Recently, I was invited to review a book about artist, Frida Kahlo. The book itself, the production of it, was splendid. But the more I considered the content, the more I found it was raising more questions about the artist and her work then it settled ... To wit:
Artist Frida Kahlo's Blood Bath at Casa Azul -
Book Review by M.L.Holton
Review of 'Frida Kahlo At Home,
by Suzanne Barbezat' - by M.L.Holton
Published by Frances Lincoln Limited. 160pp, illustrated,
8.9" x 10.2", hard-cover.
All images reproduced from the publication.
ISBN: 9780711237322 US $35 / CDN $45
Little known beyond the art circles of her own lifetime, Mexican
artist, Frida Kahlo's ghoulish self-portraits throw a very long shadow today. This is surprising,
given that Kahlo painted only 200 artworks during her entire life. One third of
those works were her broody, introspective self-portraits, often depicting
herself in a state of physical or psychological suffering, with the majority of
them amplifying mutilated blood-gushing body parts.
Most contemporary international art critics and collectors are
aware of these disturbing blood-soaked self-portraits. Yet, for all her notoriety
of today, (with her equally uncompromising full-frontal uni-brow stare-downs), it
is intriguing to note that there was only one exhibition of her art work, ever,
while she was alive, in her home and native land of Mexico.
So, how did the current 'Cult of Frida' develop?
Travel writer and anthropologist, Suzanne Barbezat, provides
substantial clues in her heavily illustrated coffee-table book, entitled, "Frida
Kahlo at Home'. It is a well-documented treasure trove of Kahlo
ephemera: with striking interior and exterior photographs of Kahlo's primary residence,
La Casa Azul, aka The Blue House. The book also contains intriguing snippets of
personal letters and memorabilia between herself and her husband, Diego Rivera
- as well as her assorted lovers, including Russian communist revolutionary
leader, Leon Troksky, and the American-Japanese sculptor, Isamu Noguchi. Many
chronological reproductions of Kahlo's work flush out this tribute.
As the book press release states: "La Casa Azul, now one of
the most visited museums in Mexico
City, was the birthplace of the artist, Frida Khalo.
It was the home where she grew up, where she lived with her husband, Diego
Rivera, and where she died. She also spent significant periods of time in the
house convalescing: first, when she contracted polio as a small child and again
at the age of 18, after the trolley accident, which left her critically
injured. Confined to her bed in casts and orthopedic devices and in constant pain,
the bedroom at La Casa Azul is where Frida began to paint the vibrant and
unflinching portraits and self-portraits that would make her name'".
But, Who Was She? Frida Kahlo, christened Magdalena Carmen
Frieda Kahlo y Calderon, was born in Mexico to a German father, Carl
Wilhelm Kahlo, (who changed his name to Guillermo Kahlo when he emigrated), and
a Spanish-Mexican mother, Matilde, (his second wife.). She was raised with certain privileges,
attending a private German prep school, and receiving a pious Catholic
indoctrination via her very devout mother.
|Photo of Frida, taken by her father, 1926. |
Frida only went 'native' after she began her lifelong association
with famed Mexican artist and self-proclaimed atheist, Diego Rivera. First, as his
student, then later, as his wife. They were married in 1929. She was 22, he
Diego had already built a substantial artistic persona as a 'Mexican
nationalist'. He was very vocal about the class struggle and revolutionary war
that defined his nation. Magnetic, and a polarizing provocateur of the labour
movement, his public mural work amplified his knowledge of Mayan traditions and
mythologies, pre-and-post colonial-revolutionary atrocities, and his abiding
interest in the political struggles of the working-class.
It was he who assembled the pre-Colombian art collection
that now resides in Anahuacalli, their
'country house'. (This house was completed, after they both died, by architect
Juan O'Gorman and Diego's daughter, from a previous marriage.) It was he who
was "intent on ensuring his and Frida's legacy." This, even after he
married his long-time mistress, Emma Hurtrado, a year after Kahlo's death. "He
created at trust through the Bank of Mexico, leaving The Blue House and Anahuacalli,
as well as their contents, to the people of Mexico." He appointed another
long time female friend, wealthy arts patron, Dolores Olmedo, (and one of his
earliest models), as director of that trust.
Dolores and Frida were child-hood rivals. Dolores often
bought Rivera's work, and only bought Frida's work at Diego's request.
"She openly did not care for Frida or her work." Nonetheless, the trust
was established, and after a modest re-staging, the Frida Kahlo House/Museum
aka The Casa Azul or Blue House, opened to the public in 1958.
Twelve years after her death,
a low-budget documentary,
entitled, 'The Life and Death of Frida
Kahlo as Told to Karen and David Crommie'
made its debut at the San
Francisco Film Festival. In 1983, a weighty biography was written by art
historian, Hayden Herrera. In 2002, famed Mexican actress, Salma Hayek,
co-produced, and starred in, the Oscar-winning feature film, 'Frida'.
Today, Frida Kahlo has been whole-heartedly 'adopted' by a fervently
nationalistic Mexican government and citizenry. They now claim her as their
own. Kahlo's distinctive self-portrait, dressed as she invariably was, in the traditional
Tehuana costume of an indigenous maiden, has even appeared on Mexican currency.
She has achieved iconic, near 'saintly', national status.
Who, then, was Frida's husband, Diego Rivera? Diego was born to
two middle-class teachers in 1886 in Guanajuato. His mother was a devoted Catholic
mestiza (part European, part Indian) and his father, a criollo
(Mexican of European descent). When he was six, his liberal-minded family moved
from Guanajuato to Mexico City.
Rivera became a Marxist, and a member of the Mexican Communist Party.
In 1907, (the year Frida was born), Diego Rivera was
continuing his arts and political studies in Europe.
He met and became friends with several famous artists of the day, including Pablo
Picasso, Marc Chagall and Piet Mondrian. He studied Cubism in Spain and
toured Italian frescos. He developed associations with European and Russian 'social
justice' revolutionaries active in the Soviet Union.
He met and befriended Leon Trotsky.
Rivera's first serious government commission, in 1923, was for
a series of murals for the Secretaria de Educacion Publica in Mexico City. This work soon established his prominence
in what would become known as the Mexican Mural Renaissance. Painting in a
style deeply indebted to pre-Colombian culture, he created large complex panoramic
images of Mexican daily life. As he wrote, "When
art is true, it is one with nature. This is the secret of primitive art and
also of the art of the masters—Michelangelo, Cézanne, Seurat, and Renoir. The
secret of my best work is that it is Mexican." Raised radically, he soon
became 'Mexican' to the core - and Frida adored him.
|Detail from 'Freida &
Diego' (1931). She called herself Freida,
not Frida then. |
Their love story was tempestuous from the start. Kahlo,
younger by two decades, also joined the Mexican Communist Party, and, though
petite and frail in comparison, she soon became an enamored disciple of this,
as she wrote, "Pot-Bellied Genius". She courted him when he was still
married to his second wife, and he, impressed by her seduction and burgeoning artistic
sensibilities, succumbed. Their subsequent marriage was rift with upsets,
break-downs, philandering (on both sides), divorce and a re-marriage.
Over time though, they did hold on to each other. When
Rivera died he wanted his cremated ashes blended with hers. This never
happened. But, in keeping with both of their passionate and rather narcissistic
personalities, it remained a 'romantic ideal'. .... Some could say that Rivera understood the necessity of
'roots' far better then she did.
He undoubtedly understood her dual-identity crisis.
He had struggled with this himself, experimenting with European styles of
painting, before embracing, whole-hog, his Mexican lineage. Frida, on the other
hand, struggled, played the role well enough, but suffered. Always suffering.
Diego would, as example, have her pose, dressed in peasant garb, for his
murals. She, educated, erudite and well-traveled, would pose.
|Detail from Rivera's 1940 mural,
'Pan American Unity', showing Frida in native dress. |
Clearly though, she was no peasant.
Truth be told, fabricating and mythologizing their lives was
not beyond either of them. Frida re-invented her birth date to coincide with
the National Revolution. Rivera laid claim to fighting with Zapata. Both
stories are untrue.
The sole exhibition of Kahlo's painted works in Mexico City was organized
near the end of her life at the National Arts Institute by an old family friend
and school mate of Frida's. Not to miss the occasion, Kahlo arrived in an
ambulance. She was wheeled into the exhibit on a bed.
She died several years later, in July of 1954, aged 47: some
suspect of suicide. It is common knowledge that during the last years of her
life she lived on pain-killers. Her deteriorating condition, including the
amputation of her leg, severely diminished her focus to produce much new work.
Instead, she wrote and drew in journals. Many are now preserved in the Blue
Kahlo's art constantly shows the struggles she endured through
various stages of 'identity'. After the Revolution, in 1922, when she was
fifteen, she was one of only thirty-five girls admitted to the newly formed National Preparatory School. She studied the
natural sciences there in the hope of advancing into medicine. However, after
her childhood bout of polio, (that shortened and damaged her leg), and the later
bus crash, (that battered her body, leaving her spine, pelvis and collar bone
broken), she was often sickly and bed-ridden. It was during the latter recovery,
while convalescing, that she began to experiment with paints.
Her self-portraits display the conflicting realities of two
opposing world views. Euro-petticoats and hand-plucked lace versus
Mexican-peasant garb and hand-woven cotton. Quite often there is gushing blood
Here's one horrific example:
|A Few Small Nips', (1935)
by Frida Kahlo. Now in the collection of the Dolores Olemedo
Museum, the original
Trustee of Rivera's Estate. Note Frida's euro-style shoe.
Looking at the reproductions of her paintings in this book,
it is apparent that Kahlo created a kind of hybrid and, to my eye, pseudo, folk-art.
Some art historians and personal friends, like French founder of the Surrealist
movement, Andre Breton, tried to place her 'style' into the Surrealist camp. (He
arranged her first exhibition in France.) But it is a label that she
herself vehemently rejected. Mostly, her work was private and obsessively autobiographical.
|Detail, 'Love Embrace of the
Universe' by Frida Kahlo (1949).
Now, in 2017, from the vantage point of Canada's current
cultural perspective, (especially in the wake of the recent Joseph Boyden
'native ancestry' imbroglio), Frida Kahlo could undoubtedly be dragged over hot coals
for so openly impersonating, expropriating and interpreting the indigenous
culture within the boundaries of the country where she was born and raised. Rather
then revered as a national cultural icon, she could just as easily be vilified
as a 'Settler Expropriator'.
Many post-colonialists would unequivocally agree: both she
and Diego were expropriating Settlers. But, within the ever-spinning politics
of the 'Greater Good of Nationalism', most Mexican nationalists - evolving
within their own young democracy - would argue that, no, she - and he - were
not expropriating anything. As artists of their day, they represented the new
and emerging Mexico,
freed from the shackles of early colonialism and class servitude.
Putting aside the topsy-turvy push-and-pull politics of contemporary
nationalism, Frida was very clearly her own woman with a unique, albeit exceedingly
eccentric, outlook on life. Hailed by some as a feminist, for her fearless autobiographical
and brutal depictions of personal pain, there is no question that the rich European
and Mezo-American cultures in which she lived and breathed, shaped and informed
her wider world vision.
Barbezat's book is full of well-researched trivia that adds
yet another layer of historic sediment to this now very identifiable 'Mexican' artist.
Semi-deified now within the lexicon of Mexican history, Kahlo's cremated
remains lay at rest, entombed in the Blue House Museum. Frida Kahlo, artist -
and forever the wife of Mexican artist, Diego Rivera - could never have emerged
from anywhere else.