945) feel expressive to me of this lineage.) We paint visions of universal liberation and call to one another with our banners, lending each other strength. None of us are alone so long as we can find one another. I am thrilled to be on her team.

Moses (Nucleus of Creation) - 1945

Moses (Nucleus of Creation) – 1945

About Aharon N. Varady

Aharon's Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, the Yiddish Forverts, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes. He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words. If you find his work helpful to your own or you'd simply like to support him, please consider donating via his Patreon account.

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