Saturday, February 25, 2012

Frida Kahlo

"I paint my own reality. The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to, and I paint whatever passes through my head without any other consideration" - Frida Kahlo

I have always been drawn to the fierceness of Frida Kahlo’s paintings. Diego Rivera once described her art as “acid and tender, hard as steel and delicate as a butterfly’s wing, loveable as a beautiful smile, and profound and cruel as the bitterness of life”. Indeed, she had a rare gift: the ability to open her heart on canvas, and to lay bear the deepest human emotions.
I still remember the first time I saw one of her paintings. It was in the 5th grade in my elementary art class and I, along with many of my fellow classmates giggled at her bold unibrow and intricate hairstyle. As the years went by I saw more of her paintings, and began to admire a certain distinctness, a raw quality, to her work. However, to truly appreciate her paintings, it is imperative that you understand her life. Frida explained simply, “My painting carries within it the message of pain”. And indeed, her life was unfortunately often filled with pain.
Born in Coyoacán, a fashionable suburb of Mexico City, Kahlo contracted polio at age 6, leaving her with one wasted leg and a slight limp for the rest of her life. Nevertheless, the feisty girl recovered and she became one of the first women to attend La Escuela Nacional Preparatoria. Originally planning on practicing medicine, her dreams were cut short when in 1925 she was injured in a horrific tram accident. The crash would have lifelong implications, leaving her with horrible back pain for the rest of her life and preventing her from ever carrying a child to term. Confined to her bed for months, doctors did their best to mend her broken body. Held largely immobile within a series of molded plaster casts for many months, she began to paint.
Although she never received any formal training, Frida was often surrounded by artists. She married the famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera on August 21, 1929, despite her family’s objections. There’s would prove a most tumultuous and wild relationship. In 1930 the couple left Mexico for San Francisco after Rivera received a commission to paint a mural for the Luncheon Club at the San Francisco Stock Exchange. The couple then moved to New York and later Detroit as new commissions were offered. While Rivera bustled with work and passion for this new world, Frida often felt lonely and longed to return to her Mexican homeland. On July 4, 1932 she suffered a terrible miscarriage. The pain, both emotional and physical, from this experience inspired her painting Henry Ford Hospital (The Flying Bed). Soon after, she received news that her mother’s health was deteriorating quickly and hastily returned to Mexico. Her mother died a mere week later.
Meanwhile, Diego had begun painting a mural for the Radio City building in the Rockefeller Center. After making Lenin the face of one of the trade unionists in the work the mural was torn down. Frida, feeling both the pain of her recent miscarriage and the death of her mother, as well as the familiar feelings of homesickness and isolation in what she now saw as the cold, gray world of New York, she painted My Dress Hangs There  (1933).
Angry and humiliated, Diego agreed to return to Mexico. The couple lived in a pair of houses connected by a suspended flight of stairs, a symbol of their marriage. After Kahlo discovered that Rivera was having an affair with her younger sister Cristina, the couple separated, but united in providing asylum for Leon Trotsky and his wife, who had recently been expelled from Norway. Kahlo played hostess for the couple at her beautiful “Casa Azul”, that had been built by her father many years before. It was there that Frida and Trotsky began a brief affair. The dangers of this relationship were great however. In parting, she gave him her Self-portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, a beautiful and alluring self-representation.
It was around this time that Kahlo began getting commissions for her work, and achieved successful exhibitions in New York and Paris. Again discovering that Rivera had engaged in an another affair with her sister, the devastated Kahlo demanded a divorce. Overcome with feelings of pain and betrayal, Kahlo painted the heartwrenching The Two Fridas  (1939) and Self-portrait with Cropped Hair (1940).
The couple eventually remarried, but Kahlo’s health was diminishing. In constant excruciating pain, Kahlo underwent more unsuccessful surgeries for her back, portraying her misery in The Broken Column (1944). Despite her condition, she was determined to make an appearance at her first solo exhibition in Mexico, and arrived in spectacular fashion, carried in on her bed.
Contracting gangrene, Kahlo had to have her right leg amputated below the knee. Although exhausted and in a great deal of pain, she took part in her final Communist demonstration on July 2, 1954 against the CIA’s overthrow of the democratic government of Guatemala. She died at the Casa Azul just 11 days later.

In her last days, she wrote "I hope the leaving is joyful and I hope never to return". Her indomitable spirit and bravery continues to be an inspiration to me.

Henry Ford Hospital (The Flying Bed) (1932)

Frida painted this after her miscarriage in Detroit. The cold factories and smokestacks in the background, along with the barren landscape, portray her loneliness and homesickness for the vibrancy and colors of Mexico. She is surrounded by the medical world, tormented by her chronic injuries sustained in the tram accident (the pelvis), and the slow ache of emotional and physical pain (the snail).

My Dress Hangs There (1933)

Frida drew this while in New York, longing for home and sharing Diego's horror after his mural was ripped down for including the face of Lenin. Frida uses her art to point out all that she sees wrong with the "progress" of America; from the dollar bill in the church window, to the trash and fire of the streets contrasted with the wealthy woman in the window. Like her dress, Frida feels suspended, out of place in this world.

The Two Fridas (1939)

Frida painted this around the time of her divorce from Diego. She seems to rely on herself from strength, the bleeding heart connected to the heart that is still whole. Her bold stare is brave and yet portrays a deep pain. Despite the flowing blood, the rest of the painting has a certain stillness to it.

Self Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940)

This stark painting was created a little later after her divorce from Diego. The stark colors and Kahlo's dark closes give a feeling of deep desolation. The painting emits pain, isolation, a certain bleakness in its simplicity. The hair seems to represent Diego. She has been cut free, but in a painful, destructive way.

The Broken Column (1944)

It was during this time that Frida was undergoing yet more surgeries for her damaged spine. She was in excruciating pain and here shows her frustration with her broken body. Her stares directly at the viewer, boldly exposing her wounds and the way that she is again confined, held together by braces. Frida often seems to use the background of her portraits to show her emotions. Again the scene is desolate, and the colors dark. Her spine forms a line, drawing your attention to her tear-stained face.

Works Cited
Burrus, Christina. Frida Kahlo: Painting Her Own Reality. New York, NY: Abrams, 2008. Print.

Carpenter, Elizabeth, Hayden Herrera, and Victor Zamudio-Taylor. Frida Kahlo. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2007. Print.

Chicago, Judy, and Frances Borzello. Frida Kahlo: Face to Face. Munich: Prestel, 2010. Print.

"Henry Ford Hospital, 1932." Art History. Web. 25 Feb. 2012. <>.

Monsiváis, Carlos, and Bayod Rafael. Vázquez. Frida Kahlo :        Una Vida, Una Obra. México, D.F.:         
       Dirección General De Publicaciones Del Consejo Nacional       Para La Cultura Y Las Artes, 1992. Print.

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