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

Harper's Bazaar (UK) - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by HARRY CORY WRIGHT

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

to her­self

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

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