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Frida Kahlo: To Paint is Very Difficult

Published: 7/13/2011

Although the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo died on July 13, 1954, “Frida, the artist lives on in an eternal present,” writes Phyllis Tuchman in this essay originally published on Obit-Mag.com in 2007.

Before there was Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, much less Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, there was Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. During the 1930s and '40s, they were Mexico's glamour couple. Their comings and goings were chronicled in newspapers and magazines in their homeland as well as the United States and France. These days, Rivera's reputation as the 20th century's mural painter non pareil has dimmed beside his wife's long shadow. With the rise of Feminism, Kahlo became a cult figure. Whenever her art is exhibited, which is rarer than a blue moon, Fridamania rules.

To be sure, she's accessible to rich and poor alike. At Sotheby's a few years ago, you could bid $5,616,000 for a not quite 12-inches-by-20-inches painting "that's about $23,400 per square inch. Or, you could go to your local post office and buy a sheet of 34-cent stamps bearing a self-portrait of the artist.

Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo Y Calderon was born July 6, 1907, in the Casa Azul in Coyoacan, a quiet tree-lined suburb of Mexico City. A cab ride between the unassuming house where she was born, raised, lived, and died and the elite Escuela National Preparatonica, the school behind the Cathedral in the center of town where she, 34 other girls, and 2,000 boys studied, takes about 25 minutes on a quiet Sunday. She spent most of her days "and nights" within this perimeter.

Although she was only 5-feet, 3-inches tall and weighed just 98 pounds, Kahlo stood out in a crowd. Photographer Edward Weston once observed, "Frida [is] a little doll alongside Diego, but a doll in size only, for she is strong and quite beautiful dressed in native costume. People stop in their tracks to look in wonder." From his vantage point, her 6-foot tall, 300-plus-pounds husband saw a wife with a "delicate face" whose "dark and thick eyebrows [meet] her nose as if they were "the wings of a blackbird, their black arches framing two extraordinary brown eyes."

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera (Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress)

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera (Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress)





Thanks to Salma Hayek's Oscar-nominated performance as Kahlo in the eponymous Hollywood biopic, Frida, the artist lives on in an eternal present. In art history books, she died in 1954 at the age of 47. She'd been ill practically her whole life. As a child, she suffered from polio; her right leg and foot never healed properly. Then, in 1925, in a trolley car accident, where several people died, her spine was fractured, her pelvis crushed, and many ribs broken. Besides suffering from her injuries for the rest of her life, Kahlo became addicted to drugs and drank heavily to alleviate the pain. Because she wore loose-flowing, native dresses popular among Mexican intellectuals, people were often unaware that a plaster corset might be encasing her petite body.

While the Julie Taymor-directed, Hayek-produced movie five years ago dwelled on the events of Kahlo's life, this, the centennial year of her birth, will celebrate the 200-some small-sized paintings she executed on canvas, tin, masonite, sheet metal, and such. Many of these were self-portraits. "I paint self-portraits," the artist explained, "because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best." On Oct. 27 " and remaining on view through Jan. 20, 2008 -- the Walker Art Center (and later the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) inaugurates Frida Kahlo, a survey exhibition featuring about 50 paintings executed between 1926, when the artist was only 19, and 1954, when the surfaces of her works were agitated and less refined. There will also be a selection of photographs formerly owned by the Riveras (for a number of years, Frida called herself, and even signed her work, Carmen Rivera).

Another section of the show focuses on photographic portraits of Kahlo. Six years ago, Taymor told me she thought Kahlo was photographed more often than Marilyn Monroe. Those taken by Nickolas Muray, whom the painter knew when she was in New York in 1938, are among her most iconic images.



Frida Kahlo (Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Frida Kahlo (Archive Photos/Getty Images)





It's interesting to compare the photographs where she puts forward her best face "beguiling, flirtatious " with her own self-portraits where she either surrounds herself with animals, flowers, and plants or conveys the excruciating pain she is suffering. In Henry Ford Hospital (1932), Kahlo depicts herself anguished, nude, and bedridden after one of her many miscarriages. Tears stream down her face as she sits bare-breasted in a ravaged, earthquake-devastated landscape in The Broken Column (1944), a panel referring to the trauma of her spinal injuries.

In a world where many people can't express their feelings well, it's hard not to admire how Kahlo achieved something even more difficult. She found a way to visualize hers. In one work after another, she embodied the sort of preternaturally wise insights she learned as she recovered from her accident. "In this hospital," she wrote to her boyfriend, "death dances around my bed at night."

A few weeks later, she recounted, "A little while ago, not much more than a few days ago, I was a child who went about in a world of colors, of hard and tangible forms. Everything was mysterious - If you knew how terrible it is to know suddenly, as if a bolt of lightening elucidated the earth. Now I live in a painful planet, transparent as ice; but it is as if I had learned everything at once in seconds - I became old in instants."

Kahlo knew how to maximize her talent. Her husband admired that quality, even though it was from watching him at work that she mastered her craft. Rivera always insisted she was the better artist. Even his compadre Pablo Picasso, was awed by the paintings he saw in a solo show. He wrote to Rivera, "Neither [Andre] Derain, nor I, nor you are capable of painting a head like those of Frida Kahlo." Back in the day, actor Edward G. Robinson bought four works while then-playwright Clare Booth Luce commissioned one.



Frida Kahlo,

Frida Kahlo, "Autorretrato con Collar de Espinas y Colibrí" ("Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird") (Wikimedia Commons)





Kahlo's pictures are precisely painted, spare and to the point. They're almost as small as the manuscript pages of a large Bible, and she used subdued colors, with the exception of dramatic reds to limn lips and gushing blood. To a group of art students Kahlo once said, "To paint well is very difficult. It is necessary to learn the skill very well, to have strict discipline and above all to have love, to feel a great love for painting."

She said it best. As we observe the centennial of Frida Kahlo's birth, no art critic could put it better. Frida Kahlo's paintings are all heart. And viewers respond to them with their hearts.



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