Updated: May 7, 2021
"There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worse." Well, there we have it straight from the artist herself about her two marriages to Diego Rivera of whom she said when she was a girl at the National Preparatory School where he was painting a mural, "One day I am going to marry him." Prescience or fatal attraction, we can debate which. What is known is that the "dove and the elephant," as Frida's disapproving mother called them on their wedding day, through marital turmoil, infidelity, break-ups and make-ups were inextricably linked by lines drawn in paint and the ties of artistry.
At 15 when she first met Diego at the Preparatory School, he spoke to her of the great artists of the day, many of whom were his friends, of Paris and the avant-garde, and of a life far from what she had ever known. One wonders what effect his words had, not to mention the great talent she saw him applying to the walls to paint a mural called "The Creation." Little did they know what was also being created. Just seven years later, in 1929, after being reintroduced and starting an affair, they married, despite (or perhaps because of ?) the disproportion in their size and their age (Rivera was taller, many pounds heavier, and 21 years her senior). However, the Frida who married Rivera was not the girl she had once been. In the interlude between their first and second meetings, she had suffered her first accident, the horrible one on the trolley in Mexico City. It left her crippled severely for life, in constant pain, body braces, and many times alone. She turned her pain into art, and art saved her. "Painting completed my life. I lost three children and a series of other things that would have fulfilled my horrible life. My painting took the place of all of this. I think work is the best."
The early years of their marriage were ones of travel to the various places where Diego Rivera was painting murals, and where, though she painted, she was simply Mrs. Diego Rivera. I find it interesting in this painting that the title focuses on one item among the many presented here, her dress. Even though there is a canvas of a woman in a red dress, it is the Mexican style outfit at the center that is Frida saying, "Yes, I am here, too." Humoristically and sarcastically, she has hung her emblem, her dress of strikingly Mexican origin, on a lavender ribbon strung between a toilet and a trophy, both themselves on pedestals just high enough to hold a clothesline. One can imagine all kinds of symbolic meanings for those two items on pedestals. Perhaps she saw them as one and the same thing, the trophy being no more important than a toilet and both being put to practical use to hang her Tehuana dress. Jorge Alberto Lozoya has written in his essay, "Kahlo and Ambiguity" that she fought against the oppressiveness of being an outsider by being extravagantly different "in front of the unassailable fortress of bourgeois morality and the social graces, wielded without pity by those who, sure of their normalcy, made it a daggar, a gallow, a fire" (The World of Frida Kahlo, p. 71)
And yes, her way of being different in the North American and European worlds she traveled in was to point out her Mexican ethnicity, focusing not on the Hispanic part but on the Indian. The loose fitting garb offered her practicality, in that it was comfortable for someone wearing a body brace, who also had a severe limb to cover up, and it made a colorful statement about her self-chosen identity. Like Diego Rivera, who often chose ways of representing figures that he claimed were purely Mexican in their style (a claim that was scoffed at until the Maya murals of Bonampak were found), Kahlo chose to wear her identity as well as paint it. The world of her painting is completely personal and closed. It is said that part of the attraction for collectors is the paintings allow the viewer to enter into a world that someone else has already experienced for them (Billeter, The World of Frida Kahlo, p.11). One thing for sure she knew her own mind. André Breton longed for her to declare herself a surrealist, but she was not of that persuasion. Erika Billeter in her essay, "World of Truth - World of Utopia" compares Frida Kahlo to Virginia Woolf in the ability to express a distinctly female thinking, born out of personal suffering and, as women, of being outsiders.
When one says female thinking, it does not mean that it never goes to hard places. Kahlo went there often, whether it be her physical pain and heartbreak for not being able to have children, a result of that horrible accident, or her emotional pain around her "second accident," Diego. She could plumb the depths, as we see here in this painting. It was purchased by a woman who thought she was buying a portrait of a beautiful Mexican child in ceremonial dress. Only later did she realize that the child was in fact dead and dressed for his funeral, the only day in his brief life that he was a king. The painting was returned to Kahlo. Even here, though, we see Kahlo celebrating her Mexican culture, a culture that is ancient and knows well that life has no guaranties of longevity. And yes, Kahlo "goes there" whether showing her distress in trying to have children or thinking of her own death, as she does in a self-portrait with an image of death painted on her forehead (Thinking About Death, 1943).
Famously, as her own end neared and her painting had made her known by her own name, Frida Kahlo, she was determined to enjoy her success, regardless of her physical condition. In 1953, she was given a retrospective in Mexico, and despite her ill health she arrived at the gallery in an ambulance and participated in the festivities from a bed that had been prepared for her there. After suffering an amputation of a leg in 1954, her health declined, and she passed away on July 13, 1954 in the now famous Blue House in Coyoacan, Mexico. I leave you with her parting thoughts, "I hope the exit is joyful, and I hope never to return."
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The photos of the display in the Brooklyn Museum come from the New York Times article linked here https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/07/arts/design/frida-kahlo-review-brooklyn-museum.html
The quotes by Kahlo come from "30 Frida Kahlo Quotes to Inspire" https://www.goalcast.com/2017/11/28/17-frida-kahlo-quotes/
Other photos shown here were taken by me from The Blue House: The World of Frida Kahlo,
a catalog from The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, edited by Erika Billeter, 1993. It includes the essays mentioned above by Lozoya and by Billeter. Photos are used in accordance with Fair Use Policy for purposes of critique and information.
For more on Marjorie Vernelle, see the author page at amazon.com/author/marjorievernelle
She also has an engaging art history blog that talks of painting and wine on ofartandwine.com
© Marjorie Vernelle 2019