This article is from the May 1999 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Friday Kahlo

by Maryanne Wilson

Maryanne Wilson is a dedicated Mexicophile from Manhattan and a frequent contributor to The Mexico File. She spends as much time as possible exploring and seeking out the places and people which make Mexico so special. Maryanne is a collector of Mexican folk art and also enjoys reading contemporary Mexican literature and listening to evocative mariachi music. She wrote a historical article on John Lloyd Stephens, an early Mexico explorer from the U.S., for the November 1998 issue of The Mexico File, and she contributed “In Defense of Cancún” for the February 1999 issue.

The face in the painting is arresting...the expression seemingly impassive. Then your eyes begin to make out details – chin held high and firm, long elegant neck, eyebrows like blackbirds on the wing soaring above a small, round-tipped nose, and dark eyes staring straight back at the viewer. This is the face of Frida Kahlo, which she painted over and over again. It is almost feline in grace and symmetry, as well as in the directness with which it faces the world.

Frida, however, never directly revealed the mystery behind that face – namely the constant, unending physical pain she suffered every day of her life. In brief, Frida survived a childhood bout with polio, which left her with one leg shorter than the other. She refused to wear any sort of special shoe to compensate for the deformity. Rather she hid this defect by walking tip-toe on the shorter leg, or by wearing trousers or long dresses or skirts.

In 1925, at the age of eighteen, Frida was a student at the preparatoria in anticipation of entering medical school. On the afternoon of September 17th she was riding home on the bus to Coyoacan, with her friend and schoolmate Alejandro Gomez Anas, when it was rammed by a trolley. The force of the impact blew off Frida’s clothing, and she was impaled on a metal handrail straight through from side to side in the pelvic area. Her naked body was sprayed with gold-dust which had been carried by a fellow passenger. What a macabre sight she must have presented – naked, covered with blood, shimmering with gold-dust and with that offending rod bisecting her already frail body.

Throughout this horrendous ordeal Frida never lost consciousness. Some passengers reported that Frida’s screams drowned out the siren of an approaching ambulance. Her injuries included a crushed right foot, broken collarbone and ribs, eleven fractures in her left leg, and a fractured pelvis. Worst of all, her spine was shattered.

In that one awful moment Frida’s life was irrevocably changed. From that day forward she lived a life of chronic pain, despair, frustration and disfigurement. Frida spent a month in the hospital and three months at home in bed – all the while encased in a full body-cast. Her European-born father, Guillermo, fell into a severe depression; her mother, Matilde Calderon (whom Frida referred to as Aztec-Mayan), temporarily lost her power of speech. Matilde, Frida’s estranged sister, read about the accident in the newspaper and flew to her sister’s side. She visited her in the hospital every day. Frida said, “It was Matilde who lifted my spirits – she was fat and ugly, but she had a great sense of humor.”

In her despair Frida wrote to her friend Alejandro, “Now I live in a painful planet...my friends, companions, become women slowly. I became old in an instant...I know that nothing lies ahead; if there were something, I would see it.” Of course, what Frida could not see was the incredible life that the fates had in store for her –  marriage to Diego Rivera, the world-renowned painter and muralist, and her own fame as a painter.

My interest in Frida began three years ago in Mexico City. I had been invited to a dinner party at the home of an art dealer. After the meal, all the guests were invited into our host’s bedroom to view his most precious possession, a Frida Kahlo self-portrait. At that time, I had only a vague idea of who she was. I was stunned! There was that wonderful face, but it was placed in a truly bizarre setting. My curiosity was piqued. Who was this person, and why was my first impression one of looking at a person who was in pain? Unfortunately, I didn't have enough time that evening to examine the painting closely.

The very next morning I visited the Frida Kahlo Museum, “The Blue House,” in Coyoacan. Sadly, only a few of Frida’s painting are here. One is “Viva la Vida,” painted in 1954 shortly before her death. It is a simple painting – a few watermelons, some with their luscious red flesh exposed to view. How filled with life and color! How different in tone and feeling from the painting I’d seen the night before.

That same day I also visited the Museo de Arte Moderno and saw “The Two Fridas,” a double self-portrait painted in 1939. Here we see a European-dressed Frida with her heart cut open, veins dripping blood onto her stark white dress. She is gently holding the hand of a Tehuana-dressed Frida whose heart is intact. Still, the faces of both Fridas reveal nothing...no pain, no emotion at all.

It was a couple of years later that my interest in Frida was once again provoked. At that time I was recovering from back surgery, having suffered severe back pain for a few years. A friend, knowing of my great interest in all things Mexican, gave me a book about Frida – a big, beautiful coffeetable book. I spread the book before me and page by page, picture by picture, I was drawn into Frida’s world. I got other books about Frida, reading everything I could get my hands on. Ever so slowly, I began to understand the pain I’d seen when I first viewed that self-portrait in Mexico City.

Frida had never shown an interest in painting until after her accident. Frida’s father, a professional photographer and amateur painter, gave her some of his paints and brushes. Her mother had a special easel constructed so Frida could paint in bed while flat on her back. And what did she paint? “I paint myself,” she said, “because I am so often alone.” A friend said, “She didn't paint the world – she painted her life...her own realty.” The one thing Frida was determined not to paint was her suffering. No one was to be allowed to see her pain or the many scars on her body.

Nothing in Frida’s early or late self-portraits openly shows that pain. But her pain is visible nonetheless. “The Little Deer” (1946) portrays Frida’s face atop the body of a young deer...its sleek pelt pierced by arrows, blood oozing from its (Frida’s) wounds. Yet, her face is impassive. In “The Broken Column”  (1944) Frida calmly faces the viewer – yet she is encased in a surgical corset with her naked chest, pierced with metal nails, ripped open – exposing a metal Grecian-style column in place of a spine. Painful for the viewer indeed – yet, again, the face in the portrait reveals nothing.

Frida, ever silent in her pain, had a great love for the natural world. Over the years her pets included deer, monkeys, parrots, an eagle and many dogs. Perhaps she identified with their silent world – they did not show their pain either. In many of her self-portraits Frida is surrounded by one or more of her favorite pets. In “Self Portrait With Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird,” a weblike necklace of thorns, with a dead bird dangling from it, is piercing her throat. Her hair is upswept and adorned with butterfly jewelry. On her left is a small cat-like animal and on her right is a small capuchin monkey.  All three of them are set against a background of lush foliage.

Perhaps in an attempt to distract from her physical pain and deformity, Frida used her face and her body as she used canvas. She became expert in the use of cosmetics, and even when bedridden she made sure her face was perfectly made up. In an attempt to cover up or disguise her body, more and more she wore long dresses and skirts in the style of the women of Tehuatepec. She adorned herself with multiple pieces of native jewelry...massive pre-Colombian necklaces and bracelets, and a ring on every finger. She wore her long hair in various upswept styles, whether smooth or braided, with ribbons or hairpins entwined. When she visited San Francisco with Diego (who usually dressed cowboy style), they attracted much attention. It was reported that, while out for a walk one day, they were spotted by a young boy who asked, “Where's the circus?”

My interest in Frida has not abated. In fact it is my own experience with pain that led me to more fully understand, appreciate and enjoy her work. Indeed, anyone who lives with pain understands how completely it takes over your life – how the pain itself takes on a life of its own. So it was with Frida... her life was filled with pain, her life was filled with art – life was pain, life was art...they are inextricably bound. The pain shows in her work as a fully fleshed-out character, much in the manner of the fog of Dickens’ London or the Grandet house in Balzac's “Eugenie Grandet.” Without that pain it is possible that Frida would never had taken up a paintbrush. Once she did, she used it to as a means of confronting her pain and the attendant fear of death.  

Strangely, during Frida’s lifetime there was only one gallery showing of her work. That show was held in April 1953. Frida was only 46 at the time, but she was greatly debilitated from years of chronic pain and about 30 operations. Frida was wheeled into the gallery in a hospital bed and gamely stayed for the entire evening. Many of her paintings were sold that night; the highest price paid was about $200.00. At present, her paintings sell for millions.

If you’re curious about Frida and would like to see some of her work you'll have to do a bit of traveling. Sadly, only a few of her paintings are on public display in this country. You'll find two at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco: “Frida and Diego Rivera” (1931) and “El Aborto” (1932); two at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City: “Fulang-Chang and I” (1937) and “Self Portrait With Cropped Hair” (1940); and one at the National Museum of Women in The Arts in Washington DC: “Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky” (1937).

The treasure trove, however, is to be found at the Dolores Olmeda Patino Collection in Xochimilco just outside Mexico city. There will find about 25 of Frida’s works. I hope all of you will visit the Olmeda collection, as well as Frida’s house in Coyoacan. Perhaps you, like me, will be entranced.