| Frida Kahlo |
By Luis-Martin Lozano
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In the imagination of the world, Frida Kahlo is a succession of self-portraits and portraits. More important than her fame and abounding legends, there is her photogenic and-if we can coin the term-"portrait-genic" quality, an aptitude for always conveying memorable features. Frida is a myth in the sense that she represents to a host of different groups and individuals certain values and deep emotions; and she is the visual and existential consequence of a whole range of stimuli. Although at this point it is impossible to know which came first (the myth or the person of the same name), one thing is certain: In the complex phenomenon that is Frida Kahlo, the self-portrait is a constant distinguishing element.
Making a portrait of Frida-consider the extraordinary series by Lola Alvarez Bravo-means embarking on a process that seeks to capture in images the spell or singularity of a being who is as fragile as she is powerful. For her part, Frida chooses a powerful method of isolation from and relationship with the world: the self-portrait, idealization that is materialization, the reflection that becomes the cruelest of mirages ("Here I, Frida Kahlo, paint myself, the image in the mirror"). In her pictorial versions of herself, Frida opts for a game of substitution. Allegory, according to Helena Beristÿin in her Dictionary of Rhetoric and Poetics, is the disappearance of an apparent or literal meaning in favor of another, deeper meaning. In this sense, Frida is the face that is effaced, that makes way for the emblematizing of melancholy, of the woman whose mask is her true face, of the creator who recognizes herself only in the crystalline surface of the canvas, of the woman who is solitary out of necessity and who has been alone so much she must create her double. "If the water is good/drink/don't ask where it comes from," writes Juan Ruiz de Alarcón; to which Frida might have added, "If the symbol is pleasing/ look/ don't ask where it leads."
As a Baroque poet might have said, when you are no longer what you see, you have become what you have painted. Without resorting to such rhetoric, Frida nonetheless favored allegory as the concrete rendering of an abstract idea. Like all great self-portraitists, she ceases to be an abstraction only when she paints herself; she abandons unreality only when she turns herself into fÿbula. Her most powerful and celebrated body of work is also the richest in meaning. In her self-portraits, Frida is:
self-worship explained and rationalized by the dying trance; suffering, for which the painting is a lay confessional ("I confess before you, witness of this painting, in order to attain the serenity needed to vanquish pain"); Mother Nature surrounded by monkeys, creatures that literally fly in the face of paralysis; the queen who has chosen enormous braids for her crown; the contented pride of the owner of a single, defiant eyebrow; the transformation of traditional dress into an ornamental nation; the eruption of Christian suffering into landscapes filled with empathic animals; the woman who requires her double, the Frida who is herself and the other, in spite of the linking of their hearts; the renunciation of a part of herself (her long hair) as a sign of casting off her self-love: "If I loved you, it was for your hair, / now that you are bald, I don't love you"; the sick woman in bed brought face to face with her dreams by a cardboard effigy of Judas, that is, a skeleton that is an arsenal of fireworks and an act of faith in death; the Mexican woman who looms gigantically over the border between Mexico and the United States, that is to say, between the cosmogonic past of tradition and technology with its new ceremonial centers; the fruit of the genealogical tree blended in with landscapes and buildings; the center of a popular culture of sumptuous clothing and flower offerings, of delightful handicrafts, Xoloitzcuintle dogs, and dolls; the creature observing as the water in the bathtub overflows with autobiographical references, with drowning women, erupting volcanoes, predictably monstrous feet, the artist's parents, a Tehuanan dress, enormous flowers, the pair of Fridas; the serenity before, during, and after the storm; the little Frida-deer shot through with arrows, wounded by the marks of identity.
"And you, long-suffering horizontal line." (Carlos Pellicer)
If to the photographic camera Frida radiates her pictorial qualities ("I am a person, taking photos of me comes close to making a painting," could be her message), her self-portraits, guided by a remarkable intuition, overflow with symbols that may or may not be explained and that last like hallucinations. She is severe when she is tender and tender when she is harsh, she paints herself calmly so as not to admit emotions without pretext, and she ridicules herself and the ideas that people have about her. Frida-the Lovely Lady Without Pity, even for herself-records her raison d'être et de souffrir, her heraldic motto, the strength and center of her frailties: the refusal to distinguish between dream and nightmare, foreboding and suffering. As in few cases, the work is the exorcism evoked by suffering and rage in order to relieve a body that harbors so much malignity; as in few cases, Frida's oeuvre translates inexpressible injury into visions of rebirth. Surviving tragedy is the first principle of resurrection. As we know, Frida also worked with other themes, producing portraits for friends and on commission, as well as still-lifes, political fantasies, and panoramas. But her self-portraits are her greatest achievement, the distillation of all her wisdom, love, resentment and floral and faunal inventions, and the element without which everything else would be forgotten: her great plastic talent. It is that brilliant instinct that reworked the figure of Frida Kahlo, the Mexican, the partner of artist Diego Rivera, the woman eager for divers amorous experiences, and turned it into an obsessive reference to one of the female creators of the twentieth century who begins as a marginal note and ends up in a central position. It did not take long after her death for her project to become clear. The key to her work found in the way the author depicts herself to the world.
Her whole discourse is encoded: the parents and grandparent the nanny who is Earth and Tradition and the assurance of perpetual childhood; the recounting of her operations; the fetus a the family tree cut down by misfortune; and-the axis of life and of her mythology-her obsession with Diego, which can be seen a emotional dependence and symbolic desire. Diego portrayed on Frida's forehead is not so much the binding together of two beings as a public rejection of isolation. The strong link with Diego is moreover the couple's complementation of two extremes: minute Eve and gigantic Adam; inconceivable Romeo and sacrificial Juliet; the man whose vocation is Genesis and the woman already living the Apocalypse.
"The miracle that travels through the veins of the air."
In the retablos and ex-votos, Frida learns to construct a subverted Eden where the meaning of forms depends on the relationship between innocence and the desire for a reconciled return to childhood. In some of her most portentous canvases-La columna rota (The Broken Column) and Sin esperanza (Without Hope), for example-the destruction of the body and the ingestion of entrails goes against any utopian, romantic, or sentimental vision; in other paintings, the evocation of retablos permits the equivalent of an act of thanks for grace received. In this sense, Viva la vida is an ex-voto without theology but overflowing with mysticism; so, too, is Árbol de la esperanza, mantente firme (Tree of Hope). In this last work the tradition of ex-votos is magnificently transformed: one Frida, on the edge of a geological fault, holding her corset and a sign on which the lyrics of the song Cielito lindo are tantamount to a proclamation, accompanies the other Frida, who is lying on a stretcher in a fractured landscape, traversed by shadows and shining celestial bodies. Life goes on, and this explains the religious undertone; but is also a form of art, and this demands elements that crush optimism without eliminating it completely.
Poliomyelitis, hypertrophic leg, rigid foot and bent, clawlike toes, plaster casts, open ulcers, the resolute blood of everyday life ("My blood," she tells Diego, "is the miracle that travels through the veins of the air, from my heart to yours"), orthopedic corsets, a fixation on the graft at the base of her spine, scoliosis, or curvature of the spine, painkillers . . . This horizon of illness is transferred to the paintings in order to suppress self-delusion and, at the same time, erase the boundary between art and tortured physiology. The strategy is extraordinary: It never guarantees relief (though some relief is gained), but rather it produces paintings detached from the suffering that is never completely neutralized. Here, indeed, is an indication of the artist's timelessness. Despite hundreds of thousands of reproductions and retrospectives in major museums, publications, and films, the essence of Frida Kahlo's painting cannot be reduced to causes, to "national traits," to admiration for a life at once so tragic and marvelous. How can we "assimilate" a painting like Mi nacimiento (My Birth), in which Frida comes into the world at once an adult and stillborn? How can we incorporate this mixture of rejoicing and pain?
From very early on, Frida perceived illness as a visionary state. In a letter to her first boyfriend, Alejandro Gómez Arias, written one year after the terrible accident, she describes the bitterness of her convalescence:
Why do you study so much? What secret are you looking for? Life will reveal it to you very soon. I already know everything, without reading or writing. Not very long ago, maybe only a few days back, I was a girl going her way through a world of precise and tangible colors and forms. Everything was mysterious, and something was always hidden; guessing at nature was a game for me. If only I had known how hard it is to gain knowledge so suddenly, as though the Earth had been elucidated by a single ray of light! Now I live on a planet of pain, transparent like ice. It is as if I'd understood everything all at once, in a matter of seconds. My best friends and the girls I know have slowly become women. I grew old in a few seconds, and now everything is bland and flat. I know that there is nothing else, because if there were, I would see it.
The cost of sudden knowledge is very high, and much of Frida work must be understood as her effort to turn lucidity into prophecy, to express extreme suffering pictorially, without allowing for pity or self-pity.
"Nothing is more ridiculous than tragedy."
For Frida, painting takes on the inevitable form of physical and allegorical liberation from sickness, from corsets, hospitals, and numerous operations, including the amputation of her left leg in 1953. She tries to transform pain into artistic expression, routine everyday suffering into creative effort, memories into love scenes and does so by combining her remarkable formal intuition, her all-pervasive lyricism, and provocative energy. Here, in this fusion of opposites, she immerses herself in the light her body refuses her splits herself into desire and redemption, takes root and reverberates in her mutilations, finds refuge in the images she has appointed to represent her. She is free in her illusion and in the verbal and pictorial imaginings with which she counters suffering. She writes in her diary:
"Nothing is more important than laughter." Laughing and letting go and feeling lighter give one strength. Tragedy is the most ridiculous thing "man" has, and I am sure that however much animals "suffer," they never exhibit their "pain" in open "theaters" or "behind doors" (in their "home"). Their colors are truer than any image that any man may "represent" as painful.
How is it possible to uphold the extreme statement that "Nothing is more ridiculous than tragedy"? As an antidote to her physical condition, Frida has a store of images, sensations, feelings, and situations that quickly become dispensations from tragedy. At the center is Diego Rivera, the adoptable child, the being that can be generated, more a depository of words and tumultuous emotions than a person:
Nothing compares to your hands, nothing compares to your gold-green eyes. My body fills up with you for days and days, you are the mirror of night, the violent flash of lightning, the Earth's humidity. The hollow of your armpit is my refuge, my fingertips touch your blood. All my joy is in feeling life flow from your spring-flower, filling all the paths of my nerves, which are your own.
The metamorphosis of Diego, one of the axes of Frida's work, is unending. For Frida, Diego is creative impulse, terra firma, the lost creature in the great orphanage of time ("children are days," insists Frida). She baptizes him, reverently, the "mirror of night": "You will be called AUXOCHROMOS, he who attracts color. I am CHROMOPHOROS, she who gives color. You are all the combinations of numbers. You are life." In Frida, there is the rational delirium of a spirit that uses mysticism as a deposit for its afflictions. In this small, immense world, in this sphere of contradictions, the real Diego and the one invented by Frida's loving mythomania, is religious worship, the transcendent answer to pain; he is the whole that, without paradox, is protected by one of the parts. "Nothing is absolute," claims Frida, and yet beyond this dialectical blueprint she does represent Diego as absolute, as diversity in unity, as the universe. In her rosary of attributes ("Diego-the beginning, Diego-the constructor . . . "), Frida does not intend to be taken seriously, for, in converting to a religion where God, the saints, and the temples are named Diego Rivera, she passes through love to a cosmogony, from affliction to meditation:
No one will ever know how much I love Diego . . . if I had health I would give it all to him; if I had youth, he could have it all. I am not only his mother, I am the embryo, the seed, the first cell from whose potential he was engendered. I am he, beginning from the most primitive . . . ancient cells, which over time have become "feeling. "
"I am Melibeo," says Calisto in a similar context in La Celestina. In Frida's case, however-and there are numerous examples-pain is so ruthless that the amorous conversion becomes a pact with feelings, the coherent or rational thought that a belief will concede to its faithful. In order not to compete verbally with tragedy, Frida assumes the sanctity of (provisional and definitive) love, placing galaxies in ex-votos in which one glimpses the wonder of the resurrection in the simple act of unconditional love: Árbol de la esperanza, mantente firme (Tree of Hope). Frida expresses herself with tenderness, compassion, and frenzy, with her "eyes open, her Diego feelings"; she uses lively colors to brighten her spirit, draws pyramids and suns and moons and Fridas and eye lizards and dogs. She turns repeatedly to her religious obsessions, which may take the form of Lenin, Stalin, or Mao. While politics for Frida never is and never can be everything, politics does eventually become the most prestigious form of religious expression, the coal seller's faith (historical materialism), the belief that imposes itself on the barely heard barrage of information. Stalin died in March 1953, and Frida, with the anguish of a believer whose own life has merged with the conditioned reflexes of faith, wrote: "THE WORLD, MEXICO, ALL THE UNIVERSE have lost their balance with the loss of Stalin."
Frida had an affair with Trotsky, bore witness to the monstrous Stalinist persecutions of Trotsky and Rivera, and knew about the Moscow Trials. Nevertheless, in the world of such personal and fantastic images and words, she proudly includes the most oppressive representations of history. "Faith," according to St. Paul, "is the substance of things that are wished for, the proof of things that cannot be seen," Faith in humanity, to be reborn as a particle among the masses, and in collective awareness, which will displace individual pain, leads Frida to apologize:
I am very uneasy about the enterprise of my painting- especially because [I want it to be] useful to the Communist revolutionary movement. Until now I have painted only the expression of myself-honestly, but totally removed from the need for my painting to serve the Party. I must fight with all my strength to turn what little positive energy my poor health has left me toward aiding the revolution. The only real reason for living.
I don't doubt Frida's sincerity in this passage, but I cannot deny the evidence of her work, where reasons both for living and for despair intertwine and do battle. In Frida's case, the revolution is at once a genuine passion and the promised land, but this militant zeal (the great embellishment of an existence guided daily by. other premises) is by no means a central impulse. If faith, for Frida, is synonymous with Communism and with history and with the struggle against imperialism, at a certain level (that of destiny, which becomes clearer even as the emotional structure is defined by agony) faith is also the transformation of desire into something planetary; it is consolation through images and the poetic word. In one drawing, she boasts about her flights of spirit, declaring: "Feet, why do I want them, when I have wings for flying"; and in a text written after the loss of her leg in July 1953, the Frida-angel trembles, renounces her symbols but not her freedom:
Points of support
For my whole figure there is only one; I want two.
To provide me two they had to cut off one.
The one I don't have is the one I need to have
in order to walk. The other is already dead!
I have more than enough wings.
So cut them.
I'll fly away!
In this singular religiosity there is a constant yearning for poetic expression. If, at times, Frida appears, despite her denials, to lean toward surrealist forms and techniques, this is due not only to her personal contacts and the influences of her time but also to her love for poetry, which is, for her, the perfect language, the way to connect with art: "Don't let the tree go thirsty/you are its sun/it has stored up your seed. /The name of love is 'Diego."'
Love is the territory par excellence of the poetic-which, for Frida, meant that which could not be contained. In her vision of verbal beauty, even new poetic words are justified, as long as the essence (the delivery) remains. Frida writes: "'Classical' love . . . / [without arrows] /only/with sperm."
Frida Kahlo has been an exotic fashion and is today the durable synthesis of many distinct realities, as evidenced by her painting, by the multiple aspects of her life (as artist, invalid, lover, Trotskyist, Communist), and by the various ways in which her work resonates. Frida notes: "You rain me-I sky you," and this surprising metaphor can be translated to the paintings, in which with supreme vigor it rains and skies. Like Icelti, Frida is "she who gave birth to herself," she who engenders the unique and diverse character of the self-portraits, where narcissism is dissolved in service of the miraculous image of the retablo, where she who suffers and loves and is surrounded by animals gives thanks to art for the radical continuity of her existence and cries out for the supreme harmony of fragments: "I AM DISINTEGRATION."
Frida explains: "Nothing is so natural as painting that which we haven't achieved," and in her case this means the development and multiplicity of the I. In a self-portrait from her diary, Frida, who is depicted as a broken vase, bellows: DON'T CRY FOR ME!, and in the next drawing, she replies: I WILL CRY FOR YOU! Pain is the supreme militancy, the cause she embraces and battles, the point of departure, the hell that will abolish death. In her pictorial and written invocation, the I rains down, the I splits and proffers light, the I descends into the penumbra, furnishing it with shape and color. In Frida there is a coexistence of "despair no word can describe," mockery in the face of death, conflation of memories imagined and true, the solitude of the body imposing itself on the gregarious spirit, the driving need to seize the poetic (the spirit in full transcendence), and the extraordinary work-the desire to be sustained by what is irrefutably a succession, a bloodline, a landscape of lasting images.
Excerpted from Frida Kahlo , by Luis-Martin Lozano . Copyright (c) 2000 by Landucci Editores, S. A. de C. V. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top