Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Frida Kahlo, Every Suffering Woman's Reminder

In the 90s, while living in Vancouver, I recall a period when Frida Kahlo first became my friend due solely to her emergence as a faddish marketed trend. This article in the Washington Monthly, written in 2002, is one of the most in depth summations of the Frida splash I have come across. Reading it, I was forced to revisit my own fascination and attachment to Frida, and to honestly assess what drew me to her like a bee to honey along with hoards of other women around the world who identified with her near the end of the twentieth century. On a few points I question the writers' predictable theories about the modern sweeping up of Frida into a cult of personality, and the idea that her "rise to fame" was fated to fall away much like bell bottom pants would, that overall "misinterpretation" of her life and art were to the detriment of her longevity in the ranks of her male peers. To me, that is all hyped up hype about hype. What matters is who is left wearing the bell bottoms simply because they like how they feel and look despite the abate of the roaring materialistic crowds. I believe that rebellion and strength, not victimhood, was behind Frida's biographical appeal, that her life as an artist did not compete with or overshadow her art itself, but simply belonged with it....that her story and her art were tightly entwined as one element. And so what. Had nothing but her paintings shown up one day, all in a wooden box stranded on a beach, with no knowledge of her life story, I imagine a widespread search for the mysterious woman behind the curiously surreal and disturbing works would still ensue.

Nevertheless, by 2002, when the colourful and ambitious movie Frida came out, I was further entrenched in my adoration of her. And when I went to the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2005 and viewed in person some of her paintings and rare photos, I pledged a full hypnotic allegiance to her...the bond was cemented.

When 2007 rang in, I found a giant Frida calendar on sale for half price at the Vancouver Art Gallery. I took it home, hung it in my kitchen, and I've never bothered to replace or discard this 2007 edition. I've kept it with me everywhere I have lived since, and adopted Frida as my muse and confidante. From time to time I change the month to reveal a different painting that suits my current mood. The other day I realized I have unwittingly accrued a photographic record of her presence in my various living quarters...she has hung in my kitchen, my bedroom, even my closet, and now she sits watching me in my studio. If she were a stuffed toy I could be called certifiably insane. Thank goodness for her exalted reputation! Even hardcore intellectuals and otherwise level-headed people might forgive me for talking aloud to her when I am by myself. I know I'm not the only one!

What made me then, and still today, so personally interested in Frida?

I think for me it was her facial expressions in her repeated solemn self-portraits.  Never showing her teeth, never revealing her intent, never flinching, she holds in her stoic eyes the strength to endure and thus to triumph, and her rigid upright posture transforms her very apparent lack of mobility into a stiff attitude of courage and pride. She has the aura of a woman to be dealt with, one sure to trounce any competition, to defeat any pain, stare anyone down. I also enjoy her bold straightforward use of colour and folky brush strokes. To me, yes, they are naive and folk-like and not beyond intuitive comprehension, more real than unreal. She lets you know in the most head on way that nothing can shock her, nor should it you.

I never had children of my own, and neither did she. As I see it, she expressed that fated "dead end" as an acceptable phenomenon and her miscarriage as a testament to her feminine endurance, as epic and worthwhile and scarring as childbirth itself, her dead baby ghost a matter-of-fact cohort. In my own lazy moments, I often think of her sitting upright in bed, her easel sitting crossways in front of her. Instead of pitying her, I imagine the indulgent luxury of painting a la Frida, with my duvet wrapped over my knees, and comfy pillows at my back. I do believe that certain childless women turn their nurturing instinct inward in a decadent way, and outward in a creative way. We all give birth no matter what. At least, this is the understanding I invented between she and I. And of course too, she could divulge to me the mystique of her Mexican identity and loyalty, show off to me her proud and flourished costumes, impress upon me her determined impact upon fluctuating political times, She could wail to me about her wild womanizing lover and husband, and confide in me the fact she may have been a bit deplorable at times...all of this and more influenced an entire sisterhood of women like myself to reach out their hands in communion. Her paintings told us this story, true or not, it doesn't matter. They are powerful, emotional works, and that is lasting. Does she speak more to women than men? I've never bothered to check. She speaks to me.

Yes, the capitalist world brought her to everyone's attention as a marketed trend, but she simply stood still through it all and waited for it to pass as it was bound to do.

So, heavy as Frida's life was, I know that if she was just as strange as me, she needed a sense of humor.  Here you have a brief history of my interactive life with that pesky Frida, who I enjoy being strange with:
2008 ~ I Saw You Eat That Donut
2009 ~ You're Not Leaving Dressed Like That

2011 ~ Do You Prefer This Hat or The Monkeys?
Incidentally, I love this elegant photo of Frida:...although she always has a proud and regal air in her pictures, she is softer here and almost, almost smiling:

And one of my favourite paintings, perhaps because it brings the spirit of Frida into my own familiar natural physical surroundings .... The Little Deer (or The Wounded Deer). 

No Frida, nobody can shoot down your art. Don't worry, you are safe and you will endure.


  1. you have no idea how much I love you for this.

  2. My darling, there is so much I love you for, so then that makes me really happy to hear. xo

  3. Ranza you captured my sentiments about Frida perfectly. I have loved Frida since I first stumbled across her, there is something about her that resonates so dearly to me. xoxo and hugs to you for writing this.