Friday, 10 January 2014

The Frida Kahlo Experience

A Self Portrait of Frida Kahlo in the Garden of the Casa Azul. By Chris Raven
By Simon Raven

The first time I heard of the Mexican Artist Frida Kahlo, I was visiting the Argentine Capital of Buenos Aires. It was the summer of 2005, and I had arranged to meet a journalist who worked for La Nacion, the national newspaper of Argentina. I’d fallen into conversation with Martina in a café in the colonial city of Sucre in Bolivia some weeks before. She'd invited to show me around her city, and we’d agreed to meet outside the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano (MALBA) the day before I was due to return home to London.

During our visit to the MALBA, Martina had led me through the museum to a gallery displaying works of Surrealisms. Keen to show me one particular painting, we approached a strikingly colourful self portrait of a dark haired, dark skinned Latin woman with a coqueltish gaze. What immediately struck me was the strength and individuality of the person looking out from the painting. Southern European in looks, she wore her hair in a similar style to the indigenous women of Central and South America I had seen and photographed during my trip. Her clothes, we’re equally traditional and colourful, and her eyes framed by a thick black monobrow, that I found at the time both slightly shocking and some how hypnotic. The shadow of fine black hair on her top lip was accentuated by the black fur of the pet monkey in her arms, and the green parrot perched on her shoulder projected a similar exotic sense that this woman belonged to the earth, was natural, uninhibited and very much alive. Returning to London, I did not forget this haunting image of Frida Kahlo. She became the personification to me of Latin America; this single painting combining all the elements that had left an impression on me when traversing this exotic and culturally inspiring part of the world.

I returned to Latin America many times after my first experience of Frida Kahlo; but it was almost a decade before I would find myself arriving by overnight bus to the mega metropolis of Mexico City. I had not planned to visit the city for the sole purpose of paying homage to the birth place of Frida Kahlo. In fact, I hadn’t known that Frida was originally from the pretty barrio of Coyoacan, a few kilometres South East of the city. Intrigued to find out more about this iconic woman, I jumped aboard the metro the following morning and headed for the house where she lived that was now the Museo de Frida Kahlo. Exiting the station, I walked through the attractive tree lined streets of Coyoacan and passed large private houses with wrought iron gates. Coyoacan was least affected by the terrible earthquake that struck Mexico City in 1985, and is now an affluent neighbourhood with pavement café’s on every street corner. Walking on a carpet of purple blossom along Calle Londres, I passed a sushi delivery motorcycle and within minutes found myself standing outside a bright blue house, ‘La Casa Azul’.

Graffiti depicting Frida Kahlo on a wall in Mexico City. Photo by Simon Raven

Entering the museum, my first introduction to Frida’s world was the sight of a young girl projectile vomiting in front of a portrait of Agustin Olmedo. I stepped aside as her mother and a member of staff leapt to her aid. Studying Frida’s early work, I examined a Family portrait and caught myself smiling at how proud she appeared to be of her ethnic mix. It was Frida’s exotic appearance that had first struck me when I’d seen her self portrait in Buenos Aires. Her father was born in Pforzheim, Germany to Jewish parents and her mother was mixed Amerindian (the indigenous peoples of the Americas) and Spanish ancestry. She had embraced her Amerindian roots in her work, and later in her style and dress. Her artist husband Diego Rivera liked the powerful ‘Zapotec’ women from the region, and she had dresses made in red, green, blue, black and white. Her fashion was anything but conventional for the time, and it was not unusual for children in the street to ask her if the circus was in town.

Viewing the famous painting depicting Frida’s tragic miscarriage in 1932, ‘Henry Ford Hospital’, I scanned the room and noticed the majority of visitors to the museum appeared to be female. Standing next to a middle aged woman, I felt strangely uneasy as we both studied the striking image of Frida lying naked and exposed on a hospital bed with masses of blood covering the sheets and various symbols projecting from her; including, her damaged pelvis and her miscarried foetus. Frida's work has been celebrated for its uncompromising depiction of the female experience and form and, feeling moved and slightly shocked by this raw expression of pain and emotional loss, I couldn't help but agree. Her paintings shout, they alarm and they’re earth tremblingly dramatic.

Bronze Statue of Frida Kahlo. 
Feeling slightly nauseous, I wandered into the next room and viewed a colourful painting of water melons. One slice of melon had the words, “Vive la vida” (Live the life) written across it. I felt a rush of positivity in contrast to the scene of tragic loss portrayed in the previous painting. This is, in my opinion, the Frida Kahlo experience. I read a quote by Frida plastered across the wall. “Banks of a river don’t suffer by letting it flow.” Frida Kahlo suffered both emotionally and physically in her relatively short life, she died aged 47, but in art it seemed clear she found a way of managing, expressing and channeling her pain and anguish in a very positive way.  Before arriving at the Casa AzulI had been a little unsure of how I might feel after learning more about Frida's past, but as I made my way around her home I found myself liking her even more.

Frida had contracted polio at a very young age, causing her discomfort throughout her life and leaving her with one withered leg shorter than the other. Wearing long colourful skirts helped her to disguise this, as well as wearing boots with one heel larger than the other. To make matters worse Frida, aged 18, was involved in a terrible bus accident which left her with a broken spinal column, collarbone, ribs, pelvis, fractured her right leg in eleven places and crushed and dislocated her right foot. As a result of this she was left bedridden for much of her life, and her reproductive capacity compromised due to an iron handrail piercing her abdomen and her uterus. Frida was quoted as saying in the book, ‘Frida Kahlo’ by Andrea Kettenmann, "I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best."

As I continued to walk around the Blue House, and studied the black and white prints of Frida on the walls, I began to feel better acquainted with the woman who had grabbed my attention with such force in Buenos Aires eight years ago. For some cruel reason, before arriving I’d expected to find fault with this iconic woman, but the honesty of her work and passion in her expression seemed genuine and refreshingly pure. Frida had married a man twice her age who she had met whilst still at school. Diego Rivera was a prominent Mexican painter and was a huge inspiration and love in Frida’s life. Studying two ceramic clocks standing side by side in the bright colourful dining room, I learned that Frida had painted the time on the first clock to represent time stopping after discovering her husband Diego was having an affair with her sister. She painted the time on the second clock, when time began again following their remarriage a year later.

Climbing the stairs, I looked at the room where Frida and Diego would paint, and wondered about the conversations (and arguments) that may have taken place there. Frida and Diego lived with Frida’s parents in the Blue House for most of their married lives from 1929-54. They created beautiful work in this warm, bright simple environment. Entering Frida’s Day bedroom, I looked with intrigue into the actual mirror she painted herself in that’s positioned above the small single bed. Frida was a painter who was bedridden much of the time; she painted her feelings and her own image. She was forced to look deep inside herself and, in the loving environment of her family home, was allowed the freedom to express herself. Frida did not know she was a Surrealist until she was told by Andre Breton, a French writer and poet and founder of the Surrealism movement. Frida’s voice whispers from the walls in quotes. “I paint because I need to, and I paint whatever passes through my head without any other consideration.”  “I don't paint dreams or nightmares, I paint my own reality.”

As I entered the last room in the house, Frida’s Night bedroom, I felt like an intruder as I scanned the walls and studied the furniture. A large urn in the shape of a frog was stood in the corner with Frida’s ashes inside. Her pet name for Diego was Frog. I smiled at the thought of her now resting inside Diego’s belly.  As I exited the doorway of the Casa Azul and walked through the tranquil streets of Coyoacan, I carried with me a feeling of alluring positivity. For a life so dark, here was a woman who shed a lot of light.

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