Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Happy Birthday, Frida

Nicholas Muray, Frida Kahlo with Idol #1, Mexico, ca 1940

For better or worse, Kahlo’s painful life and unique paintings have produced a romantic, feminist mythology of suffering and defiance in the face of physical and psychic pain. “Balzac has invented everything,” Colette wrote and he might have even invented Kahlo if she had not done so herself. Born to a Hungarian-Jewish father and a Spanish-Indian mother, Kahlo was a rebel even before the traumatic accident, which, at 18, left her with grim life-long medical problems. During her long recovery – which, in some ways, lasted the rest of her life – she used her art to express her pain.

She had met Rivera before her accident and was attracted to him, but it was during her convalescence, when she painted her first self-portrait, that they became friends and later, lovers. Like Jane Eyre, she could say “Dear Reader, I married him” and their tumultuous marriage lasted until her death (with one intermission for divorce and remarriage). Her marriage to the elephantine and womanizing Rivera was both a blessing and a curse. She is reputed to have said, "There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst." They were mutually unfaithful, tormented each other and yet, inspired and supported each other.

 The Broken Column, 1944

According to her biography, it was after her miscarriage in 1932 that she began to paint the works which would make her famous. Combining the folk imagery of Mexican retablos, the grotesque details of suffering present in 17th century Spanish polychrome religious art and surrealism, she portrayed feminine suffering in ways that had only previously been seen in the more extreme examples of religious art. Think Grünewald, think Northern Renaissance paintings of Christ on the cross, think of the cruelty and delight in pain of Meso-American art, translated into 20th century visual poetry.

As Hayden Herrera points out in her Biography of Frida Kahlo (1983), art was a solace. It was a way to say, “I am still here.” She turned her physical being into an icon of both masculinity and femininity. The unibrow, direct gaze and traces of mustache (less in real photos than the paintings) played up what she saw as the male aspect of her personal. But her vibrant clothing, flowing skirts, elaborate hair styles and jewelry were based on the traditional clothing style of the women of the Tehuana region of Mexico, who were the real figures of authority in their society. Nevertheless, although she claimed the authority of women in control, she also slavishly adored her over sized and unfaithful husband. (Sanford, The nerve of Frida Kahlo, NY Review of Books; Herrera, Chapter 8).

The Two Fridas, 1939, Oil on canvas, Collection of the Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City

Her painting repeatedly refers to the pain of her attachment to Rivera. Among the most famous of those is “The Two Fridas,” from 1939, about the time the couple briefly divorced. On the left, Frida is dressed as a bride, her heart open and a cut artery dripping blood onto the dress. On the right, the everyday Frida is strong, her heart is healthy and she holds a cameo of Rivera as a child, a symbol that her union with him is far deeper than that of a marriage. In numerous paintings, she cradles him, paints him as a quasi-religious icon or indicates, in paint, that he was the center of her life.

Much of her work was inspired by surrealism, a tag that she rejected when Andre Breton tried to recruit her into his circle. Yet, her work is replete with imagery from the subconscious and full of psychic pain as well as feminine strength (something which was lacking in in the male surrealist's view of women as either demon or muse). In "The Broken Column" (1944), she portrays her naked torso, with a metal rod in place of her spine and thick straps and nails holding her body together. In "The Little Deer" (1946), her face is attached to the body of a deer, which is bleeding from nine arrow wounds. And in "Without Hope" (1945), ailing in bed, she appears to be vomiting animals, fish and a skull.

Yet, it was not all paint, blood and suffering. She enjoyed life passionately – even during her many illnesses, she had enough joie de vie to say, “It is not worthwhile to leave this world without having had a little fun in life.”

"I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality," she claimed. And on another occasion, she noted. "I always paint whatever passes through my head, without any other consideration."

That was not strictly true. Her art reflects all sorts of influences, some European like Cubism and, yes, Surrealism - the predominant art style of the day. Other influences are are Mexican, not only that of her husband, but also of Aztec and Roman Catholic iconography. Given her many illnesses and surgeries, it is not surprising that she was obsessed with death. She was very Mexican, but her mixed heritage contributed to her originality.

She produced only about 200 paintings – primarily still life's and portraits of herself, family and friends. She also kept illuminated journals and did many drawings. It was during her and Riviera’s 1933 visit to America that she developed her signature style. While convalescing in Henry Ford Hospital after a traumatic miscarriage, she began to graphically convey her desolation and pain through her art.

During the last decade of her life, Kahlo’s health continued to deteriorate. She drank and took drugs to alleviate the pain and the works from this time are darker, with rougher surfaces. Yet, her caustic humor and playful wit could still charm. Just before her death, she incorporated the words Viva La Vida (Long Live life) into a lush, richly painted still life of watermelons.

Viva la vida. 1954. Oil on masonite. 59 x 50.7 cm. Frida Kahlo Museum, Mexico City, Mexico.

She died in her sleep in 1954 at the age of 47, apparently from an embolism. There was a suspicion among those close to her that she had found a way to commit suicide but others reject the idea. Her last diary entry read: 'I hope the end is joyful - and I hope never to come back - Frida.'" Tucked away in the retrospective is an anonymous newspaper photograph of her state funeral. Rivera is there, his sadness evident. He only outlived her by three years.

Frida Kahlo: July 6, 1907 - July 13, 1954

Tribute to Frida: http://womeninthearts.wordpress.com/

1 comment:

A Cuban In London said...

This is one of the most fascinating artists I've come across. And yet I know so little of her. That's not because I'm not interested in her life - and your column was excellent in flagging up aspects of her personality and work that are often subject to myth and hearsay - but because I want to have nothing else on my mind when I read about Frida. I have seen her works many times, or reproductions of it, rather, and I have never ceased to be amazed by the quality and strength of them, even the ones that are not supposed to convey vigour, like the last painting (top to bottom) you posted.

Many thanks for such a fabulous post.

Greetings from London.