Basharat Bashir

Knowing Frida Kahlo

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“My painting carries with it the message of pain."

The iconic figure in Mexican art history Frida Kahlo is remembered for her stimulating self-portraits and bold, vibrant colors. She along with famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera are the most celebrated   artists who uplifted the Mexican art to new heights. Frida is remembered in Mexico for her attention to Mexican and indigenous culture and by feminists for her depiction of the female experience and form and her legacy in art history continues to inspire the imagination of contemporary artists and activists.

Born in 6 July 1907 to a German father and a Mestiza mother, Frida spent most of her childhood and adult life at La Casa Azul, her family home in Coyoacán   which is now Frida Kahlo Museum. Frida enjoyed making art from an early age, receiving drawing instruction from printmaker Fernando Fernández and filling her notebooks with sketches. In 1925, she began to work outside of school to help her family. After briefly working as a stenographer, she became a paid engraving apprentice for Fernández. He was impressed by her talent, although she did not consider art as a career at that time.

As a teenager Frida was a promising student headed for medical school until she suffered a severe bus accident in 1925 at the age of 18, which caused her lifelong pain and medical problems. She suffered multiple fractures of her spine, collarbone and ribs, a shattered pelvis, broken foot and a dislocated shoulder. The accident left her confined to bed for three months and it was during this time that she began to paint. Her mother provided her with a specially-made easel, which enabled her to paint in bed, and her father lent her some of his oil paints. She had a mirror placed above the easel, so that she could see herself. Painting eventually became a way for Frida to explore questions of identity and existence. In one of her paintings ‘The Broken Column’ she illustrates the devastation to her body from the bus accident. In the painting Frida depicted herself nearly naked, split down the middle, with her spine presented as a broken decorative column. Her skin is dotted with nails. She is also fitted with a surgical brace. She later stated that the accident and the isolating recovery period made her desire to begin again, painting things just as she saw them with he own eyes and nothing more.

In most of her paintings Frida uses her own life experience as her subject, portraying herself to depict physical and emotional pain at various phases of her life.  Although Frida featured herself and events from her life in her paintings, they were often ambiguous in meaning. She did not use them only to show her subjective experience but to raise questions about Mexican society and the construction of identity within it, particularly gender, race, and social class. Historian Liza Bakewell has stated that Frida”recognized the conflicts brought on by revolutionary ideology”:

Frida loved to paint self portraits and self portrait remained most common subject in most of her paintings. Although many of her works are inspired by the nature and artifacts of Mexico she often reverted back to self portraits as artists have always returned to their beloved themes as Vincent van Gogh to his Sunflowers, Rembrandt his Self Portrait, and Claude Monet his Water Lilies. In a statement she had said, “I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.”

Self-Portrait in a Velvet Dress in 1926 was the first self portrait painted by Frida. The portrait was painted in the style of 19th Century Mexican portrait painters who themselves were greatly influenced by the European Renaissance masters. She also sometimes drew from the Mexican painters in her use of a background of tied-back drapes. Self-Portrait – Time Flies , Portrait of a Woman in White and Self Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky all bear this background.

When Frida began her career as an artist, muralists dominated the Mexican art scene.  They created large public pieces Inspired by the idealism of the Revolution. The murals were executed in fresco, encaustic, mosaic, and relief and themes were politically charged and stressed on Mexico’s pre-colonial history and culture depicting peasants, workers, and people of mixed Indian-European heritage as the heroes who would forge its future. Although Frida was close to muralists such as Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siquieros and shared their commitment to socialism and Mexican nationalism, the majority of Frida’s paintings were self-portraits of relatively small size. Among the Muralists Frida developed a close relationship with Diego Rivera whom she later married.

Frida first met Rivera when she joined the Mexican Communist Party and sort advice from the accomplished painter, who was 20 years her senior. The couple married in 1929 and Frida painted a number of paintings depicting their relationship. Both continued their artistic journey travelling together in Mexico and the United States. During this time, Frida developed her artistic style, drawing her main inspiration from Mexican folk culture, and painted mostly small self-portraits which mixed elements from pre-Columbian and Catholic beliefs. Her paintings raised the interest of Surrealist artist André Breton, who arranged for Frida’s first solo exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in 1938. Although Frida and Rivera supported each other and flourished as leading artists, their post marital relationship was marked by messy fights and multiple extra-marital affairs on both sides. The 1937 painting Memory, the Heart, shows Frida’s pain over her husband’s affair with her younger sister Christina. A large broken heart at her feet shows the intensity of Frida’s anguish. The couple eventually divorced in 1939 only to remarry a year later.

In the “International Exhibition of Surrealism” of 1940 at the Galeria de Arte, Mexicano, Frida exhibited her two largest paintings: The Two Fridas and The Wounded Table . Surrealist Andrew Breton considered Frida a surrealistic, a label she rejected, saying she just paints her reality not dreams. However, In 1945, when Don Jose Domingo Lavin asked Frida Kahlo to read the book Moses and Monotheism by Sigmund Freud – whose psychoanalysis works Surrealism is based on – and paint her understanding and interpretation of this book. Frida Kahlo painted Moses, and this painting was recognized as second prize at the annual art exhibition in the Palacio de Bellas Artes.

Throughout the 1940s, Frida participated in exhibitions in Mexico and the United States and worked as an art teacher. She taught at the Escuela Nacional de Pintura, Escultura y Grabado (“La Esmeralda”) and was a founding member of the Seminario de Cultura Mexicana.  Frida struggled to make a living from her art until the mid to late 1940s, as she refused to adapt her style to suit her clients’ wishes. She received two commissions from the Mexican government in the early 1940s. She did not complete the first one, possibly due to her dislike of the subject, and the second commission was rejected by the commissioning body. Nevertheless, she had regular private clients, such as engineer Eduardo Morillo Safa, who ordered more than thirty portraits of family members over the decade. Her financial situation improved when she received a 5000-peso national prize for her painting Moses in 1946 and when The Two Fridas was purchased by the Museo de Arte Moderno in 1947. According to art historian Andrea Kettenmann, by the mid-1940s, her paintings were “featured in the majority of group exhibitions in Mexico.” Further, Martha Zamora wrote that she could “sell whatever she was currently painting; sometimes incomplete pictures were purchased right off the easel.”

In her unique style and presentation Frida often featured her own body in her paintings, presenting herself in diverse metaphorical imagery. She portrays herself as wounded and broken and sometimes as a child, or clothed in different outfits, such as the Tehuana costume, a man’s suit, or a European dress. She used her body as a metaphor to explore questions on societal roles. Her paintings often depicted the female body in an unconventional manner, such as during miscarriages, and childbirth or cross-dressing. In depicting the female body in graphic manner, Frida positioned the viewer in the role of the voyeur, “making it virtually impossible for a viewer not to assume a consciously held position in response”.

Even as Frida was gaining recognition in Mexico, her health was declining rapidly, and an attempted surgery to support her spine failed. Her paintings from this period include Broken Column, Without Hope, Tree of Hope, Stand Fast, and The Wounded Deer, reflecting her poor physical state. During her last years, Frida was mostly confined to the Casa Azul. She painted mostly still lifes, portraying fruit and flowers with political symbols such as flags or doves. She was concerned about being able to portray her political convictions, stating that “I have a great restlessness about my paintings. Mainly because I want to make it useful to the revolutionary communist movement until now I have managed simply an honest expression of my own self I must struggle with all my strength to ensure that the little positive my health allows me to do also benefits the Revolution, the only real reason to live”. Frida’s always-fragile health began to decline in the same decade. She had her first solo exhibition in Mexico in 1953, shortly before her death in 1954 at the age of 47.

Frida’s work remained relatively unknown until the late 1970s, when her work was rediscovered by art historians and political activists. By the early 1990s, she had become not only a recognized figure in art history, but also regarded as an icon for Chicanos, the feminist movement and the LGBTQ movement. Frida’s work has been celebrated internationally as emblematic of Mexican national and indigenous traditions and by feminists for what is seen as its uncompromising depiction of the female experience and form.

.Frida’s Coyoacan home was turned into Frida Kahlo Museum and her personal belongings are on display throughout the house, as if she still lived there. Frida was born and grew up in this building, whose cobalt walls gave way to the nickname of the Blue House. She lived there with her husband for some years, and she died there. The facility is the most popular museum in the Coyoacan neighborhood and among the most visited museums in Mexico City.

The Two Fridas

‘The Two Fridas’ is certainly one of the most famous and intriguing painting by Frida Kahlo. The painting depicts Frida as two different personalities sitting next to each other and holding hands. One is the traditional Frida in Tehuana costume, with a broken heart, sitting next to an independent, modern dressed Frida. In Frida’s diary, she wrote about this painting and said it originated from her memory of an imaginary childhood friend. Later she had admitted that it expressed her desperation and loneliness with the separation from her husband and famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.

The painting was completed in 1939 the time when Frida and Rivera were divorced. The painting depicts two Fridas with visible hearts and holding hands looking towards the viewer. The posture of the figures and their expression appears calm as nothing unusual has happened even though the heart of the traditional Frida is cut and torn open. The main artery, which comes from the torn heart down to the right hand of the traditional Frida, is cut off by the surgical pincers held in the lap of the traditional Frida. The blood dripping on white dress presents a strong feeling of loss and pain as well as the danger of bleeding to death. The background of the painting is filled with agitating clouds giving a sense of storm representing artist’s inner turmoil.

The Two Fridas’ was purchased by National Institute of Fine Arts in Mexico City for 4,000 Pesos (about 1,000 dollars) at that time with an additional of 36 Pesos for the frame. That was the highest price that Frida was ever paid for a painting during her lifetime.

The reproduction of this painting is on display in the Frida Kahlo Museum in Coyoacan, Mexico.

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