Pictures Worth More Than 1,000 Words
The year is 1910: the Mexican Revolution has begun and President Porfirio Diaz will soon be overthrown: it is the ideal time to claim one’s birth if one’s wish is to be inextricably connected to a moment in time. Although technically born on July 6, 1907, Frida Kahlo took hold of the year 1910 and made it her own, claiming that “she and modern Mexico were inextricably bound in both revolution and renaissance” (The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo). There are those who might consider Kahlo’s changing her date of birth to have been an act of vanity; however, anyone who thought vanity played a role in anything about Frida Kahlo would be significantly mistaken. “With slim sable brushes, Frida Kahlo painstakingly rendered her bold unibrow and mustache in dozens of self-portraits” (The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo). This was an artist unafraid to challenge convention—be it in her life, her womanhood, or her art.
Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón (Frida Kahlo) was born in Coyoacán, Mexico to Guillermo Kahlo, a German immigrant; and Matilde Calderón, a Mexican native (“Frida Kahlo”). Frida Kahlo’s life was not an easy one, but from an early age she proved that she was a determined, self-willed, and a fighter. “At [the age of] six she [contracted] polio, which left her with a withered right leg” (Weston). Having survived her bout with the disease, it seemed for a time that Kahlo had moved past the troubles of her life. “Ferociously independent and very bright, she was one of a minuscule number of girls to be selected for a new university college only to be cruelly involved in a near-fatal accident while returning home” (Weston)
Frida Kahlo did not grow up dreaming of becoming an artist; it happened by accident—literally. Her dream was to go to medical school to become a doctor; however this was not to be.
In 1925, when she was 18, she was riding a bus in Mexico City when it was struck by a trolley car. A metal handrail pierced her abdomen, exiting through her vagina. Her spinal column was broken in three places. Her collarbone, some ribs, and her pelvis were broken, and her right leg was fractured in 11 places. Her foot was dislocated and crushed. No one thought she would live, much less walk again, but, after a month in the hospital, she went home. Encased for months in plaster body casts, Kahlo began to paint lying in bed with a special easel rigged up by her mother. With the help of a mirror, Kahlo began painting her trademark subject: herself. (Mencimer)
Kahlo suffered from chronic pain throughout the remainder of her life, and it, along with the physical disfigurement caused by her illness are present in her work.
Frida Kahlo’s work broke new ground in terms of allowable subject matter for women artists. The majority of her surviving works are self-portraitures that combine her struggles, her view of the world, and her life at the time of the work’s creation. Her art was once described by Time Magazine as having “the daintiness of miniatures, the vivid reds and yellows of Mexican tradition, [and] the playfully bloody fancy of an unsentimental child” (qtd. in Tuchman). While accurate to a point, the description does not do justice to the intensity of the images in Kahlo’s paintings. When painting herself, she refused to ignore the fact that her eyebrows basically formed one long line of hair that looked like a bird in flight over her eyes. She also accurately depicted herself as having ample hair growing above her upper lip. Neither of these traits projects even a minor degree of femininity, yet Kahlo was honest enough to paint what she saw. Many of her paintings contain graphic details of what appear at first glance to be surgical procedures captured mid-operation. Others show no sign of the subject’s having been flayed, yet blood is still nearby. The presence of floating objects and images within images are also a hallmark of Kahlo’s work. It is because of the way Kahlo “saw” things that she painted what she did, and due to this, she was labeled a surrealist artist—a label she neither agreed with nor exemplifies.
Surrealism “emphasiz[es] the expression of the imagination as realized in dreams and presented without conscious control. [. . .]. What [is] ‘superreal,’ or ‘surreal’ about surrealism, [. . .] is its habit of lucidly juxtaposing scarcely compatible tokens of potentially symbolic concrete objects” (“Surrealism”). Like the description of her art from Time Magazine, it is not so much that the definition of surrealism does not fit Kahlo’s work as much as the definition leaves out the most significant details while supposing a truth that does not exist.
The Two Fridas (Kahlo) is a work that incorporates many of Kahlo’s trademark features, and without considering the artist, the piece might easily be classified as an example of surrealism. The background of The Two Fridas is primarily filled by a stormy, cloudy sky; however, there is a horizon line, and pigment the color of earth takes up the painting’s lower one-third creating ground. Dual images of the artist—seated on a bench one self next to the other self each holding hands with the other—take up the painting’s foreground. The Frida on the left is wearing a white dress that appears to be of European influence; the Frida on the right is wearing traditional Mexican garb: a Tehuana blouse and skirt. Each of the Fridas has an exposed heart: the heart of the Frida on the left is cut open and spills blood onto the white dress; the heart of the Frida on the right is intact.
One might wish to argue that The Two Fridas is a surreal painting derived from the artist’s dreams and/or imagination; however, it is as easily interpreted as a depiction of the artist’s feelings as she went through her 1939 divorce from her husband, the muralist Diego Rivera. Examined in this light, the Frida on the left is the Frida no longer loved by Rivera: her heart is torn open and bleeding having been severed from its companion; the Frida on the right is the Frida who was loved by Rivera: her heart is whole—she even carries a small portrait of her beloved in her free hand (The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo).
The bulk of Diego and I (Kahlo) is taken up by the artist’s face, neck, and hair. In the center of the artist’s forehead is the head of Diego Rivera, and in the center of his head is a third eye. Kahlo’s trademark bushy unibrow and moustache are visible, but unlike most of her pieces, she has painted her hair down, and tears fall from her eyes.
The dual third eyes in this piece make tempting the categorization of this work as surrealist; however, as before, when examined with greater care and with an eye towards the artist’s feelings at the time the work was produced, Diego and I is another painting that provides commentary not on Kahlo’s dreams and/or imagination but on her reality.
Painted in 1949, Diego and I was created during “a particularly low point in [Kahlo’s and Rivera’s] relationship” (The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo). She depicts herself shedding tears over the thought of losing her husband, and she is so distraught by the situation that her hair seems to be choking her as she faces life without Rivera. Positioned on her forehead like a third eye, Rivera is not only on her mind, he is the means by which she understands things. Rivera’s third eye represents “Frida’s admiration for Diego’s wisdom and intellect” (The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo).
Further proof that Kahlo’s work was more real than surreal can be seen in her piece The Suicide of Dorothy Hale (Kahlo). The painting was commissioned by Clare Boothe Luce after her friend (Dorothy Hale) committed suicide. The background of the top two-thirds of the painting is filled with a sky that is bluish-gray and cloud filled. Rising out of the center of the background is a tall building with numerous windows, and near the top of the structure, a tiny figure appears to have flung itself out of one of these numerous windows. Moving down to the middle of the painting, one can see the body of a woman who looks to be wrapped in the clouds while she plummets head-first to the world below. Near the bottom of the painting, in the foreground, the woman has hit the ground. Staring blankly out at her audience, she is sprawled grotesquely: her legs are askew, one of her arms is eerily out of sight as if twisted behind and under her, and there is blood splattered in the area and pooled around her head. There is an inscription painted at the bottom of the piece in the same red as the woman’s blood, and it is part of the world in which this woman has died: her lifeless foot topples over the inscription, casting a shadow on it. The inscription is a recounting of the facts: “In New York City on the 21st of October 1938, at 6:00 in the morning, Dorothy Hale committed suicide by throwing herself from a very high window in the Hampshire House. In her memory […], this retablo was executed by Frida Kahlo” (“The Suicide of Dorothy Hale”).
If one compares the imagery in The Suicide of Dorothy Hale to any number of Kahlo’s other works, one sees there is a striking similarity in overall presentation. Recall, though, that this piece was commissioned to capture a factual event, and the patron, Clare Boothe Luce was so appalled by the blatant truthfulness of the finished painting that she requested Kahlo alter the piece—which Kahlo did (“The Suicide of Dorothy Hale”). There is little about The Suicide of Dorothy Hale that is surreal: a building in the sky; a body gradually falling; a corpse on the ground.
Self-Portrait, 1940 (Kahlo) is an example of the attention the artist paid to the details of her face: her bushy unibrow and ample moustache are clearly visible in this piece, and these unedited features provide more evidence that what Kahlo painted was fact not fiction. Part of her focus on her unibrow and moustache was politically motivated:
Kahlo and Rivera were active in the Communist Party and Mexican politics [and
A part of the] post-revolutionary movement known as Mexicanidad, which
rejected Western European influences [. . .] in favor of all things considered
“authentically” Mexican [. . .]. Kahlo [adopted] her now-famous traditional
Mexican costumes—long skirts and dresses [and rejected] conventional standards
of beauty. Kahlo not only didn’t pluck her unibrow or mustache, she groomed
them with special tools and even penciled them darker. (Mencimer)
It may seem trivial to argue for or against the surrealist label placed on Frida Kahlo; however, given the artist herself stated “I never painted dreams, [. . .] I painted my own reality,” it appears that a truly interested observer would summarily reject the label as did the artist herself (“Frida Kahlo: Self-Portrait”). Beyond the rejection of the label by Kahlo, there is also the issue of crediting her with a level of honesty and creativity that many other artists have never (and will never) come close to duplicating. Considered in this manner, it seems dismissive to attribute the works of Kahlo to mere dreams or imaginations: to do so represents an insult to the pain she suffered, the stands she took, and the life she lived through her artwork. It also robs her of her individuality: she was a woman of incredible inner strength who immersed herself—in her life and in her art—in the issues closest to her heart.
Examining a number of pieces by Frida Kahlo, one is left to wonder: is it perhaps too difficult for most viewers to accept that a woman is capable of such gore—such honesty? Would everyone be more comfortable if he or she could place Kahlo’s harsh images into a safe and compartmentalized place known as surrealism? Perhaps, but doing so would be false. It would be no different from Kahlo’s plucking her eyebrows or waxing her upper lip. Much of what is beautiful and powerful and unique about Frida Kahlo’s paintings is that they are a product of her honesty. Frida Kahlo’s honesty is one that was born of a childhood illness, a teenage accident, a failed marriage, and the constant pain and suffering that each caused. One would be remiss in not accepting that like much about the woman herself, her art cannot be label, categorized, or contained. Frida Kahlo created and recreated herself from her adopted date of birth to the numerous works of art she produced. As the artist said herself, her paintings were not a product of her fancy but a product of her reality: they reflected a conscious control over her subject matter; therefore, Frida Kahlo should not be viewed or labeled as a surrealist but as a strong-willed woman incapable of hiding from her personal truth.
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