Friday, February 26, 2010

Frida Kahlo

This is Frida Kahlo. Born Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón in 1907 to a Mexican mother and a German father. As a teenager, while studying to be a doctor, she suffered a horrific road accident that messed up her back pretty badly, and gave her recurring pains in the legs and back for the rest of her life. For months after the accident, she had to be in a body cast, and to stave off boredom, she started to paint.

From a very young age, Frida was a handful - individualistic, rebellious, outspoken. In 1929, against her mother's wishes, she married Diego Rivera, the famed painter whose work she had always admired. She was 22, he was 43.

And yes, like any self-respecting artist, Rivera was a champion philanderer, despite what you might think of him aesthetically. He had affair after affair, and while they had a very tumultuous married life, they had an equally fruitful and stimulating artistic relationship.

After a while Kahlo too got in the game and became very open about her bisexuality. Rivera closed an eye with regards to her lady friends, but was incensed and very prone to fiery outbursts regarding her gentleman friends.

Kahlo with Nickolas Muray with her painting, Me and My Parrots (1939). Muray was the respected celebrity photographer she was to have a 10-year on-and-off affair with. When their affiar ended, Muray wrote her a sincere letter of thanks for having given him a small part of her life, acknowledging that she and Rivera were always The Ones for each other.

In 1939, Rivera persuaded Kahlo that they should be divorced. They parted ways, and Kahlo was heartbroken. They continued to keep in contact and inspire each other, until they remarried just one year later in 1940.

I suppose this is what being soulmates is like. On the one hand you can't stand the person, and on the other you can't stand life without the person. At the end of the day, they had a synergy that bounced off each other, that inspired and improved each other's life passion, and that was their art.

Rivera kisses Kahlo in her hospital bed in Mexico in 1950, where she spent 9 whole months. Several operations had to be performed on her leg and back.

While they were together, Kahlo suffered 2 miscarriages, in between relapses of excrutiating pain in her back and legs, from the road accident she had as a teenager. A lot of her work expresses this sense of lack and loss in surrealistic terms. Fact is, some of it is a bit too surreal for little old-fashioned Me.

My Grandparents, My Parents, and I. 1936

This piece symbolises Kahlo's own ancestry, with her maternal grandparents symbolised by the land, and her paternal grandparents symbolised by the ocean. She herself is depicted as a child of around 4 years old, when she has always claimed to be her birth year, becasue that was when she witnessed the Revolution just beyond the doorsteps of her childhood home, The Blue House.

What The Water Gave Me. 1938

This painting is a culmination of events in her life, and carry very heavy symbolic elements. It also illustrates her highly personal pictorial language. Some critics have categorised her work as Surrealism, but some still argue that because she never really frees herself from the reality of the contents of her painting, it cannot be deemed Surrealism.

My Dress Hangs There. 1933

This was done when Frida accompanied her husband, Diego Rivera, to America, where he was commissioned to do a mural at the Rockerfeller Center. While he worked on his mural celebrating industrial progress, Kahlo's painting depicted an ironic portrait of American capitalism, pointing to social decay and the corrosion of basic human values.

While her conceptual work bordered on morbidity, grotesque and depression, Kahlo's self-portraits were acutely personal, and are some of the most moving pieces of art out there. 55 of her 143 works are self-portraits.

Self-Portrait (Dedicated to Leon Trotsky). 1937

Kahlo had a brief affair with the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, when she and Rivera hosted a stay for Mr and Mrs Trotsky at The Blue House.

Self-Portrait, Time Flies. 1929

Self-Portrait (Dedicated to Dr. Eloesser). 1940

In the banderole, it reads: "I painted my portrait in the year 1940 for Doctor Leo Eloesser, my doctor and my best friend. With all love, Frida Kahlo."

Self-Portrait with necklace, 1933

"I paint self-portraits because I am
so often alone, because I am the person I know best."

- Frida Kahlo

Kahlo's work didn't really become known and valued until decades after her death. While she was alive, she was known popularly as "Diego Rivera's wife, who also happens to be a painter".

As a result, she was highly photographed, for her fabulous folkism, which is what I love most about Frida Kahlo. She was known to get dressed meticulously on a daily basis, taking into account coordinating colours, shapes and accessories - from the rings on her fingers to her organic pre-Columbian chokers, the elaborate earrings to the flowers and ribbons in her hair.

The photographs below were taken by a long-time lover, the celebrated Vogue photographer, Nickolas Muray. She may not have been following the trend, but she certainly was singularly stylish.

Part of Kahlo's iconic status is, I believe, due largely to the way she expressed her Self so succinctly. Not just in her painting, but in the way she dressed, the way she talked, and the way she chose to live her life. And that is why I am so, so enamoured by her. Her pain was her passion, and vice-versa.

In 1954, after several operations on her back and the amputation of her leg, Kahlo fell into depression. She became seriously ill with pneumonia, and passed away on 13 July 1954, a week after her 47th birthday. The night before, she gave Rivera a present for their silver wedding anniversary, "because I feel I am going to leave you very soon".

The last entry in her diary reads: "I hope the exit is joyful, and I hope never to come back. - Frida." Because of her back problems, potent prescription painkillers were readily available to her. And after she died, no autopsy was performed. Till today, it is not known if Kahlo's death was a suicide.

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