The first time I came across a Frida Kahlo was in A’level art. The screen printing room had an print blu-tacked to the wall. I thought “Now there’s a woman who’s not afraid of a monobrow and a hairy upper-lip.” Like the bearded woman in The Greatest Showman, I spent many a timid year hiding in the shadows… OK, fair enough, it was more like a case of being veiled by my hair à la Violet Parr from The Incredibles. The point is you spend years trying to adhere to the socially acceptable norm prescribed by the fashion mags and here’s a fantastic role model who brazenly danced to her own tune. And get this girls… her tash didn’t stop her from finding love. Granted it was like a wedding between a dove and an elephant as per her mother’s comments on the auspicious day, the point is that you should never be afraid of who you are.
So what does Frida Kahlo mean to me? What compels me to her story and her work? Frida Kahlo’s life was riddled with a series of misfortunes. She had spina bifida, she contracted polio at six years old, she was in a bus accident that resulted in a metal handrail ploughing itself into her abdomen… then the numerous surgeries. As if that wasn’t enough, she suffered multiple miscarriages, extreme fatigue and chronic pain. Her extraordinary life, love and pain are depicted in her self-portraits using surprising imagery, deep symbolism and refined painting techniques. It’s a style of creative therapy that is very similar to the work of Salvador Dali, yet, neither she, nor her husband, Diego Rivera, officially joined the movement.
The Broken Column
In The Broken Column (1944), you can clearly see the pain of having suffering following one of the many surgeries she endured. She’s portrayed standing in the middle of a barren and cracked landscape. Her torso is encased in metal belts that are lined with cloth. There are several cracked areas where the spine is exposed, which gives of the impression that there’s this desperation for the cloth fighting to keep the spine from collapsing. Even though there are tears, there’s this sense of strength and defiance staring back at you. It is that determination that motivated Frida to paint, especially when things were at their most unbearable.
Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird
Frida Kahlo’s most significant self-portrait… the very image that introduced me to her all those years ago was Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird. According to some art history buffs, Frida’s intention behind this painting was to depict her resurrection… the start of a new life. Its the butterflies that symbolise this resurrection or more specifically her rebirth after her horrific accident. The thorn necklace she wears maybe in reference to Christ’s crown while he was crucified. The painting is an enigma at first glance but once you understand her, her journey and the symbolism behind it all, you are enriched by her soul.
At the Victoria & Albert…
The sold-out V&A exhibition is a well thought out collection that takes you through her early life through family photographs and sketches, which illustrate her natural, artistic aptitude. There are only a few paintings as the main focus of the display is the contents of her house, Cas Azul (the ‘Blue House’), which was locked away for 50 years after her death in 1954. There is a wealth of photographs through her years as a noted artist, grand machine embroidered tops, skirts and coats in bright, aztec colours. Even her decorated plaster casts and prosthetics are on show. The exhibition is on until Sunday 18th November… It’s well worth the trip if you feel financially emboldened to embark on the annual membership. If anything, you’ll come out marvelling the human condition when the odds are stacked up against you… because “the whole is greater than the sum of our parts.” (Aristotle)
On another note…
This Halloween, for the first time, in a long time, I actually bothered to dress up for my niece’s Halloween birthday party. Owing to a desire to do things a little differently… and certainly not by halves, I challenged myself into making a costume based on some of the photographs of Frida Kahlo. Suffice it to say, the gathers in the skirt nearly killed me ( I may have over indulged) but the results were well worth the effort.