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July 5, 2008

Frida Kahlo

Our potassium rich arts expert is at it again, and this time Chiquita's taking on Frida Kahlo.

Women burst onto the art scene with an explosion in the 20th century; no longer content to be relegated to the roles of artist’s helpers and muses merely, they demanded, as a whole, their rightful recognition for their very important contributions to society and the world of art. Everyone knows the name of the most famous female artist of the first half of the 1900s: the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

Frankly, no other female artist has given me such a conflicted impression; you see, she eschewed labels and couldn’t – or rather, WOULDN’T be subjected to a mold. She was a womanizer and a man hunter, but she wouldn’t have liked the term "bisexual". She painted in the style of the great Surrealists, but she violently rejected that label. She turned away from the predominant developing ideas of the art world in order to develop her own, and instead of seeking a muse, she turned inwards to find the source of her art’s vision. She was married to the famous painter/revolutionary activist Diego Rivera, and chafed in her role as his wife. A bus accident in 1925 shattered her pelvis and broke her leg, compounding her difficulties from an earlier bout with polio; as a result, she was unable to have children, and she never walked without a limp.

Her agonies stemmed from two distinct incidents in her life; as she put it:

"I suffered two grave accidents in my life. One in which a streetcar knocked me down... The other accident is Diego."
All of her art must be looked at with the idea of an autobiography in mind; her method of working through the pain was to document her isolation, heartache, loves, hates, hopes, fears…onto canvas. When her husband was in Detroit for a gallery showing, she went along and it was there she suffered a miscarriage, which inspired her famous Henry Ford Hospital painting.

Henry Ford Hospital

Surrounding Frida, you can see various items attached to her via six ribbons held in her hand by her stomach: a pelvis, a purple orchid, two spinal cords, a baby, a snail, and a salmon pink torso. Each item is rife with significance, carefully chosen to explain how she felt about the miscarriage; the background speaks of her longing for what she spoke lovingly of as Gringolandia: Mexico. The pelvis and spinal cords refer to the accident that made it impossible for her to carry a baby to term; the baby is little Dieguito, the child she lost; the orchid, a symbol for the female reproductive organs, was a gift to her from Diego; in the torso you can see the sperm that created the baby; in ancient Indian lore, the snail represented female sexuality – a symbol of conception, pregnancy and birth. Her bed floats in the middle of the scene, halfway between the earth and an industrial city: suffering alone, suspended between longing for her home in Mexico and her hospital bed in Detroit. With six symbols and her position in space, she speaks of her loneliness, despair, heartbreak, and homesickness.

Although superficially borrowing elements from the Surrealist movement, Frida was careful to avoid realism by following no rules but her own: that the painting make sense to her on her own terms and accurately narrate an event in her life.

It would be better to acknowledge Frida the way she saw herself: as a Mexican woman supplanted from her home into a strange land. No biography could have described her feelings for America better than her self-portrait of herself standing on the border between Mexico and the United States.

Self Portrait on the borderline between Mexico and the United States (1932)

Once again, you can see her standing, quite literally, on the borderline that separates the two countries; on the left is her homeland, showing the natural vegetation and indigenous beliefs that feel very organic in nature, and by contrast, on the right is the United States, symbolized by the metallic industrial products that drove the economy. The most telling contrast lies in the roots below her feet: her Mexico’s roots were still natural, whereas the United States’ roots were mechanical in nature.

She didn’t see herself as a bridge, however; her purpose was far less altruistic and more emotional – instead, she saw herself as a patriotic daughter of Mexico and used her paintings to convey her desire to be reunited with her country.

Another conflict that arose in researching her life and work has been the sheer magnitude of her work. Many, many, many paintings exist, all equally complex, equally significant in their reliance on the culture and heritage of Mexico. To research more fully and delve more deeply into her work, you may access a treasure trove of illustrations with accompanying descriptions.

Her personal life continued to batter her emotions: Diego began an affair with her sister Christina, which eventually led to a bitter divorce in 1935; however, they remarried in 1940, possibly so that Diego could take care of her in her declining health. They eventually moved back to Mexico, where she lived out the rest of her life in her Casa Azul, a very blue house that has since been converted into a museum devoted to her life and art.

Before she died in 1954, she finally faced her dread by painting about that which scared her most: death. She believed in the cycle of life and death, knowing that even her life would come to an end, but she was reluctant to give it up. She had an insatiable thirst for living, and it was with great fear that she began to deal with the emotions surrounding her death.

Thinking About Death (1943)

This time, instead of being juxtaposed against a background that showed her conflict between two worlds, she showed what was on her mind – literally. An opening in her forehead shows a skull and crossbones; she stands against a background of leafy thorns that almost push her toward the viewer, evoking a pre-Hispanic symbol representing the rebirth that follows death and the ensuing cycle.

Writing this blog has been a challenge to attempt to see her how she saw herself, especially since her form of autobiography is a large body of art. Frida has been thought of as many things: an artist, yes, but also a free woman, an independent woman, a sharp woman with an even sharper tongue, a Mexican woman, but most especially a woman who defined herself on her own terms, discarding the role others would have her fill. Judging from what we know of her art, perhaps we’re not too far off.

After going through Chiquita's links, we couldn't resist adding a few more images of our favorite pieces. It's definitely worth checking out everything.

The Dream (1940)

The Broken Column (1942)

Tree of Hope (1946)

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1 comment:

eizzy.k said...

Interesting stuff!!
not something i would want to hang in my house but interesting to muse at all the same!
I love the deliberate mono-brow though!