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Issues of the Day Understanding Frida Kahlo

A visit to the Frida Kahlo Museum had not been on my list of priorities during a recent trip to Mexico City for a family event. Although I thought that a good way to gain insight into Mexico was through acquaintance with its storied art, and while Frida Kahlo and her life partner Diego Rivera are perhaps the most iconic of that country's artistic figures, I would have preferred acquaintance with lesser known but perhaps more representative and contemporary artists.


La Casa Azul

But friends of mine who live in Mexico City and who view the world much in the same way I do prevailed recommended that we visit Coyoacán, formerly a small town on the outskirts of Mexico City but now incorporated within its jurisdiction where La Casa Azul, the Blue House as the Frida Kahlo Museum is known, is situated.

The house, which is really a small compound of buildings and gardens was Frida Kahlo's birthplace and the home in which she was reared and later shared with Rivera, who would twice become her husband. It is a complex of living quarters, workplaces and studios, intellectual salon and guest house where leading political, literary and artistic figures often stayed.


Frida Kahlo's presence is felt throughout the house and her likeness, depicted in works of her own hand, are ubiquitous. Rivera, too, left his imprint on the estate but his better known work, political murals of epic subjects and huge proportions are better suited to the walls of cavernous museum halls such as the eponymous one in Mexico City's historical district  rather than to those of living quarters.

Accordingly,it is Frida's persona and oeuvre that are dominant in the Blue House and as one walks through its rooms the woman and particularly her struggles become starkly apparent to the viewer.


Kahlo's Personal Side

The most prevalent subject of Frida Kahlo's work is herself. She is sometimes presented in near caricature with forbidding eyebrows and a mustache. So, too, In other works she depicts herself eloquently in  flourishes of vivid color and adorned in folkloric dress and accruements that represent Mexico's mixed cultures and races, both Hispanic and indigenous.


It is the more personal, not the public side of Frida Kahlo that comes into focus when visiting the Blue House. Troublingly, one finds a persistent thread of the macabre in her self-portraits on which  skeletons and other death-evoking symbols, canes and crutches, embryos and female reproductive organs are often superimposed. The death theme is unmistakable and marshals the attention of the visitor.


A House of Pain and Joy

In the house itself, Frida' wheelchair, vials of medicine, a mirror placed above her bed when she wanted to paint but was too sick to rise and various other artifacts of pain and suffering abound.  The décor is punctuated with death masks and other morbid figures, which is part of native culture in Mexico but which is too abundantly found throughout the building to be taken as merely cultural or ornamental.


In the past, I associated Kahlo's constant renderings of her own likeness as obsessive if not narcissistic. However, as I walked through the bedrooms, kitchen, salon and grounds of the Frida Kahlo Museum, her works began to assume a different and moving meaning: it occurred to me that they represent an ongoing attempt to come to terms with her crippled body and injured soul.


Celebration and Sorrow

Frida Kahlo was afflicted with polio as a child and then, as a teenager,  suffered a devastating accident that further physically disabled her and left her with intractable pain. Among her internal injuries was the puncturing of her reproductive organs, which left her unable to give birth.


And so, the celebration of life, her lovers and her country and its culture that are an integral part of Frida Kahlo's work, runs parallel to a  discernible sorrow evident in her art and life-space. A woman with passions as  earthy as her own and who was so in touch with nature's fecundity could not help but be inconsolable knowing that she would not leave progeny behind her.


My understanding of Frida Kahlo and her work congealed at the end of my visit to the Blue House. In trying to contend with the knowledge that she could not contribute children of her own to the chain of generations, she strove for immortality in timeless art. Her works reveal a valorous attempt to persevere into the future by depicting the beauty and afflictions of her life.    

© Yosef Gotlieb, . All rights reserved