FRIDA KAHLO: THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY
As an astonishing exhibition opens at the V&A, the author Jessie Burton travels to the artist’s home in Mexico, in search of the true heart of an enigmatic icon who turned her suffering into a powerfully compelling body of work
Jessie Burton explores the artist’s extraordinary home in Mexico City in a search for the truth behind her enigmatic façade
Frida Kahlo should have died when she was 18. Everyone thought she would. The injuries she sustained after a bus collision in Mexico City were so horrific, that the billiard table where she laid waiting for an ambulance could have been her funeral pyre. Her spine was shattered in three places, her collarbone and ribs broken, her pelvis and shoulder dislocated, her right leg had eleven fractures, and most potently, a steel handrail skewered her abdomen, exiting her vagina. She was haemorrhaging, her body covered in blood and powdered gold, a pot of which a fellow passenger had been carrying. It exploded over her in the crash, a prophetic baptism for the glowing pain that was hers from that day forward. The actual accident, she later said, unfolded in silence. But when they pulled out the handrail, she screamed louder than the ambulance.
The position of the handrail, the blood, the gold, the billiards, the drowning out of a siren, is all so Kahlo – the female body in torture, the eye for contrasts, the black humour, the indomitability – that you’re tempted to raise an ironic tequila to the queen of self-creation, nourishing the image of this Mexican woman who refused to be a victim. And yet, the image is a true story. The surgeons had to put her back together like a collage, another pre-figuring truth for the artist who would cut her face or torso out of pictures, the woman who used the geometry of clothes and dazzle of jewellery to trick the eye from her deformities. Ninety-three years ago in a hospital medical theatre, Frida Kahlo was a puzzle. For me today, she remains equally difficult to piece together.
Because here’s another story: in the year of a revolution, a girl was born to a Tehuana mother and a German papa, in the country of the Aztecs where the eagle eats the snake. A teasing, imaginative child, she grew under the purple jacarandas in Coyoacán, watching her father – a distinguished professional photographer – pose for his own camera, learning how the world can be made in a single gaze. Polio shrunk her leg, so in sketches of herself she covered the limb with butterflies. She wanted to be a doctor, but the age of 18 brought a curse worse than polio, in the shape of a crashing bus. She survived, broken but alive, and went on to marry a man whose fame and physicality were the size of a mountain. She called Diego Rivera her other accident. She also called him ‘my little boy’.
Motherhood evaded Kahlo, despite the yearning. She suffered dangerous miscarriages and medical abortions. She had begun to paint herself in convalescence – looking up into a mirror her mother had fixed on the roof of her bed – and work became her salvation. Her self-portraits were syntheses of her personal life, her communist politics, her Catholic upbringing and loyalty toward Mexico’s indigenous cultures. Throughout her life, in her flowing skirts and dark moustache, she took both sexes to her bed. Unfettered in the bedroom, she was discliplined in the studio, and always kept her brushes scrupulously clean.
Her paintings were small in size but explosive in their autobiographical subject matter. Sometimes, she used her nail polish in place of paint: the real world blurred onto the imagined, her life as art. Outside of the frame, flowers wreathed her body, hiding the medical corsets and wrecked fertility she detailed on the canvas. Her clothes were shields of colour. She lengthened the heel on her right shoe because quite literally, she knew how it felt to live off-balance.
Again and again she fought off la pelona – what she called the bald woman, known also as Death. She endured 30 major surgeries in her life, and eventually la pelona won. Kahlo, not yet 50, was laid out, beautiful in her Blue House, her artist’s fingers ringed in jade and coral, cooling in the dusk.
I could go on. I will go on, because Frida Kahlo is a writer’s dream, and for years she has been mine. Yet because she is so shapeshifting and self-aware, and because time can harden the veneer on an icon’s image, it’s hard to quantify what precisely about Kahlo makes her such an inspiration to so many. You can tell her tale, but the woman shimmers away – at times too fragmented, too massconsumed to feel real. The ubiquity and fixity of her image has caused a diffusion of her true personhood, rather than assuring any distillation of it. The face she turned to the world acts like a stopper on the woman behind it. But perhaps with Kahlo, that was the whole point? We can still trust that steady gaze, because she considered it to be just as true.
Kahlo isn’t an illusion; she’s simply self-constructed. If your body were broken apart like hers was, on the cusp of womanhood – what would you do? If you were married to the most famous man in Mexico – how would you cope? I believe, that because she was forced at such a young age to understand how death was her close
Left: Kahlo and Diego Rivera on their wedding day in 1929. Far left: Kahlo aged four in 1911
It’s the plurality of Kahlo that dazzles – what we’ve done to her in our adoration – and what she did
neighbour, to know chronic pain and loss, to be so prodded, patronised, denied and deified, she had no option. She had to decide who she was, or others would do it for her.
The kaleidoscopic biography is delicious, but Kahlo wasn’t born in the year of the revolution – Mexico’s, of course, which began in 1910. She switched the date, a child of change who became a woman destined for endless upheavals. Her birth was three years earlier, but time means nothing when you’re in the fierce process of making yourself up. A literal Orlando, like Woolf ’s creation, Kahlo spent her life flitting between selves, immobile and daring, vulnerable and impervious, Jewish, Oaxacan, German, bisexual, wifely, a self-supporter, a mistress dancing on mirrors, understanding that to be fully whole one must be many things. The age-hopping doesn’t matter; it’s the fact she wanted to do it in the first place that’s interesting. It’s the plurality of Kahlo that dazzles – what we’ve done to her in our adoration – but more importantly, what she did to herself. Whether she meant to or not, Kahlo says: look at me. You can be anything you want to be.
Kahlo knew – because she lived inside it – what the bourgeois, conservative, Europhile Mexican society expected of a middle-class girl from the suburbs. But one of many things that strikes me when I read her open-hearted, intense letters, when I stare deep into her jewel-like paintings, when I study her confident, at times defiant gaze in photographs of her, is that she never wavers from her own will. Before the accident, she rarely lets anyone tell her what to do. Afterwards, the only discipline she will listen to is her own, and occasionally a doctor she trusts. She may love Diego with damaging abandon, but the abandon, at least, belongs to her.
I love her because she made her paintings even when she felt vulnerable – indeed, because of her vulnerability. Kahlo was not always sure of her own abilities, but she carried on anyway, saying, ‘I paint because I need to.’ A hospital gown of hers survives, covered not just in smears of her blood, but paint flecks too. It arrested me, this visual metaphor of such determination. It’s breathtaking when a woman believes in her own power, when she stops caring what other people think, nimbly stepping her orthopaedic heels over the invisible circle that society has drawn round her, turning in the free space, hands on hips, as if to say, ‘So?’
We see Kahlo on mugs and tote bags – a fierce, bedecked Azteca queen – but the constructed image was a necessity for her against the traumas that lay beneath. Kahlo did not let fear fester. Kahlo took her pain and her disabilities and her non-conventional looks and her overwhelming husband, and made them work for her. She went on loving and living and painting, choosing to almost blind herself with light because the only other option was a terrible darkness. Her joy was complex – she could be caustic, difficult, destructive – but whatever happened, she refused to be a sweetheart of fate.
You might assume she was a natural at posing for the camera, given those blazing eyes – but as a young woman, she did not immediately jump to be a sitter in her father’s photographs. She didn’t want
to look sickly, and was surprised to see how strong she appeared. With time, she learnt how to control not just her own gaze, but the gaze of other people upon her, however uncomfortable it sometimes felt. She could easily have felt powerless, but instead she decided on the message she wished to transmit. There are days when I’m working in my own studio, and I crave the conviction she had. It’s rarer than we like to think, despite our fluency in the language of fourth-wave feminism. It’s harder than we might like to admit to put into practice – after decades of conditioning in the opposite direction – to be obliging, to be liked, to be not too loud yet not too quiet, not too covered-up yet not too revealing, not too sexual yet not too frigid, not too clever yet not too stupid.
Kahlo would grind her cigarette on such conditions for womanhood, and look at you askance. She would crush those binaries like dust, because they do not matter, they make no sense, they own no weight and never have. She wouldn’t understand your preoccupation with them. What do they have to do with the individual self? Theories abound over her arguably most famous (and largest) painting, The Two Fridas, completed in three months after she separated from Rivera. People believe it shows her duality; her two, separate selves, the European and indigenous, the modest and overt, the heartbroken and angry. I don’t think it’s duality; I think she knew that both belonged inside one body. People could not accept the one Kahlo as a chameleon self. They were constantly breaking her apart, when she wanted to be whole, containing multitudes.
In Mexico City, they say that every time the land is dug for another subway tunnel, more Aztec glories are revealed. The city’s layers offer up its ancient gods, hidden for millennia. We on the ground above get older, but the idea of buried treasure beneath our feet is curiously timeless. We want to strike gold, to beat time by bringing old beauties into our ugly present. We want to add to the dimensions of what we know, to find more props to add to the story, plotting the path taken by those before us, to understand where we ourselves are going.
At the Blue House – where Kahlo lived on and off her whole life, in a beautiful corner of the sprawling Distrito Federal in Coyoacán – a variant of such an excavation took place, in a mercifully shorter timeframe. When she died in July 1954, Rivera was so desperate that his Friducha not be dead, his friends told the doctor to make an incision in her skin to prove him into his grief. He went so far as to open her jugular. Even in death, her already-scarred body was the subject of a surgeon’s scalpel and a man’s desire. The cuts proved true. Rivera did not stay long behind her, dying three years later.
In 2004, a room in the Blue House was unsealed, revealing a cultural hoard to match a Mayan temple. It contained Kahlo’s letters; an archive of about 6,000 photos of her life, some covered in her drawings, others defaced or smeared with lipstick kisses; her extraordinary diary, its pages jammed with poetry and prayer, invectives and illustrations; her sumptuous loose clothes and restrictive medical corsets that became her second skin; assorted medicines alongside scent bottles, artificial limbs and eye-pencils; and countless other personal artefacts stored neatly in boxes. A unique chemical composition in the room had by chance protected the pieces almost perfectly. Some suggested it was thanks to Kahlo’s perfume.
Of the two and a half thousand people who come to her house each day – to enjoy these treasures, to admire her early paintings, to gaze up at the same bounty of jacaranda that she too had seen – 60 per cent of them are women between the ages of 25 and 40. They are pilgrims from every corner of the world, a global generation still craving a heroine like Frida Kahlo. For a couple of hours one balmy evening in April, I had the luck of being the solo guest, although my mercurial hostess was nowhere to be seen. The thick adobe walls shut out the city, and the house became a dream space. We’d been busy all day with chat about Kahlo, the previous hours spent looking at her clothes, hearing anecdotes. Now, there was just this room, where she died, where I was standing.
The end came here for Kahlo, not when she was 18, but at the age of 47. Strung out on morphine, cognac and Demerol, she knew it was all over. But she was the same woman who’d declared that ‘the only ones who die on us are those who never lived’. I stood in the peace, her courtyard behind me, a fallen blanket of pink bougainvillea, and believed that she was right. Facing the pre-Hispanic urn containing her ashes, I felt a constriction in my throat. The idea of an icon vanished. With the crowds gone, the room hummed with the weight of a real life, lived against such odds. Someone so dissected, debated, sanctified, criticised, was here, beyond a line I couldn’t see. She was here. If I’d turned round, I would have seen her in the corridor, leaning against the wall, an ironic smile on her lips, a dark eyeroll at all the fuss. I did not turn round. I did not dare. It was a strange, unforgettable moment.
The last thing Frida Kahlo painted was three words, written on an earlier still life, merry watermelons in various states of slice. Viva La Vida, she wrote on the soft flesh: long live life. Her life, in the end, was not long, but it had a different dimension: depth. A depth so daring that it made space for a boldness in love, a painful, joyous self-knowledge, a drive to create both herself and her work. Why do we look to her so much? Because we want to see ourselves. And yet, if Kahlo has any message at all, it is not to imitate her. It is to accept yourself, and to create, as far as you are able, your own terms for life. Direct and revolutionary; just like her. Viva Frida.
‘Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up’, sponsored by Grosvenor Britain & Ireland, is at the V&A from 16 June to 4 November (www.vam.ac.uk/ fridakahlo).
Viva La Vida, she wrote on the soft flesh: long live life
Frida Kahlo’s paint-splattered hospital gown. Opposite: The Broken Column (1944)
Left: Kahlo’s studio. Below: a pair of herstacked heels