This stunning visual sense is no accident; Madonna has spent a lifetime studying photographs, black-and-white movies and paintings. "She is the perfect example of the visual artist," notes graffiti artist and cultural commentator Fab Five Freddie, who watched her blossom during her years in New York. "These days you cannot have longevity in the pop game without a firm understanding of the image. She has that and goes so much deeper than people give her credit for. How many pop singers have ever heard of Frida Kahlo, for example, let alone wanted to make a movie about her?"
It is the Mexican artist's striking work My Birth that greets visitors to Madonna's New York apartment, a painting which she uses as a kind of social litmus test, stating that if a guest fails to appreciate the work she could never consider him or her a friend. Her art collection, carefully chosen over twenty years, means so much to her that she would rather be remembered as a modern-day Peggy Guggenheim than as a singer and actress. "Paintings are my secret garden and my passion. My reward and my nice sin," she says, the works in her collection acting as indicators to the many paradoxes of her complex personality.
So, for example, in Kahlo's My Birth, the painter imagined her own birth without male intervention, an image that not only undercuts the traditional notion of the female as womb but presents woman as self-reliant, independent and strong, themes which have informed both artists' work. As she was to show more fully with her roles as an actress, particularly as Eva Peron in Evita, Madonna only seems to understand the world around her in terms of herself. So, she not only appreciates Kahlo's paintings, but personally identifies her own life with that of the tragic artist who saw herself as existing outside conventional society. "I worship Frida Kahlo paintings because they reek of her sadness and her pain," says Madonna, who admires strong beauties like Georgia O'Keefe, Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo. Similarly, the singer empathizes with the lifestyle of Art Deco artist Tamara de Lempicka, whose erotic portraits of stylish sybarites adorn her apartment. She shares Lempicka's biographer's view that the painter's place in the pantheon of modern artists has been denied because, bisexual and libidinous as she was, she was seen as being sexually and politically incorrect. Inevitably perhaps, Madonna sees her own life reflected in the painter's resistance to conformation with sexual norms.