By Karla Fetrow
The Making of an Extraordinary Woman
Life has a way of billowing us under a protective cover, perceiving as glimpses between drying sheets; the ordinary. Within the ordinary, we are happy; or maybe not so happy, but coveting our simple routines with a measure of comfort. Occasionally however, the sheets part and we see a view of that which is not quite so comfortable, neither routine nor part of our habitual reflections. We witness the extraordinary.
A peculiar aspect of the extraordinary is that it’s not hailed at birth; it’s not the precocious rapidity of a child; but seems to be the aspect of circumstances falling into place with all the surety of careful planning. This plan, for all our schemes, is not our own. For those who believe such words, it could be fate or destiny or the whimsies of nature. It picks a small child from Mexico City’s teeming millions; a little girl no different than any other; a polio survivor at a time when polio was common. Her first career choice in life was medicine, and possibly like so many others whose early traumatic experiences fashioned their direction, would have remained a student of medicine if the mysterious hand of fate had not intervened.
Fate, apparently, was not satisfied with her choices. It led her first into a study of the arts, where she met Diego Rivera while he was painting the Creation mural at the school’s Simon Bolivar auditorium. Although students were forbidden to enter the auditorium while “El Maestro” was working, Frida would hide in the back and watch him for hours. She became fascinated by the “larger than life” man whom she nicknamed “Panzon” (fat belly). One day she shocked a friend by telling her that she wanted to have a child by Diego Rivera.
This entertainment however, didn’t distract her from her studies. By her eighteenth birthday, she had passed her third year of pre-medical requirements and art was still just a pastime. Fate struck its determining blow. On a day like any other day, in the midst of ordinary pleasures, Frida was riding a street car with a male friend. On this ordinary day, with the usual busy bustle of city streets, when accidents are bound to occur in one way or another in accordance with the laws of chance, fate moved its pieces across the board and lined up the events into the extraordinary. It created the artist, Frida Kahlo, with all the explosive agony of trapped pain, and the piercing views into the world around it.
A collision between the street car and the bus burst a metal handrail, forcing it deeply into her abdomen and fracturing her third and fourth lumbar vertebra. Among other numerous injuries were a fractured collar bone and pelvis, plus shoulder and foot injuries, crippling further a weak right foot that had suffered the ravages of polio. There in the shuddering horror of broken body pieces being slowly knitted back together, in the dark and alone with all her deep places, the carefree child stopped; looked in the mirror and dissolved. There, in the dominance of the will to live against all torture imaginable, against all odds, the artist, Frida, was born, strong and thundering in her appearance, independently free of the curtails of womanhood, striking her blows with the acute deliberation of her awareness.
Frida’s sketches during that first bedridden year dwelled primarily on the accident. Her drawings seemed to be the clumsy attempts of trying to reconstruct the unimaginable; a scribbled collision between the bus and street car, bodies laying on the ground like puddles, a childish rendition of herself covered in a full body cast. Herself became the absorbed muse of her early paintings and a subject she returned to again and again. Said Frida of her penchant for self-portraits, “I paint myself because I am so often alone, because I am the subject I know best.”
She didn’t consider her work art; but more of a autobiography; one that delved into the rigid confines of the features she had set on canvas; the heavy brows, the over-stated mouth, and sought to bring out below the stern countenance, her suffering, her aloneness and her pain. Her reality was uncompromising. She received thirty operations over the course of the years following the accident in attempts to re-structure the broken and mis-aligned bones, each one bringing another relapse into agony. She was told she would never walk again. Determinedly Frida rose in defiance; this alter-ego she had placed on paper; and in a frenzy of creative expression, she drew the pin points of the torments in a wracked and mutilated body. Floating above the head, balloons wavered, dripping with the infestation of mangled internal organs, hanging from a torrid sky of blistering sunrise and desolate landscapes. With the same determination she had used to survive her calamity, Frida walked again.
The newly resurrected Frida quickly became a popular addition to Mexico City’s social gatherings of arts, which included Tina Modotti, a well-known photographer, actress and active member of the Communist party, and Diego Rivera, the artist she had met in her childhood. Strange fate. How it twists and controls by its own whims. Diego had been taught by the best schools in Europe. He was a traditional artist whose work reflected the influence of Gauguin and Le Douanier Rousseau. Twenty years her senior, popular on two continents, he seemed a strange match for Frida who believed the only way people could find her attractive was by being an extraordinary woman.
When she hobbled down the street, she would sometimes show her mutilated foot to the gawking bystanders; her pig foot, she called it, and giggle to herself as at a private joke while they gasped that the devil had marked her. Occasionally, she would cut off all her hair and pose in men’s suits. Although she also designated this bold action to her harmless pranks, her studies of herself are often a transition between the male and female; portraying the frank expression of her dual personality; softly feminine, yet brushed with the lean hard strokes of the masculine, oddly inseparable, yearning both for the stark simpleness of line drawing and the flowering beauty of creation.
What Frida didn’t see in her work was something Rivera had been unable to capture on paper; the torments of a human soul, tumbling through the bleak abyss of awareness into the glimmering truths of understanding. Frida described her first encounter with Diego at the social gathering of friends as casual and distant until he pulled out a pistol and shot the phonograph. “It was then,” she said, “that I began to become interested in Diego, although I was afraid of him.”
Her fear didn’t keep her from showing him her paintings. He saw immediately, below the presentation of the flat features and bright bursts of color associated with her Mexican/Indian culture, the enormous renderings of passion and the agonized limits of human endurance. He not only encouraged her paintings, but became interested in Frida, herself, and began courting her. He suggested she wear traditional Mexican clothing, which included long, flowering dresses and exotic jewelry. Her art contained primitive expression, he told her, which was very popular in the current art circles. Amused at being called primitive, with a Jewish/Hungarian background and an academic career as well as her Native heritage, she complied.
Frida’s aunts were shocked and her mother distressed by Frida’s attraction to Diego. Frida’s mother bitterly told her he was too old, too fat, a Communist; and worst yet, an atheist. When they were married after a two-year courtship, a wedding she refused to attend, she called it a marriage between a dove and an elephant. Frida’s father however, an atheist himself, was less resistant to the marriage and did attend the wedding ceremony. He understood that Diego had the financial means to provide for his daughter’s medical needs. On one of Diego’s frequent visits to the Kahlo home, Frida’s father took Diego aside and said, “My daughter is sick and always will be….she’s intelligent but not pretty…” “I see that you are interested in my daughter…eh..?” When Rivera replied that he was, Kahlo said, “She is a devil”. “I know…” Diego replied. “Well, I’ve warned you,” Kahlo said and left the room.
The Life of the Party
The world of the artist Frida, imprisoned first in wraps and gauge, bandages and braces, then opening slowly to still life paintings and portraits, began taking new form, new dimensions over the next few years following her marriage to Diego. Still life was no longer still. The motionless dimensions of blank wall behind her still, settled subjects melted away to be replaced by crowded, busy tables, surreal landscapes, abstract machinery and a sense of power and movement.
Nor was life inside Frida still. Her body had awakened with all the yearnings, all the seductive calls of her maternal instincts. She desperately wanted a baby. She desperately wanted a child to hold and nurture, in the manner she nurtured her biography on canvas. During this period, the North Americans were very interested in the cultural development of the so-called “Mexican Renaissance” movement. The United States represented a powerful magnet for Mexican artists to profit from its more strongly developed art market. Rivera was determined to capitalize on the opportunity and accepted a commission to paint murals for the San Francisco Stock Exchange and the California School of Fine Arts.
On November 10th, 1930, the newly-wed couple left Mexico for a three-year sojourn in the United States. Their first stop was San Francisco and, although they arrived at the beginning of the “Great Depression”, there always seemed to be money for murals and lavish welcoming parties. San Francisco’s elite society idolized Diego but scrutinized Frida as just an object of curiosity. Other than her trips to China Town where she fell in love with the Chinese children, Frida was unimpressed with San Francisco. She avoided the people whom she described as “boring” and “they all have faces like unbaked rolls”. In a letter to her friend, Isabel Campos, Frida wrote: “I have no women friends…and that’s why I spend my time painting.”
While in the United States, the metamorphosis of Frida continued. Rich colors of earth blended in the background of quiet subjects, roots and leaves entwined with arms and legs, store front objects hung suspended behind glittering glass, casting a sense of timelessness. And underneath it all, a sense of turbulence and foreboding.
She became pregnant during their stay in Detroit, where Diego had been commissioned to do a series of murals for the Detroit Museum. As much as she longed for it, Frida’s broken body could not nurture a child. Her shattered pelvis would not support one. She was unable to survive a full-term baby. The child she had so desperately wanted, aborted spontaneously at three months.
In the same manner that she had painted the agonizing thrust into her new awareness when the artist, Frida, had been born, she began painting the loss and suffering of an unfulfilled mother. Curled embryos floating above her paralyzed figure. On a blood drenched bed, casually labeled “a few small nips”; waiting, closing her eyes, surrendering to the inevitable snips and sheers of the scalpel’s edge.
Her deeply disturbing realities continued their patient choreography with paint and brushes as the couple continued the last stage of their journey into New York City. Here, Diego was to paint a mural for the Rockefeller Center. The work was forcibly halted and finally destroyed when, among the strong faced steel workers, their hammers and gleaming machinery, he painted the face of Vladimir Lenin. Frida was bitter and outraged by the defamation of Rivera’s art. If she had thought the United States was dreary and lacking in strong character before, she now loathed it. Her bitterness spilled over in blood drenched fruits, cut and sliced to reveal tender internal organs, in bleak, cloud covered days and dismal streets. Yet Rivera lingered, apparently enthralled by his continuing popularity despite the scandal.
The Final Metamorphosis
When they finally returned to Mexico in 1935, Diego made his own fatal cuts into Frida. He had an affair with her sister, Christina. While he had never been very faithful to their marriage, she had tolerated his omissions until now. Windows, mirrors, images of girl.boys, super imposed, while gently waving in the background, the memories of women elegant as flowers. His mental knife, carving its pathway deep into her heart, also cut loose her inhibitions. If fidelity wasn’t an important issue for Diego, it wouldn’t be one for her, either. She began having numerous affairs with both men and women, a practice she continued for the rest of her life. If Diego could love more than one, so could she; only she could do it better.
Frida’s most famous affair was with Leon Trotsky, who fled Russia for political sanctuary at Rivera’s encouragement, and hid in Mexico. She painted a self-portrait for Trotsky and openly supported him, despite his many enemies. While Rivera’s ties with the Communist party deteriorated through his links with the Mexican government, which tolerated Communism but continued a platform of elitism in its politics, Frida’s own ties grew stronger. At one point, she reflected, “I was a member of the Party before I met Diego and I think I am a better Communist than he is or ever will be.” A better lover, a better Communist, and soon she would prove she could challenge Rivera’s reputation in the world of art, as well.
In 1938, Andre Breton, an artist from France, arrived in Mexico and became enthralled by her work. A leading figure in the surrealist group, he arranged for a showing at the fashionable Julian Levy Gallery in New York The show was a success. Over half her paintings sold. However, Breton did not handle her affairs quite so efficiently when he encouraged her to introduce her art to Europe. When Kahlo, who spoke no French, arrived in France for a Paris debut, Breton had not even bothered to get her work out of customs.
The enterprise was finally rescued by Marcel Duchamp, and the show opened about six weeks late. It was not a financial success, but the reviews were good, and the Louvre bought a picture for the Jeu de Paume. Kahlo also won praise from Kandinsky and Picasso. Frida’s own reception of this new company of artistic friends, augmented by her clumsily handled introduction, was less than pleased. She referred to them as “this bunch of coocoo lunatic sons of bitches of surrealists.”
However, it was the surrealists who had embraced her and designated a meaning to her art. She continued to be politely attentive, attending exhibitions and accepting their invitations to social functions. Yet Frida vehemently denied that her work was Surrealism.. ‘They thought I was a Surrealist,” she said in an interview during her waning years, “but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”
Her reality began to slowly unravel as her health deteriorated. Throughout the 1940’s, she produced some of her finest works, yet exhibited some of her most erratic behavior. When a failed assassination on the life of Trotsky was attempted by the painter, Siqueiros, Rivera felt it would be best if he fled to the United States for awhile. Frida divorced him. During this process, Trotsky was assassinated by one of her own friends, which brought the police to her door. Although she was only questioned, Frida was uncomfortable. She joined Diego in San Francisco. Two months later, they remarried.
Ah, the whispers and rumors around the now visibly weakening Frida. A series of operations to ease the discomforts of her multi-fractured spine and crippled foot led to speculations that she had arranged these painful procedures as an attention getting device to distract Rivera from his numerous affairs. “Kahlo’s physical and mental health were intricately linked,” opined the experts. “She was undergoing a lot of stress in her marriage, leaving her in both a weakened physical and mental state.”
By 1950, her physical state had reached a crisis and she entered the Mexico City hospital where she spent a year in recovery. Her work as an artist, clouded by pain killers and sedatives, became more chaotic. Shortly after being released from care, she developed gangrene in her crippled foot. There was no choice but to amputate her leg. Although she learned to walk again with her artificial leg, and even to dance a little, the fighting spirit within her quieted. She spent her time giving art lessons and attending Communist functions, becoming more fragile with each passing month.
In July of 1954, she made her last public appearance, when she participated in a Communist demonstration against the overthrow of the left-wing Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz. Shortly afterwards, she died in her sleep, apparently as a result of embolism.
Even in death, rumors abound. There was a suspicion among close friends and family that Frida had found a way to commit suicide. Her last diary entrance read, “I hope the end is joyful – and I hope never to come back – Frida.”
Perhaps Frida was just exhausted. She spent her entire life communicating her pain and suffering; as well as her most beautiful visions and perceptions; into her paint brush, never faltering in courage, never betraying the honesty of her viewpoint. In her short life, she had composed 143 paintings, of which 55 were self-portraits. The artist, Frida Kahlo, was born through trauma, grew, became aware of her surroundings, drank life deeply and told all, from the most bitter drop to the most exquisite. Maybe the indomitable spirit that guided her let her know when her work was finished, when she could stop fighting. Frida was the subject she knew best, and though she bitterly wishes never to come back, she left us a gift; the undying message of a woman who has struggled, overcome the odds, been beaten back to rise again and never abandoned her convictions.