Frida Kahlo in 1926

Frida Kahlo in 1926.
 Photo: Guillermo Kahlo. Courtesy of Isolda Kahlo

Who was Frida Kahlo? 51 years after her death, there are as many answers to the question as there are audiences to ask it. Kahlo is variously enshrined in the popular imagination as a bohemian artist, a victim turned survivor, proto-feminist, sexual adventurer who challenged gender boundaries, and, with her mixed-race parentage, an embodiment of a hybrid, postcolonial world.

Indeed, Kahlo’s position as a globally recognised cult figure has become so powerful that at times it threatens to overshadow her art. First and foremost, Frida Kahlo was a painter, and for this reason Tate Modern’s exhibition focuses upon the frank testimony of the paintings themselves.

Between 1926, when she made her first self-portrait, and her death in 1954, Kahlo produced around 200 images. Certainly the biographical details of her remarkable life inflect many aspects of her work, yet her depiction of her body and experiences can also be seen as a response to wider cultural and political debates. For all their apparent naivety, her works frequently reveal an incendiary subtext, whether they are questioning power relationships between developed and developing nations, testing the role of women within a patriarchal society, or attempting to reconcile the global histories and religions of East and West.