Frida Kahlo dated her birth to July 7, 1910. It was the year when the Mexican Revolution began and, to quote Virginia Wolfe, “human character changed.”
Kahlo’s birth certificate recorded a different date, July 6, 1907. Kahlo’s choice is significant, not because it shows her identification with Mexico or with cosmic alterations of human destiny. Rather, it demonstrates how Kahlo asserted herself, creating her own version of the facts of her life, literally from the day she was born.
As Kahlo lived, so she painted. The art critics and theorists of modern art, “these bunch of coocoo lunatic sons of bitches of the surrealists,” could write and pontificate all they wanted. It was her life and she defined it as she saw fit.
“I never painted dreams,” Kahlo stated emphatically. “I painted my own reality.”
In honor of the centennial of her birth, a major exhibition of Kahlo’s paintings has been touring the United States. After premiering last autumn at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Kahlo exhibition brought droves of art lovers to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, ending its run on May 18th. The exhibition just opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
The first reaction to this splendidly organized exhibition is to agree with Diego Rivera’s assessment of Kahlo’s art at her 1953 retrospective in Mexico City. “Anyone who attended it could not but marvel at her great talent. Even I was impressed when I saw all her work together.”
Rivera’s praise for his wife’s art was only the truth. The sheer range of the works displayed in the current exhibition testify to the magnitude of Kahlo’s innate talent and work ethic and the inspired way that she drew upon the strands of her personal life’s story to create an artistic oeuvre entirely her own.
Kahlo began painting while recuperating from the terrifying bus accident in 1925 which nearly killed her and from which she never really recovered. Without formal training or the opportunity to visit the great art collections of Europe and the United States, Kahlo achieved a high degree of artistic skill in an amazingly short period.
The early portraits, self-portraits and the famous double portrait of herself and Diego Rivera, painted to commemorate their wedding, highlight three significant influences on Kahlo’s art: the portrait photography of her father, Spanish colonial painting and Mexican folk art. To these factors must be added the enthusiasm she shared with Rivera for collecting Aztec and Mayan art.
In 1931, Kahlo painted “Frieda and Diego Rivera,” one of the first of her paintings on display in the current exhibition. Kahlo used flat, finely modulated brush stokes to execute this striking double portrait. With the exception of the flaming scarlet of her shawl, the color range is somber, dominated by the drab olive and earth tones of the background. At first glance, this might be a depiction of an 18th century Spanish official and his wife, with a dove bearing a banner in its beak proclaiming his status in the colonial government. Diego appears stiff and austere, yet self-assured as he clutches his paint brushes and palette as a viceroy would have held the ceremonial baton of his office. Frida, tiny of stature, with incredibly small feet, shrinks into the role of a submissive, obedient spouse.
Look more closely, and the pose and the brush work, seeming throwbacks to an earlier epoch, reveal a thoroughly modern work of art. “Frieda and Diego” is painted with a conscious echo of naive art to underscore the attractions and tensions of a marriage that was already like no other. The hands of Diego and Frida clasp without ever closing in a tender gesture of love. Frida’s head is tilted toward Diego at an odd, almost combative, angle. Her piercing eyes, focused dead ahead, recall those of a combat soldier’s “thousand yard stare.” Diego’s gaze, doubtful and defensive, without so much as a sidelong glance at Frida, belies the massive authority of his hulking body which fills so much of the picture plane.
By the time she painted “Frieda and Diego Rivera,” Kahlo had commenced the series of self-portraits that have come to define her art. “Self Portrait” painted in 1930, is a relatively straightforward work, an image of Kahlo clad in a turquoise dress without the symbolical elements of later paintings. Yet, when museum goers glimpse the deep, luminous pools of Kahlo’s dark eyes in this early self-portrait, they are transfixed. It is the beginning of a cycle of artist-viewer interaction that would continue throughout Kahlo’s self-portraits, an intense process of focusing the eyes and the brain that make these extraordinary works part of the life experience of the beholder as well as the painter’s.
Kahlo’s facility to depict the character and soul of her subject is readily apparent in two of the portraits appearing in the exhibition. In “Dona Rosita Morillo,” painted in 1944, Kahlo presents an elderly woman, one of Mexico’s “abuelas” or grandmothers. Strong and stoic, Dona Rosita appraises the world around her with skeptical regard. In the case of this matriarch, as in a number of Kahlo’s self-portraits, the background is filled with a dense jungle of foliage, creating a sense of encroaching fate that only the strength of Dona Rosita’s fortitude and resolve can hold at bay. In the foreground, Dona Rosita’s powerful hands, busily engaged in knitting, rise out of the picture, as if to hold a scarf or shawl for our inspection. This abuela is more than a careworn survivor, killing time as the world passes by. Rather, she is an active and indomitable protagonist, filling the space beyond the canvas with the force of her resolute personality.
By contrast, Kahlo’s 1937 portrait of a dead, three-year old child, “The Deceased Dimas,” depicts a heart-rending image, not merely of infant mortality, but of death incarnate. Dimas Rosas was Rivera’s god-child and is shown clad in the robe of a saint and surrounded by the accouterments of the Roman Catholic religion. Kahlo had long abandoned her Catholic faith and some commentators have detected a note of mockery for religious superstition in this painting. Kahlo, however, adored children and the graphic imagery of her own miscarriage in her 1932 painting “Henry Ford Hospital” provides abundant testimony of her sensitivity to the suffering of mothers and babies.
A small, easily-missed, detail provides a key to Kahlo’s empathy. Several drops of blood have seeped down from the mouth of the dead child, drying at the corner of his parted lips. One may believe or disbelieve in life hereafter, but the power of this one detail focuses all of our attention and emotion on this lost child. Kahlo compels sorrow – and identification – with this child so powerfully that “The Deceased Dimas” becomes a meditation on the mortality of us all.
Death, pain, struggle and a search for love were the stuff of Kahlo’s reality. And never more so than in the defining relationship of her life, her marriage to Diego Rivera. Kahlo famously declared that she experienced two accidents in her life, the bus collision that crushed her body and then in 1929 when she married Rivera.
Kahlo’s portrait of Diego Rivera, painted in the same year as “The Deceased Dimas” reveals her mastery of a realistic style that owed nothing to the colonial or folk art traditions. Rivera’s charisma and sexual appeal, the latter attribute which seems almost impossible to fathom given photos of the obese painter, dominate this brilliantly articulated portrait. So too is his complicated, multi-faceted personality. A habitual adulterer, as well as a jealous husband, Rivera was also a devoted proponent of Kahlo’s art and, whenever he had money, generous with financial support.
One of Kahlo’s lovers, the photographer Nickolas Muray provided an intriguing insight into why Kahlo maintained the bonds of her tortured marriage with Rivera. In a letter to Kahlo after the break-up of their affair in the winter of 1939, Muray wrote:
My dearest Frida – like you I’ve been starved for true affection. When you left I knew it was all over. Your instinct guided you wisely. You have done the only logical thing, for I could not transplant Mexico to New York for you and I’ve learned how essential that was for your happiness.
Murray knew he could not compete with the compelling attraction that Diego Rivera exerted on Kahlo. Rivera was a pillar of Kahlo’s “reality.” Her identity depended on the experience of their shared lives as interpreters and champions of Mexican culture and in the daily love-hate struggle of their marriage.
The love and hate, devotion and torment of these two “sacred monsters” provided the creative ferment for Kahlo’s double self-portrait, “The Two Fridas,” of 1939. Measuring 67 by 67 inches, it is the largest of Kahlo’s surviving paintings. Her self portraits are generally very much smaller. The signature work of the current exhibition, “Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird,” painted a year after “The Two Fridas,” measures 24 1/4 by 17 1/4 inches.
“The Two Fridas” is the “show-stopper” of the exhibition. It fills the gallery in which it is placed and exudes such a powerful presence that it exerts a magnetic force drawing you back even as you depart to the next room.
The skill with which “The Two Fridas” was painted shows Kahlo at the summit of her talent and energy – and at the beginning of the long collapse of her health. At the time she painted “The Two Fridas,” Kahlo spent much of her time hobbling on crutches or bed-ridden. A photo taken by Murray in 1940 shows her in traction, her eyes blankly staring at the camera with a despair that one never glimpses in her self-portraits.
But it was the anguish of her divorce from Rivera that fills “The Two Fridas” with such passionate intensity. As the title suggests, two images of Kahlo, nearly life size, appear on the canvas. One is clad in an ornate European-style dress, the bodice ripped open to reveal her shattered heart. The other wears one of Kahlo’s Tehuana dresses. Her heart, this time healthy, is shown superimposed on the Tehuana dress. The vein linking their hearts like a long-umbilical chord is gripped by the stricken Frida with medical forceps in a doomed attempt to staunch the flow of blood that leaks down onto her dress.
Kahlo painted “The Two Fridas” to record the pain of her separation from Rivera. Always a perceptive critic of his wife’s art, Rivera noted that much of her best work was done during the period of their divorce, a classic case of sublimating pain to creative achievement.
The “sacred monsters,” as Murray perceived, needed each other too much and Kahlo and Rivera were remarried at the end of 1940. Kahlo lived to paint several more masterpieces, notably “The Shattered Column” of 1944 which symbolizes the endless round of medical operations, rigid corsets and health regimens which tried without lasting success to halt her bodily disintegration.
Kahlo painted virtually to the end of her life, but her “reality” kept shrinking to her bedroom and the easel that enabled her to paint lying down. Ever resilient, Kahlo managed one last great work, painted in 1949, five years before her death. In “The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Diego, Me and Senior Xolotl,” Kahlo presents herself cradling an infant Diego, with cosmic forces of light and dark embracing them both. In a brilliant touch, Kahlo’s dog, Senior Xolotl, sleeps through the whole drama.
Thus at the end of her life, as at the beginning of her painting career, Kahlo transcended pain, infirmity and the approach of death. Art kept her alive and able to assert herself when all the factors of her life seemed destined to crush her into oblivion at an early age.
Art critics may speculate about the influences on Kahlo’s style or her place in modern art. In the end, these reflections, however valid some of the details may be, diminish Kahlo’s achievement.
The truth of Frida Kahlo’s life is startlingly simple. She recorded the realty of her life without flinching, creating for herself a world that conformed to her insights and her experience. And in the process, Frida Kahlo’s art became Frida Kahlo’s life.
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Ed Voves is a freelance writer, based in Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife, the artist Anne Lloyd, and a swarm of cats who love curling up with good books.
Mr. Voves graduated with a B.A. in History from LaSalle University in 1976 and a Masters in Information Science from Drexel University in 1989. After teaching for several years with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, he worked in the news research department for “The Philadelphia Inquirer” and the “Philadelphia Daily News,” 1985 to 2003. It was with the “Daily News,” that he began his freelance writing, doing book reviews and author interviews with such notable figures as Umberto Eco, Maurice Sendak, and Peter O’Toole. For the “Inquirer,” he specialized in reviews of major historical works. Following his time with the newspapers, he worked as an independent researcher for [email protected], the online journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He joined the staff of the Free Library of Philadelphia in 2005 and is currently the branch manager of the Kingsessing Branch in southwest Philadelphia. In 2006, he began writing for the “California Literary Review.” History of Yoga