Today is Friday Kahlo’s birthday and somewhere in heaven I want to believe that she and Diego finally have a shot at life together, with lots of children and happiness that eluded them in life.
Frida Kahlo, a woman full of mystique, an artist full of life. For years I have followed her art and travelled along with her exhibitions. Falling in love with her story; hers was a life riddled with more downs that ups but today we talk about her with great reverence, highly revered in the art world for her self portraits and the stories they carry. Kahlo had that gift of telling her pain and trauma in her painting, depicting a mood, telling the story beyond the painting. Her works were and are multilayered and the tragedy of her life featured heavily in them. From love to childlessness, physical trauma suffered from a tram accident in her youth which killed her then boyfriend to the years of therapy, decapitation and her greatest love, Diego Riviera… it was a hard life lived, a hard love, loved.
When you view a Frida Kahlo painting you cannot help but feel as if you are viewing someone at their most vulnerable, most intimate moment. It evokes a sadness from the viewer, filled with colour but etched with melancholy, a chill sweeps through you and you cannot help but wonder about the entire story, the moments leading up to this painting. What sparked her imagination to create such a vivid world and capture it in a small space but tells of a bigger picture, a bigger moment. Her work was deeply personal.
Earlier in the summer, The Mudec museum in Milan hosted a huge retrospective of her works on display and they include some her most iconic pieces. Frida laid bare for her audience. Here we see her as more than they trendy icon fashion often makes her out to be. Her life, however short, was lived decades beyond and her story lives an impact. She tells us of her struggles in her art, even beyond the grave, interpreted the world with her art and shaped the many narratives about her. She mixes humour with sexual intrigue, a frankness with the ethereal; she captured herself in a vivid way; the starkness of her uni-brow, her playful monkeys, passion for colour, and her chaotic love for Diego Riviera which was both ends of the spectrum, pushing and pulling. Her position in the art world was often tied to his, her great acclaim would come much later in life and posthumous, their roles would be reversed because we speak of her now more than of him, but he was instrumental in her artistry.
As a child Kahlo suffered from Polio, in her late teens a tram accident would give her even more health issues that saw her confined to bed unable to move and in a cast for three years. At the age of twenty-two she married Diego Riviera, he was forty-two. Their marriage was filled with many infidelities, one with her sister on his part, and another with Trostky on her part. A lot of her work refers to the tension of her married life with Riviera, he was a constant presence even when they were divorced only to find their way back and remarry. She mourned the loss of their children, suffering several miscarriages, something she captures so vividly in many of her paintings. Her later years were fraught with pain and heartbreak, and at forty-seven her leg was amputated. She died shortly after, some attribute her death to suicide which would not be a far reaching suspicion.
Included in the retrospective were photographs from Graciela Iturbide, a Mexican photographer. Iturbide was allowed inside Kahlo’s bathroom, the only room in her house in Mexico that is closed to the public. Here she captures the struggles of Kahlo hidden from the world in stark black and white. The corsets and prosthetic she relied on to survive, a far cry from the colour in her works.
The Broken Column, the painting above is one of the most impactful paintings of Frida Kahlo’s, it encapsulates her entire life, pleasure and pain, love and heartbreak. It is too harrowing to look at yet, we cannot look away. She is alone, sad, big fat tears drop from her eyes. Split open in two and held together by straps of her corset, an Ionic column is visible, holding her straight up and we feel her pain. At time of this painting Kahlo’s health had seriously deteriorated, and she had to wear a corset for five months. The landscape represents her pain and turmoil, the dramatic nails on in her body tell us of the constant pain she is in, the longest nail piercing her heart tells of the heartbreak she suffered with Riviera. Her tears are the colour of milk, emblematic of the children she lost. Despite the softness of her face, framed by lose flowing hair, her eyes tell a different story. It echoes a Christlike suffering, this is her cross to bear, an acknowledgement that she is doomed to eventually die from this torment but that does not stop her from hoping for some reprieve. She is a woman betrayed, dealing with pain and in turmoil, but is hoping for salvation. The steel keeps her alive, her body perfectly still, aching to move more, be more. In her stillness she captures everything about her life and whilst we feel sad, we do not linger on the feeling for long, the woman we know, does not want our sympathies because her life, through the pain and turmoil, was full, she lived. She lived it all.
If you ever have the chance to see a Frida Kahlo exhibition, go see it, and experience the life of a woman who means so much to the art world and beyond. Even in her death, her story remains most relevant.