Impaled, bloodied, and flecked with gold dust
Frida Kahlo was impaled by a broken rod, and lay on the ground naked in her blood and flecked with gold. She said she could never paint the accident. The broken handlebar from the bus she was riding pierced her pelvis and uterus, and the gold powder from a painter’s supplies carried on the bus dusted her body. The accident happened the day after Mexico celebrated its national independence anniversary.
Many surgeries would follow.
The bus accident which left Frida Kahlo in chronic pain from the age of 18 onward is prophetic of her life’s arc. Or maybe Frida composed her life to fit the realities imposed by disability, beauty, and pain.
I visited the exhibition Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism at the Portland Art Museum. I was delighted to see little Mexican-American Fridas in the entrance line. Their dark braids were wrapped on top of their heads, crowned with flowers. Museum staff or guest artists with similar hair stylings and faces carefully made up in bright colors and a simulated unibrow also greeted us. They modeled one of the great ironies of Frida Kahlo. She developed her unique signature style and is now copied far and wide.
The exhibit embraced more than Frida and was about the Mexican Modernist movement. Local Mexican-American artists worked on a large mural outside the exhibit. But for most of us, it was Frida.
Frida painted many self-portraits, in the flat style of the Icon, the Catholic saint card looking straight at the viewer. The saint cards often have a gold halo or gold-painted flame or border. It wasn’t until the 1970s and after the publication of the biography Frida by Hayden Herrera in 1983 that Frida became an international icon.
She was important for feminism, disability rights, and the LGBTQI movement. She represented and was a contributing author of Mexicanidad, the Mexican national identity, embracing intellectual, artistic, and Indigenous roots.
How did Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón ascend the ladder to cultural icon?
She, who was an ardent advocate for Communism in the ’30s, now adorns little girls’ backpacks and the pillows, coffee cups, and T-shirts of a thousand souvenir shops. Her style was the subject of designer couture shows. Her life is full of contradictions.
When Frida was 15, she observed Diego Rivera painting a mural at her school, the National Preparatory School in Mexico City. Later, at the age of 20, she approached him while he was working on a mural at the Ministry of Education and asked him if she had the talent to continue as an artist. She brought some of her paintings, and Diego visited her house, the Casa Azul (blue house) that would remain her home. He would have an adjoining house.
Diego was twenty years older and two hundred pounds larger. Her parents described their relationship as the elephant and the dove. Theirs was also a volatile, conjoined love affair that would last the rest of their lives, in and out of their two marriages to each other and various affairs with other people.
Women did not have easy entry into the highly competitive art world. Georgia O’Keefe, a contemporary, was discovered and exhibited by gallery owner and photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz was over twenty years her senior, her lover, and later her husband. The famous exhibits of his nude photographs of her were sensational. They also document a progression from ingenue to wife to independent woman.
Women who succeeded had mentors, and male mentors were often a generation older. It made sense, that these men of accomplishment would be older, and provide the young blazing talents with tutoring or entry into their exclusive artistic circles.
The usefulness went two ways. The older man’s art was often re-energized, and the ingenue and protégé became a fully formed artist. The explosion of love and lust that comes from common understanding is part of these artistic relationships. This act of being wholely known is great energy, in the passion that encompasses both personal and artistic expression.
Frida was identified during her lifetime as Mrs. Diego Rivera. A Detroit newspaper interview, conducted while Diego Rivera was painting a magnificent Ford industrial mural, referred to Mrs. Rivera as also dabbling in art. Diego was the famed Mexican muralist, an ardent Communist who accepted commissions from such towering capitalists as the Fords and Rockefellers.
Frida’s easel paintings were, she said, painted realities. She lived simultaneously in the world of lived experience and symbolism.
She grew up the daughter of a portrait photographer and understood how to pose for the camera or the brush. The photographic portraits of Frida are carefully composed.
Frida developed her representative persona in her 20s, adopting the indigenous Tehuana costumes for her dress, the full skirts that hid her disabled legs, the embroidered blouses and shawls, and beautiful jewelry and braided hair topped with flowers that moved the eye upward.
Frida could claim descent on her mother’s side from the people of Oaxaca, a tribe there with matriarchal elements. She sometimes cultivated an androgynous look and could paint in a faint mustache and unibrow, as she was sometimes seen. She could also appear boyish, with shortened hair, and affairs with women which she painted and did not hide.
One of my favorite photographs of her is a photograph that feels like it could have been taken yesterday, a young, slight Frida wearing a large white shirt and tight-fitting pants at the waist.
Her paintings are famously depictive. One friend commissioned a portrait of a woman who had committed suicide, to be a commemorative portrait. To her horror, Frida’s painting was of a woman jumping to her death, lying in her blood.
Frida’s paintings often exposed her inner body, her heart as a pumping organ, and her spine as a broken column. The paintings featuring the heart remind me simultaneously of the Catholic tradition of sacred heart pictures and the Aztec sacrifice of pulling the heart from the body.
On a recent trip to Mexico, I was confounded by the very bloody depictions of crucifixes and saints in Catholic churches but knew I did not understand this culture. Frida’s paintings, too, did not ignore the bloody realities of life.
These are some of the contradictions of Frida Kahlo.
She lived in chronic pain and was known as a sensualist, a bohemian lover.
She married Diego Rivera, Mexico’s most famous painter, and lived for many years in his shadow. She is known today by feminists and others for her strong self-identification and overshadows Diego.
She was a Communist whose image has been capitalized and marketed on everything.
She constructed a carefully crafted image as a Mexican with Indigenous roots, but had a German father and traveled in sophisticated circles.
She had abortions and miscarriages because of her presumed physical inability to have a child, even though she professed to long for a child and was pregnant multiple times.
She hid her disability through careful costuming, although she painted explicitly about her physical realities. She did not promote herself as a martyr.
The corset is often a sexualized representation. For Frida, the corset was constructed of plaster or leather straps, medical confinement for her spine. Yet she painted her plaster corsets to become worn art.
She appeared as a representative of the natural self, an androgynous face with a mustache and unibrow. She also was photographed as a bejeweled, stylized persona for Vogue covers.
I am drawn to Frida because she is such a compilation of contradictions. Just like most of us. Authenticity can be misunderstood as consistency.
She was fully human, and yet has become an icon for what we want her to be. She died at age 47, in what one thinks of as mid-life. Her life was full.
She was punctured through her womb, and her spine was broken.
She became a creative, admired for the strength in her art and her life.
She was sprinkled with gold dust, lying in blood. She was no saint, yet her image is better known than the iconography of most saints.