For better or worse, Kahlo’s painful life and unique paintings have produced a romantic, feminist mythology of suffering and defiance in the face of physical and psychic pain. “Balzac has invented everything,” Colette wrote and he might have even been able to invent Kahlo if she had not done it herself. Born to a Hungarian-Jewish father and a Spanish-Indian mother, Kahlo was a rebel even before the traumatic accident, which, at 18, left her with grim life-long medical problems. During her long recovery – which, in some ways, lasted the rest of her life – she used her art to express her pain. She had met Rivera before her accident and was attracted to him, but it was during her convalescence when she painted her first self-portrait that they became friends and later, lovers. Like Jane Eyre, she could say “Dear Reader, I married him” and their tumultuous marriage lasted until her death (with one intermission for divorce and remarriage). Her marriage to the elephantine and womanizing Rivera was both a blessing and a curse; they were mutually unfaithful, tormented each other and yet, inspired and supported each other.
According to her biography, it was after her miscarriage in 1932 that she began to paint the works, which would make her famous. Combining the folk imagery of Mexican retablos, the grotesque details of suffering present in 17th century Spanish polychrome religious art and surrealism, she portrayed feminine suffering in ways that had only previously been seen in the more extreme examples of religious art. Think Grünewald, think Northern Renaissance paintings of Christ on the cross, think of the cruelty and delight in pain of Meso-American art, translated into 20th century visual poetry. As Hayden Herrera points out in her Biography of Frida Kahlo (1983), art was a solace. It was a way to say to the both herself and the world, “I am still here.” She turned her physical being into an icon of both masculinity and feminity. The unibrow, direct gaze and traces of moustache (less in real photos than the paintings) played up what she saw as the male aspect of her personal. But her vibrant clothing, flowing skirts, elaborate hair styles and jewelry were based on the traditional clothing style of the women of the Tehuana region of Mexico, who were the real figures of authority in their society. Nevertheless, although she claimed the authority of women in control, she also slavishly adored her oversized and unfaithful husband. (Sanford, The nerve of Frida Kahlo, NY Review of Books; Herrera, Chapter 8)
Her painting repeatedly refers to the pain of her attachment to Rivera. Among the most famous of those is “The Two Fridas,” from 1939, about the time the couple briefly divorced. On the left, Frida is dressed as a bride, her heart open and a cut artery dripping blood onto the dress. On the right, the everyday Frida is strong, her heart is healthy and she holds a cameo of Rivera as a child, a symbol that her union with him is far deeper than that of a marriage. In numerous paintings, she cradles him, paints him as a quasi-religious icon or indicates, in paint, that he was the center of her life.
Much of her work suggests surrealism, a tag that she rejected when Andre Breton tried to recruit her into his circle. In "The Broken Column" (1944), she portrays her naked torso, with a metal rod in place of her spine and thick straps and nails holding her body together. In "The Little Deer" (1946), her face is attached to the body of a deer, which is bleeding from nine arrow wounds. And in "Without Hope" (1945), ailing in bed, she appears to be vomiting animals, fish and a skull. Yet, it was not all paint, blood and suffering. She enjoyed life passionately – even during her many illnesses, she had enough joie de vie to say, “It is not worthwhile to leave this world without having had a little fun in life.”
"I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality," she claimed. And on another occasion, she noted. "I always paint whatever passes through my head, without any other consideration."
That was not strictly true. Her art reflects all sorts of influences, some European like Cubism and, yes, Surrealism, the most predominant art style of the day. Other influences cam from her native Mexico, not only that of her husband, but also of folk art, Aztec and Roman Catholic iconography. Given her many illnesses and surgeries, it’s not surprising that she was obsessed with death. She was very Mexican, but her mixed heritage contributed to her originality.
She produced only about 200 paintings – primarily still lifes and portraits of herself, family and friends. She also kept illuminated journals and did many drawings. Arguably, it was during her and Riviera’s 1933 visit to America that she began to develop her signature style. In Henry Ford Hospital, done after one of her traumatic miscarriages, she graphically conveyed her desolation and pain. She exorcised her pain through her painting.
During the last decade of her lift, Kahlo’s health continued to deteriorate. She drank and took drugs to alleviate the pain and the works from this time are darker, with rougher surfaces. Yet, her caustic humor and playful wit could still charm. Just before her death, she incorporated the words Viva La Vida (Long Live life) into a lush, richly painted still life of watermelons.
She died in her sleep in 1954 at the age of 47, apparently as the result of an embolism, though there was a suspicion among those close to her that she had found a way to commit suicide but others reject the idea. Her last diary entry read: 'I hope the end is joyful - and I hope never to come back - Frida.'" Tucked away in the retrospective is an anonymous newspaper photograph of her state funeral. Rivera is there, his sadness evident. He only outlived her by three years.
SFMOMA's Frida Kahlo exhibition runs through September 28, 2008. For tickets and information, visit SFMOMA.org.
* Imaging Her Selves: Frida Kahlo's Poetics of Identity and Fragmentation, by Gannit Ankori
* Portrait of an Artist - Frida Kahlo, VHS video.
* Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, by Hayden Herrera.
* Frida Kahlo; The Paintings, by Hayden Herrera.
Devouring Frida: The Art History and Popular Celebrity of Frida Kahlo, by Margaret A. Lindauer.