“I can’t get over this hangover,” a tequila-drinking parrot squawked in the courtyard. The household seethed with monkeys, tiny Itzcuintli dogs, an osprey, tame doves and a pet fawn: companions and perhaps child-substitutes for their artist-owner Frida Kahlo. Lemons, watermelons and flowers filled the house, and an organ cactus scraped the sky. Near so much life, death jangled a different music: she kept a foetus which a doctor had sent her as a gift in her bedroom, as a Mexican-style memento mori; a cardboard skeleton wore Frida’s clothes; and the bed’s canopy had a huge mirror so that, when bedridden, she could paint herself, a still life, a stilled life.
Kahlo was transgressive, dressing as a savvy young man when she was young and later taking women lovers as well as men (including Trotsky). She was wry, earthy, smutty and droll. She sometimes wore gold and diamond tooth caps, glittering when she smiled. If she had a rogueish, mischievous streak, she was also serious, a fervent communist. A character as individual, an artistry as intimate and a life story as passionate as hers – including a devastating love, a near-fatal accident, betrayal, miscarriage, abortion and childlessness – touches people in deeply personal ways. Kahlo’s art has a lasting power – this month a major exhibition of her work opens in Rome, and the Museum of Latin American Art in California hosts an exhibition of her photographic collection.
Born in 1907, childhood polio left Kahlo’s right leg damaged and, partly to mask it, she later took to wearing the gorgeous long skirts of Tehuana costume so associated with her. By 15, she was fascinated by biology (an interest that never left her) and wanted to become a doctor, but she was condemned to a bitterly different medical career – as a patient.
When Kahlo was 18, she was hideously injured in a near-fatal street accident in which a bus collided with a tram.
In her convalescence, she began to paint. During her short life (she died aged 47) her body, with its pulverised bones and physical pain, became one of the enduring motifs of her work.
In The Broken Column she paints her spine as a shattered Ionic column, with nails hammered into her face and body. Her painting seems to shiver with a frozen intensity of agony – and yet it is hot with pride and a fierce survival instinct. There may be an appeal in the trope of female suffering (think Princess Diana or Marilyn Monroe), but Kahlo ferociously refused to merely suffer. Her work unflinchingly anatomised body parts in the manner of a medical textbook, but also used organs as emotional emblems, including depicting herself painting with her own blood; her palette her heart.
“I suffered two grave accidents in my life,” she was to write. One was the tram. “The other accident is Diego.” She and the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera first met when she was 15, and a student at a college where Diego was commissioned to paint a mural. So badly behaved were Frida and her gang that the previous muralists had armed themselves with pistols to deal with the kids. After meeting again in 1928, they married the following year, and she yearned for a child with him. Although she became pregnant several times, she had two terminations for medical reasons and one miscarriage. Her pelvis, it seems, had been too badly damaged to support a baby. Her painting Henry Ford Hospital depicts the artist, naked and alone on blood-soaked sheets, surrounded by a barren landscape that echoes her own barrenness. “Never before,” said Diego, “has a woman put such agonized poetry on canvas.”
Women have an inner biological life whose stories (exquisite or griefstruck) are invisible and often untold: the hidden intensity of menstruation, pregnancy or breastfeeding, the grief of infertility. Kahlo turned her life inside out, making exterior this interior female life. Her work is a form of x-ray. In My Nurse and I, breastmilk is depicted like sap, so intensely realised that you can almost hear the milk drawing down within the breast. She reverses the normal scale of female experience, so breastfeeding – too often a secretive and furtive action – is painted as a huge, cosmic activity. She tells a grateful truth: that breastfeeding women may experience themselves as enormous with life, world-mothering and miraculous. The nurse’s face is a huge mask, and Kahlo’s work acts like a mask for many women: her work both disguises them and gives stature to their experience.
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth,” wrote Oscar Wilde.
Kahlo collected indigenous masks (she was part indigenous herself) and adored the Day of the Dead masks, so jaunty with life. She painted masks, including one where she painted her own face as a mask on the face of a hunted, injured deer. Her work also uses the tradition of votive art – part of her heritage was Catholic – and can be an open prayer for courage: “Tree of Hope, Keep Firm”, she writes across a painting of a parched and treeless landscape.
To write the past is to hold a memory. To write the present is to stand witness. To write the future is to cast a spell, and this was my prayer, to spell motherhood with three letters: a-r-t.
But if I had to name a single quality that draws me to her work, it is defiance. She defied her destiny as victim: though her physical body was broken, she turned it into a work of art, creating savage beauty.
Childless, she made her painting her child. Her defiance was also political: in the US, she railed against the rich for partying while thousands starved.
Her defiance becomes transcendence: an extraordinary, furious hope infuses her work, verdant and proliferating, a belief in the birth of new life through death. Life grins and wriggles in her art, it jumps with vitality. Moons, suns, skies, butterflies, rain and trees all seem capable of transformation, curling, unfolding, glistening. Her brushwork creates forests of hairy leaves, alive as monkeys, a fertile, ancient, earthen and rooted world plugged into subterranean energy.
She transformed her suffering and made that transformation eloquent for others. Working on her last painting – of watermelons – eight days before her death, she inscribed into the painting a three-word prayer: VIVA LA VIDA.
Long live life. Amen to that.
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Is he not that which wakens melody in the silent chords of the human heart?
A light which arrays in splendor things and thoughts which else were dim in the shadow of their own significance. His soul is like one of the pools in the Ilex woods of the Maremma, it reflects the surrounding universe, but it beautifies, groups, and mellows their tints, making a little world within itself, the copy of the outer one; but more entire, more faultless. But above all, a poet’s soul is Love; the desire of sympathy is the breath that inspires his lay, while he lavishes on the sentiment and its object, his whole treasure-house of resplendent imagery, burning emotion, and ardent enthusiasm. He is the mirror of nature, reflecting her back ten thousand times more lovely; what then must not his power be, when he adds beauty to the most perfect thing in nature—even Love.
Someone claimed Shelley had no time for food, abstaining from meat and alcohol and existing mainly on bread. Poets’ food is love and fame.
“I have dropped a word, a hint,” says Hogg, “about a pudding. ‘A pudding,’ Bysshe said, dogmatically, ‘is a prejudice.’”
During the last years of his life Shelley took no heed of food. Mrs. Shelley used to send him something to eat into the room where he habitually studied, but the plate frequently remained untouched for hours upon a bookshelf, and at the end of the day he might be heard asking, “Mary, have I dined?”
The same Mary, was writing him on 25 October 1814, when he was running to escape imprisonment for debt:
For what a minute did I see you yesterday—is this the way my beloved that we are to live till the sixth in the morning I look for you and when I awake I turn to look on you—dearest Shelley you are solitary and uncomfortable why cannot I be with you to cheer you and to press you to my heart oh my love you have no friends why then should you be torn from the only one who has affection for you …?
Yes, The extent to which Mary Shelley’s mind was connected with her husband’s before his death can also be seen in their letters.
OC: We’re delighted to feature you on Overhead Compartment and appreciate you taking the time to answer a few questions for us. Do you have any noteworthy obsessions?
WT: The inevitability of death. The indifference of the universe to our pain. Penguins. Bears. Insanity. Brutality. Mountains. Klaus Kinski. The sentience of yogurt. And cinema.
OC: What do you find yourself most often daydreaming of?
OC: What was your introduction to the internet?
WT: WarGames, starring a young Matthew Broderick. As we all know, human civilization must be digitized so that, with one stroke, it can be deleted.
OC: If you were forced to paint all the surfaces of your home in a single, uniform color, what would it be? Describe your life in this monochromatic world.
WT: White, of course. All colors and the absence of color. The cold of space, the arctic dream. I wander into its vastness, frozen in a lake of ice, beyond the forgiveness of God.
Also, white goes well with modern furniture.
OC: We’re rather sensitive to our surroundings here at Overhead Compartment. Are there particular settings or rituals that you feel to be most conducive to finding concepts for your tweets?
WT: Cinema and all arts are birthed in pain, terror, and madness. Often it is helpful to see what’s on “Arts and Humanities Daily.”
Sometimes, though, I will look in forgotten places. Under the sink, perhaps.
Once, I recovered a bottle of gin. Fly-specked, shrouded in dust. I swam in seas of nostalgia, nauseous, then torpid.
There is what we know
And what we know as breath
And the two don’t know each other
till one of them has left.
There are many things I did survive ( like certain choices taken because of the sufference and illness of a third person), but I could never survive the death of my own child. The Germanwings disaster made me think about.