Sunday, July 13, 2014

Thanks to my Diego

Frida Kahlo, one of the most fascinating and colourful artists of the 20th century, died 60 years ago today. Physically afflicted from an early age, she suffered much in the years before her death, often illustrating her pain and distress in a notebook, with colourful artworks and poetical texts. There is also much in the book about her love for the famous Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera. However, even though there are very few dated entries, nor are there any facts about her day-to-day life, the notebook was very successful published - an exact copy, with notes and translations - as The Diary of Frida Kahlo.

Kahlo was born on the outskirts of Mexico City in 1907. Her father was a painter/photographer of German background whose family had originated in Romania. Aged six, Frida was struck down with polio, which permanently disfigured one leg. She studied at a National Preparatory School, which is where she first came in contact with the artist, Diego Rivera, who had been commissioned to paint a mural in the school’s auditorium.

In 1925, Frida Kahlo was involved in a serious bus accident, which left her further physically troubled for the rest of her life, but it was while recovering from this that she began to paint. A friend introduced her to Mexico City’s artistic set; and in 1929 she married Diego River, by then an internationally famous muralist. Their relationship was difficult, each one having numerous affairs, although they were always very supportive of each other as artists.

Diego and Kahlo, both active Communists, befriended Leon Trotsky after he fled to Mexico, having been sentenced to death by Joseph Stalin. Kahlo, famously, also had an affair with him. Kahlo and Diego were divorced in 1939, but a year later they remarried, their relationship continuing in the same troubled way. They both broke with Trotsky, who was assassinated in 1940, to become supporters of Stalin.

Kahlo spent the last years of her life suffering from various ailments, not least gangrene which led to her having a leg amputated at the knee. She died on 13 July 1954, aged only 47. The official cause of death was cited as a pulmonary embolism, though some have suspected she might have died of an accidental or deliberate drug overdose. Further information is readily available online from Wikipedia, Washington Monthly, or the Frida Kahlo official website.

Although the Louvre bought one of her canvases in 1939, for many years Kahlo was mostly remembered as Riviera’s wife. Only towards the end of the 1970s and in the early 1980s, with the flourishing of a new artistic style in Mexico known as Neomexicanismo, did her reputation develop internationally; and with it came much widespread public interest in her art and her life. Today, Kahlo is considered one of the 20th century’s most important female artists. She only produced about 200 canvases, largely still lifes and portraits of herself, family and friends, all of which can be viewed online.

From 1944 until her death, Khalo kept a journal of sorts, a notebook rich in illustrations and poetry, but with very few actual dated written entries. It was locked away for more than 40 years, but in 1995, Bloomsbury published The Diary of Frida Kahlo - An Intimate Self-Portrait which included an exact copy of all 170 pages, an introduction by the world famous author, Carlos Fuentes, transcriptions into English, and a commentary on the pages by art historian Sarah M. Lowe. At the time, the book was expensive, selling for £25, but second hand copies of the original book and new copies of a recent re-print can be bought for half the price today. The full text and pictures are freely available online, for the time being, thanks to the American Buddha Online Library. Extracts are also available at the Silencing the Bell blog.

In his 1995 introduction to The Diary, Fuentes says: ‘. . . [Kahlo’s] Diary now shows us: her joy, her fun, her fantastic imagination. The Diary is her lifeline to the world. When she saw herself, she painted and she painted because she was alone and she was the subject she knew best. But when she saw the world, she wrote, paradoxically, her Diary, a painted Diary which makes us realize that no matter how interior her work was, it was always uncannily close to the proximate, material world of animals, fruits, plants, earths, skies.’

And he ends: ‘In the measure that her hope was her art and her art was her heaven, the Diary is Kahlo’s greatest attempt to bridge the pain of their body with the glory, humor, fertility, and outwardness of the world. She painted her interior being, her solitude, as few artists have done. The Diary connects her to the world through a magnificent and mysterious consciousness that “we direct ourselves towards ourselves through millions of beings - stones - bird creatures - star beings - microbe beings - sources of ourselves.”

She will never close her eyes. For as she says here, to each and everyone of us, “I am writing to you with my eyes.” ’

Whereas Fuentes’s introduction provides a literary eulogy for Kahlo’s diary, Lowe’s essay provides a more down-to-earth, comparative analysis, and starts by defining it as a ‘journal intime’: ‘Reading through Frida Kahlo’s diary is unquestionably an act of transgression, an undertaking inevitably charged with an element of voyeurism. Her journal is a deeply private expression of her feelings, and was never intended to be viewed publicly. As such, Kahlo’s diary belongs to the genre of the journal intime, a private record written by a woman for herself.

The impulses and purposes of a diary are perplexing and sometimes paradoxical. Is it really an autobiography or is the text transformed when it comes to light? Does it retain its integrity when read by another or published? How should a woman’s private journal be read, and by extension, what can be learned about Kahlo by reading her diary?

Throughout history, diarists, both men and women, have chronicled their lives framed by their times or by particular historical events. In contrast, the predominant subject of the journal intime, and Kahlo’s own diary specifically, is the self.  Kahlo’s motivation has less to do with communication than with negotiating her relationship to her self, and thus the conundrum - why write if no one else will see the text? - is in part answered.’

Lowe also analyses how the diary shows Kahlo recording her physical deterioration: ‘Kahlo kept this diary for the last ten years of her life, and it documents her physical decline. Dated pages are sporadic, and thus it is difficult to discern the chronology. But an awful progression - regression - is unmistakable, as Kahlo faces the loneliness and terror of her illnesses. [. . .] Kahlo’s chronic pain, however, and her encasement in orthopedic corsets and plaster casts for months at a time, the trophic ulcers she suffered on her right foot (which led to its amputation shortly before her death), and the roughly thirty-five operations she is said to have undergone may have been caused by a congenital malformation of her spine, a condition called spina bifida. Her diary chronicles her quest for cures, her resigning herself to the dictates of her medical advisers, and her often stoic response to their failures.

Part of Kahlo’s preoccupation with the details of her infirmities springs from her youthful interest in physiology and biology. Before her fateful accident, Kahlo was taking science courses as prerequisites for becoming a doctor; even as she convalesced, the thought of combining her interest in art and science by becoming a scientific illustrator came to her. Indeed, these studies provided Kahlo with potent visual analogies and metaphors, which she marshaled in her paintings and used throughout her diary: internal organs and processes were often seen outside her body, while she used x-ray vision to picture her broken bones and spine. Of all her biological and botanical metaphors, Kahlo made the most effective use of roots and veins, tendrils and nerves, all routes for transmitting nourishment or pain.

Despite the pain and anguish Kahlo freely and openly expressed in her diary, her unquenchable thirst for life reveals itself. Her wit and alegria, her sense of irony and black humor all emerge here. [. . .] The self-portrait we find in the diary makes more human “la gran ocultadora” of her paintings, and replaces the implacable mask with intimate - at times horrifying details of affliction and despair. But Kahlo also shows her great strength, the resolve only intense suffering confers. “Anguish and pain,” she writes, “pleasure and death are no more than a process”. Kahlo’s diary dramatically and explicitly conveys this process, and is a testimony to her vigilant recording, in words and pictures, of her inexorable path toward death.’

Here are two extracts (the translation reproduces faithfully the line structure of the original even though the original line breaks often come at the edge of the page).

‘Today Wednesday 22 of January 1947
You rain on me - I sky you
You’re the fineness, childhood,
life - my love - little boy - old man
mother and center - blue - tender-
ness - I hand you my
universe and you live me
It is you whom I love today.
= I love you with all my loves
I'll give you the forest
with a little house in it
with all the good things there are in
my construction, you'll live
joyfully - I want
you to live joyfully. Although
I always give you my
absurd solitude and the monot-
ony of a whole
diversity of loves -
Will you? Today I'm loving
the beginnings and you love
your mother.’

‘Yesterday, the seventh of May
1953 as I fell
on the flagstones
I got a needle stuck in
my ass (dog’s arse).
They brought me
immediately to the hospital
in an ambulance.
suffering awful pains
and screaming all the
way from home to the British
Hospital - they took
an X ray - several
and located the needle and
they are going to take it out one
of these days with a magnet.
Thanks to my Diego
the love of my life
thanks to the Doctors’

The Diary Junction

1 comment:

352rich said...

If you go to and search on the phrase "The Diary of Frida Kahlo" you can see some of the colorful illustrations.