The beautiful Frida... | Sunday Observer

The beautiful Frida...

9 January, 2022

Frida Kahlo, who painted mostly small, intensely personal works for herself, family and friends, would likely have been amazed and amused to see what a vast audience her paintings now reach.

Today, nearly seven decades after her death, the Mexican artist’s iconic images adorn calendars, greeting cards, posters, pins, even paper dolls. Several years ago the French couturier Jean Paul Gaultier created a collection inspired by Kahlo, and last year a self-portrait she painted in 1933 appeared on a 34-cent US postage stamp.

In early 2000, the movie Frida, starring Salma Hayek as the artist and Alfred Molina as her husband, renowned muralist Diego Rivera, opened worldwide. Directed by Julie Taymor, the film was based on Hayden Herrera’s 1983 biography, Frida.

Kahlo produced only about 200 paintings — primarily still lives and portraits of herself, family and friends. She also kept an illustrated journal and did dozens of drawings. With techniques learned from both her husband and her father, a professional architectural photographer, she created haunting, sensual and stunningly original paintings that fused elements of surrealism, fantasy and folklore into powerful narratives. In contrast to the 20th-century trend toward abstract art, her work was uncompromisingly figurative. Although she received occasional commissions for portraits, it’s reported that she sold relatively few paintings during her lifetime.

Today her works fetch astronomical prices at auctions. In 2000, a 1929 self-portrait sold for more than $5 million.

Father’s favourite

She was born Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón on July 6, 1907, and lived in a house (the Casa Azul, or Blue House, now the Museo Frida Kahlo) built by her father in Coyoacán, then a quiet suburb of Mexico City. The third of her parents’ four daughters, Frida was her father’s favourite — the most intelligent, he thought, and the most like him. She was a dutiful child but had a fiery temperament.

Kahlo adored her father. On a portrait she painted of him in 1951, she inscribed the words, “character generous, intelligent and fine.” Her feelings about her mother were more conflicted. On the one hand, the artist considered her “very nice, active, intelligent.”

But she also saw her as fanatically religious, calculating and sometimes even cruel. “She did not know how to read or write,” Frida once said for a Magazine. “She only knew how to count money.”

A chubby child with a winning smile and sparkling eyes, Kahlo was stricken with polio at the age of 6. After her recovery, her right leg remained thinner than her left and her right foot was stunted.

Despite her disabilities or, perhaps, to compensate for them, Kahlo became a tomboy. She played soccer, boxed, wrestled and swam competitively. “My toys were those of a boy: skates, bicycles,” the artist later recalled. As an adult, she collected dolls.

Her father taught her photography, including how to retouch and color prints, and one of his friends gave her drawing lessons. In 1922, the 15-year-old Kahlo entered the elite, predominantly male National Preparatory School, which was located near the Cathedral in the heart of Mexico City.

As it happened, Rivera was working in the school’s auditorium on his first mural. In his autobiography —‘My Art, My Life’ — the artist recalled that he was painting one night high on a scaffold when “all of a sudden the door flew open, and a girl who seemed to be no more than ten or twelve was propelled inside. . . . She had,” he continued, “unusual dignity and self-assurance, and there was a strange fire in her eyes.” Kahlo, who was actually 16, apparently played pranks on the artist. She stole his lunch and soaped the steps by the stage where he was working.

Realistic touches

Kahlo planned to become a doctor and took courses in biology, zoology and anatomy. Her knowledge of these disciplines would later add realistic touches to her portraits. She also had a passion for philosophy, which she liked to flaunt. According to biographer Herrera, she would cry out to her boyfriend, Alejandro Gómez Arias, “lend me your Spengler. I don’t have anything to read on the bus.” Her bawdy sense of humor and passion for fun were well known among her circle of friends, many of whom would become leaders of the Mexican left.

Then, on September 17, 1925, the bus on which she and her boyfriend were riding home from school was rammed by a trolley car. A metal handrail broke off and pierced her pelvis. Several people died at the site, and doctors at the hospital where the 18-year-old Kahlo was taken did not think she would survive. Her spine was fractured in three places, her pelvis was crushed and her right leg and foot were severely broken.

The first of many operations she would endure over the years brought only temporary relief from painShe spent a month in the hospital and was later fitted with a plaster corset, variations of which she would be compelled to wear throughout her life.

Confined to bed for three months, she was unable to return to school. “Without giving it any particular thought,” she recalled, “I started painting.” Kahlo’s mother ordered a portable easel and attached a mirror to the underside of her bed’s canopy so that the nascent artist could be her own model.

Marriage

Frida and Rivera married on August 21, 1929. Kahlo later said her parents described the union as a “marriage between an elephant and a dove.” Kahlo’s 1931 Colonial-style portrait, based on a wedding photograph, captures the contrast.

The newlyweds spent almost a year in Cuernavaca while Rivera executed murals commissioned by the American ambassador to Mexico, Dwight Morrow. Kahlo was a devoted wife, bringing Rivera lunch every day, bathing him, cooking for him. Years later Kahlo would paint a naked Rivera resting on her lap as if he were a baby.

For Kahlo, despair and pain were never far away. Before leaving Mexico, she had suffered the first in a series of miscarriages and therapeutic abortions. Due to her trolley-car injuries, she seemed unable to bring a child to term, and every time she lost a baby, she was thrown into a deep depression. Moreover, her polio-afflicted and badly injured right leg and foot often troubled her.

Kahlo had arrived in America as an amateur artist. She had never attended art school, had no studio and had not yet focused on any particular subject matter.

“I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best,” she would say years later.

Her biographers report that despite her injuries she regularly visited the scaffolding on which Rivera worked in order to bring him lunch and, they speculate, to ward off alluring models. As she watched him paint, she learned the fundamentals of her craft.

Pre-Columbian art

His imagery recurs in her pictures along with his palette — the sunbaked colours of pre-Columbian art. And from him — though his large-scale wall murals depict historical themes, and her small-scale works relate her autobiography — she learned how to tell a story in paint.

Intent on achieving financial independence, Kahlo painted more intensely. “To paint is the most terrific thing that there is, but to do it well is very difficult,” she would tell the group of students — known as Los Fridos — to whom she gave instruction in the mid-1940s. “It is necessary . . . to learn the skill very well, to have very strict self-discipline and above all to have love, to feel a great love for painting.” It was during this period that Kahlo created some of her most enduring and distinctive work.

In self-portraits, she pictured herself in native Mexican dress with her hair atop her head in traditional braids. Surrounded by pet monkeys, cats and parrots amid exotic vegetation reminiscent of the paintings of Henri Rousseau, she often wore the large pre-Columbian necklaces given to her by Rivera.

In one of only two large canvases ever painted by Kahlo, The Two Fridas, a double self-portrait done at the time of her divorce, one Frida wears a European outfit torn open to reveal a “broken” heart; the other is clad in native Mexican costume. Set against a stormy sky, the “twin sisters,” joined together by a single artery running from one heart to the other, hold hands. Kahlo later wrote that the painting was inspired by her memory of an imaginary childhood friend, but the fact that Rivera himself had been born a twin may also have been a factor in its composition. In another work from this period, ‘Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair’(1940), Kahlo, in a man’s suit, holds a pair of scissors she has used to sever the locks that surround the chair on which she sits. More than once when she discovered Rivera with other women, she had cut off the long hair that he adored.

Last decade

During the last decade of her life, Kahlo endured painful operations on her back, her foot and her leg. (In 1953, her right leg had to be amputated below the knee.)

She drank heavily — sometimes downing two bottles of cognac a day — and she became addicted to painkillers. As drugs took control of her hands, the surface of her paintings became rough, her brushwork agitated.

In the spring of 1953, Kahlo finally had a one-person show in Mexico City. Her work had previously been seen there only in group shows. Organized by her friend, photographer Lola Alvarez Bravo, the exhibition was held at Alvarez Bravo’s Gallery of Contemporary Art.

Though still bedridden following the surgery on her leg, Kahlo did not want to miss the opening night. Arriving by ambulance, she was carried to a canopied bed, which had been transported from her home.

The headboard was decorated with pictures of family and friends; papier-mâché skeletons hung from the canopy. Surrounded by admirers, the elaborately costumed Kahlo held court and joined in singing her favorite Mexican ballads.

Although much of Kahlo’s life was dominated by her debilitated physical state and emotional turmoil, Taymor’s film focuses on the artist’s inventiveness, delight in beautiful things and playful but caustic sense of humour. Kahlo, too, preferred to emphasize her love of life and a good time. Just days before her death, she incorporated the words Viva La Vida (Long Live Life) into a still life of watermelons. Though some have wondered whether the artist may have intentionally taken her own life, others dismiss the notion. Certainly, she enjoyed life fully and passionately. “It is not worthwhile,” she once said, “to leave this world without having had a little fun in life.”

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