Monday, September 3, 2007
Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)
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. - The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait
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"After her death at the age of forty-seven in 1954, the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo became first a legend, then a myth, and now a cult figure." Thus was Frida Kahlo described by her biographer Hayden Herrera in 1992.(1) While it is sometimes difficult to separate the cult of personality surrounding Kahlo from her artistic accomplishment, it can be said without question that she is the 20th century's quintessential autobiographical artist.
By now, many of the events of her life are familiar. Born a mestizo of European and Mexican parents in 1907, Frida Kahlo cut a striking figure, with long dark hair and distinctive bird-wing brows which arched over magnetic black eyes. In 1925, at the age of 18, she was in a bus accident that seriously injured her spine, abdomen, pelvis and right foot, wounds that led to lengthy hospital stays, many operations, and, ultimately, her death. During her initial convalescence Kahlo began to paint. Over time, this artistic gift enabled her to give meaning to the physical and emotional pain she was to endure.
Most of Kahlo's works depict her personal saga: the disabilities she suffered as a result of the accident; her turbulent marriage to Mexican muralist Diego Rivera; her involvement with Communism and the Mexican Revolution; and, ultimately, her indomitable will to create. Like many artists in the decade after the Mexican Revolution of 1917, Frida Kahlo's art was influenced by the surge of nationalism known as Mexicanidad. Eschewing European models, the simple, naive character of Kahlo's imagery, the sometimes fantastic subject matter and the vividness of her colors were influenced by Mexican folk art.(2) She, herself, often wore traditional costumes and elaborately braided her hair with ribbons, bows, combs, and fresh flowers to express her identification with Mexico's indigenous culture.
This is vividly illustrated in The National Museum of Women in the Art's Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky: Between the Curtains, painted to commemorate a brief romance with the Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky. In 1937, Trotsky was granted political asylum in Mexico, largely due to the efforts of Diego Rivera, and lived for the following two years in Frida's house in Coyoacan. She presented the portrait to Trotsky on November 7, 1937, the anniversary of the Russian Revolution which was also Trotsky's birthday.
In this portrait, Kahlo faces her audience in a stage-like space between two curtains, a device often used in Mexican retablo, a traditional art form that depicted saints or miracles. In her version of a retablo, Kahlo transforms the usual religious theme into a depiction of exotic beauty, feminine strength and Mexican cultural identity. Curiously, as Herrera points out, the artist presents herself to the revolutionary leader in the form of a "colonial-style bourgeois or an aristocratic woman rather than as a Tehuana or a political activist."(3) Clearly meant as an offering to her former lover, she holds a small bouquet of flowers in one hand, and in the other a letter inscribed: "For Leon Trotsky with all my love I dedicate this painting on the 7th November, 1937."
1. Hayden Herrera, Frida Kahlo (New York: Rizzoli Art Series, 1992), 1.
2. Frida Kahlo's psychological probings and fantastic imagery have often been linked to the Surrealist movement. However, as Hayden Herrera first noted, she was more a Surrealist discovery than an actual Surrealist. Her work, like Rivera's, was part of Mexico's new, socially progressive avant-garde rather than the result of European models.
3. Hayden Herrera, Frida: A Bibliography of Frida Kahlo, (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1983), 213. [Adapted from National Museum of Women in the Arts]
Books from Alibris: Frida Kahlo