The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait
Introduction by Carlos Fuentes, Essay and Commentaries by Sarah M Lowe. Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 1995.
By Carlos Fuentes
I only saw Frida Kahlo once. But first, I heard her. I was at a concert in the Palacio de Bellas Artes -- the Palace of Fine Arts -- in the center of Mexico City, a construction begun under the administration of the old dictator Porfirio Diaz in 1905 and very much in tune with the tastes of the Mexican elite at the turn of the century. An Italianate mausoleum in white marble, fashioned in the purest wedding-cake style, it remained in a state of physical and aesthetic suspension during the following thirty years of civil strife in Mexico. When it was finally inaugurated in 1934, the ornate, frozen meringue of the exterior had been thoroughly denied by the Art Deco interior--yet another bow to the fashion of a new day. The streamlined, sweeping staircases, balustrades, and corridors shone with burnished copper and beveled glass, while the walls were decorated with the angry, sometimes strident murals of Orozco, Rivera, and Siqueiros.
The auditorium itself was the supreme sanctuary of Art Deco, culminating in a magnificent glass curtain by Tiffany depicting the guardian mountains of the valley of Mexico: the volcanoes Popocatepetl, the Smoking Mountain, and Ixtaccihuatl, the Sleeping Woman. A subtle play of lights permitted the spectator, during intermissions, to go from dawn to dusk, from aurora to crepusculum, in fifteen minutes.
All of this in order to say that as Kahlo entered her box in the second tier of the theater, all of these splendors and distractions came to naught. The jangling of sumptuous jewelry drowned out the sounds of the orchestra, but something beyond mere noise forced us all to look upwards and discover the apparition that announced herself with an incredible throb of metallic rhythms and then exhibited the self that both the noise of the jewelry and the silent magnetism displayed.
It was the entrance of an Aztec goddess, perhaps Coatlicue, the mother deity wrapped in her skirt of serpents, exhibiting her own lacerated, bloody hands the way other women sport a brooch. Perhaps it was Tlazolteotl, the goddess of both impurity and purity in the Indian pantheon, the feminine vulture who must devour filth in order to cleanse the universe. Or maybe we were seeing the Spanish Earth Mother, the Lady of Elche, rooted to the soil by her heavy stone helmet, her earrings as big as cartwheels, her pectorals devouring her breasts, her rings transforming her hands into claws.
A Christmas tree?
Frida Kahlo was more like a broken Cleopatra, hiding her tortured body, her shriveled leg, her broken foot, her orthopedic corsets, under the spectacular finery of the peasant women of Mexico, who for centuries jealously kept the ancient jewels hidden away, protected from poverty, to be displayed only at the great fiestas of the agrarian communities. The laces, the ribbons, the skirts, the rustling petticoats, the braids, the moonlike headdresses opening up her face like the wings of a dark butterfly: Frida Kahlo, showing us all that suffering could not wither, nor sickness stale, her infinite variety.
THE SCHISM OF THE BODY
The body of Frida Kahlo, first of all. Seeing her there, in the opera box, once the clanging had stopped, once the silks and bracelets had rested, once the laws of gravity had imposed a stillness on the grand entrance, once the flares of the procession had died and the ceremonial halo, Aztec and Mediterranean, rabidly un-Anglo, that surrounded Kahlo had dimmed, one could only think: The body is the temple of the soul. The face is the temple of the body. And when the body breaks, the soul has no other shrine except the face.
What a mysterious sisterhood, I thought as I resumed hearing the Parsifal Overture once the entrance of Frida Kahlo had upstaged everything and everybody, what a mysterious sisterhood between the body of Frida Kahlo and the deep divisions of Mexico during her early years. It all came together in this place, the Palace of Fine Arts, and this woman, the artist Frida Kahlo.
The Palace was conceived during the Pax Porfiriana, the thirty years of self proclaimed Order and Progress under General Porfirio Diaz, which had come to an end in 1910, three years after Frida's birth. Before that, the epic of Mexican history unfolded very much as in the murals of Kahlo's husband, Diego Rivera. In linear succession, Mexico had gone from Indian empire to Spanish viceroyalty to independent republic. But in Mexico nothing is strictly linear. Within each period, a form of turbulence, an inner spiral, wounds and disrupts the political life of the country, crushes, petrifies, or exiles its symbols.
The Aztec world, a sacrificial theocracy, wanted to wed the promises of peace and creativity symbolized by the Feathered Serpent, Quetzalcoatl, with the bellicose necessities demanded by the bloodthirsty god of war, Huitzilopochtli. Therefore the starkly ambiguous character of the Aztec universe: great artistic and moral achievements side by side with execution, blood rites, and terror. Ancient Mexico became victim of both myths when the Spanish captain Hernan Cortes arrived on the day foreseen for the return of Quetzalcoatl but proved to be as bloody as Huitzilopochtli. But more than the Aztec divinities, Cortes reassembled his own Renaissance model, the condottiero, the Machiavellian prince, and conquered Mexico with a mixture of wile and force.
Mexico is a country that has been made by its wounds. A nation enslaved, forever stunned by the flight of the gods, sadly yet eagerly sought out its new divinities and found them in the father figure -- Christ, the crucified God who did not exact sacrifice from men, but sacrificed himself for all, and Guadalupe, the Virgin who restored pure motherhood to the orphaned Indian, ashamed of the betrayal of La Malinche, Cortes's mistress,
During the Colonial period, Mexico created a mestizo culture, both Indian and European, baroque, syncretic, unsatisfied. Independence, in 1821, liberated the country in the name of freedom but not of equality. The lives of the great masses of Indians and mestizos, mostly peasants, remained unchanged. The laws did change, but had nothing to do with the real life of real people, The divorce between ideal laws and stubborn realities made the nation ungovernable, prey to uninterrupted civil war and foreign invasion. A dismembered, mendicant, humbled Mexico, forever at the foot of foreign creditors, foreign armies, plundering oligarchs: This is the external, dramatic, perhaps obvious Mexico painted by Rivera.
Two foreign traumas -- the loss of half of the national territory to the United States in 1848, the French invasion of 1862 and the phantom crown of Maximilian and Carlota -- made the schism of the body of Mexico unbearable. The nation reacted through the Liberal revolution, the character of Benito Juarez, and the creation of a national state, secular and under the rule of law. Porfirio Diaz perverted the republic of Juarez, gave priority to development over freedom, and placed a mask on the face of Mexico, proclaiming to the world: we are now reliable, progressive, modern. The peasant armies of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata rose from the land to say no, we are these dark, wounded faces that have never seen themselves in a mirror. No one has ever painted our portraits. Our bodies are broken in half. We are two nations, as Disraeli said of industrial England. Always two Mexicos, the gilt-edged, paper elite and the downtrodden millions of the earth. When the people rose in 1910, they rode the breadth of Mexico, communicating an isolated country, offering themselves the invisible gifts of language, color, music, popular art. Whatever its political failures, the Mexican Revolution was a cultural success. It revealed a nation to itself. It made clear the cultural continuity of Mexico, in spite of all the political fractures. It educated women like Frida Kahlo and men like Diego Rivera, making them realize all that they had forgotten, all that they wanted to become.
YOUTH: A STREETCAR NAMED RAPE
Rivera and Kahlo. He paints the cavalcade of Mexican history, the endless, at times depressing, repetition of masks and gestures, comedy and tragedy. In his finest moments, something shines behind the plethora of figures and events, and that is a humble beauty, a persevering attachment to color, form, the land and its fruits, the sex and its bodies. But the internal equivalent of this bloody rupture of history is Frida's domain.
As the people are cleft in twain by poverty, revolution, memory, and hope, so she, the individual, the irreplaceable, the unrepeatable woman called Frida Kahlo is broken, torn inside her own body much as Mexico is torn outside. Rivera and Kahlo: has it been sufficiently stressed that they are two sides of the same Mexican coin, almost comical in their Mutt and Jeff disparity? The elephant and the dove, yes, but also the blind bull, in so many ways insensitive, rampaging, immensely energetic, poured towards the outside world, and married to the fragile, sensitive, crushed butterfly who forever repeated the cycle from larva to chrysalis to obsidian fairy, spreading her brilliant wings only to be pinned down, over and over, astoundingly resistant to her pain, until the name of both the suffering and the end of the suffering becomes death.
How much more than this was in Kahlo, was Kahlo, her 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.
Born with the Revolution, Frida Kahlo both mirrors and transcends the central event of twentieth-century Mexico. She mirrors it in her images of suffering, destruction, bloodshed, mutilation, loss, but also in her image of humor, gaiety, algria, that so distinguished her painful life. The resilience, the creativity, the jokes that run through the Diary illuminate the capacity for survival that distinguishes the paintings, All together, these expressions make her fantastically, unavoidably, dangerously, symbolic - or is it symptomatic? - of Mexico.
A prancing, cheerful child stricken by polio and stung by the peculiar Mexican capacity for malice, for ridiculing the other, especially the infirm, the imperfect. Beautiful little Frida, the striking child of German, Hungarian, and Mexican parenthoods, little Frida, with her bangs and her billowy ribbons and huge headknots, suddenly becomes Frida the pegleg, Frida pata de palo. The taunting screams from the recess playground must have followed her all her life.
They did not defeat her. She became the joker, the sprite, the feminine Ariel of the National Preparatory School at the time when Mexico, intellectually, was discarding the rigid philosophical armor of Scientific Positivism and discovering the indiscreet, if liberating, charms of intuition, children, Indians....
Mexico, Latin America were then very much under the influence of French culture. France was a way of avoiding two undesirable proximities: the cold, materialistic, Protestant, and overpowering North -- the U.S.A. -- and the chaotic, Catholic, torrid, powerless South -- Spain, ourselves. Auguste Comte and his philosophy of rational, inevitable scientific progression towards human perfection were shed in 1910 in favor of Henri Bergson and his philosophy of the vital elan, intuition, and spiritual evolution. The philosopher Antonio Caso, the novelist Martin Luis Guzmin (who rode with Villa and chronicled the guerrilla leader as a force of nature), the educator Jose Vasconcelos (who wrote the frankest autobiography Mexico had ever read, candidly revealing his sexual and emotional nakedness), all promoted their version of the Bergsonian vital impulse. Only Alfonso Reyes, the greatest writer of his generation, voted for a sort of Attic detachment. But the arts, more and more, discovered the native, peasant, Indian roots hidden by the marble facades of the Purfiriato,
Kahlo the young, disguised in manly clothes, a Saint Joan of the liberating culture of the Revolution, an armed footsoldier of the Mexican legions of Bergsonism, was part of a group known as Las Cachuchas -- The Caps -- proud and defiant in their denim clothes and proletarian, urchin-like cloth caps, making fun of all solemn figures (including the above-mentioned philosopher Caso, whose classes they turned into sheer turmoil), roaring and ripping through the halls of academe, planting banana peels at the foot of the statues of Scientific Order and Progress, stealing streetcars as in a Bunuel film yet to come.
How close this prankish spirit was to the aesthetics of the revolution in Mexico: Frida Kahlo admired Saturnino Herran, Dr. Atl, the liberators of Mexican form, landscape, and color from academic restrictions. She is a lover of Brueghel and his belching popular carnivals, full of innocent monsters and perverse gluttons and dark fantasies offered like our daily bread, in bright colors and open sunlight. Fantasy with realism, internal darkness under midday lights. These became fundamental influences on the art of Kahlo.
Without knowing then, she and her friends replayed the outrageous jokes of Dada and Surrealism, but her sources were closer to home. Sighed a former guerrilla turned bureaucrat, "This revolution has now degenerated into a government." The degeneration is chronicled in a few novels and films, but most especially it became the butt of satirical skits staged in the carpas, the popular tents in proletarian barrios, from which the great comedians of Mexico - Soto, Medel, Cantinflas would emerge. The carpas became the safety valve of a society caught between the promises of the Revolution, its actual achievements in education, health, communications, and its persistent perversions in corruption, undiminished strife, and political authoritarianism.
Mexico City, today the world's largest metropolis, was small then, with no more than 400,000 people. The Revolution, said Kahlo, left Mexico City empty, one million Mexicans having died at war between 1910 and 1920. It was a lovely, rose-colored city of magnificent Colonial churches and palaces, mock-Parisian private mansions, many two-story buildings with big painted gates (zaguanes) and wrought-iron balconies; sweet, disorganized parks, silent lovers, broad avenues and dark streets. And crystalline, unpolluted air.
Throughout her life, Kahlo, went out in search of the darker city, discovering its colors and smells, laughing in the carpas, entering the cantinas, searching for the company she could relate to, for Frida Kahlo was a lonely woman in need of comradeship, groups, and very close friendships, Las Cachuchas first, Los Fridos later, the need to be part of a human grenade, closely stuck, to protect her from the rampant cannibalism of Mexican intellectual life. Defenderse de los cabrones, "Protect oneself from the bastards." That was one of her lifetime slogans. "It is unbelievable," she once said of Diego Rivera, "that the lowest insults ... should have been vomited in his own home, Mexico." Not unbelievable at all.
Yet the city she both loved and feared struck at her without pity. In September of 1925 a streetcar crashed into the fragile bus she was riding, broke her spinal column, her collarbone, her ribs, her pelvis. Her already withered leg now suffered eleven fractures. Her left shoulder was now forever out of joint, one of her feet crushed. A handrail crashed into her back and came out through her vagina. At the same time, the impact of the crash left Frida naked and bloodied, but covered with gold dust. Despoiled of her clothes, showered by a broken packet of powdered gold carried by an artisan: will there ever be a more terrible and beautiful portrait of Frida than this one? Would she ever paint herself--or could she paint herself other than--as this "terrible beauty, changed utterly"?
The pain, the body, the city, the country. Kahlo. Frida, the art of Frida Kahlo.
SUFFERING: MURDERED BY LIFE
In her great work on the body in pain, Elaine Scarry lucidly notes that the pain of others is but a transitory fact in our own consciousness.
Is pain something you cannot share?
Even more, is pain something that can be said at all?
It is undescribable, writes Virginia Woolf. You can know the thoughts of Hamlet, but you cannot truly describe a headache. For pain destroys language. Philoctetes, the Greek warrior bitten by a snake, is abandoned on the island of Lemnos to his fetid wounds and his horrifying screams of pain. His speech is punctuated by animal screams and grunts, by the monosyllables of inarticulate suffering. And when Conan Doyle, in one of his eeriest stories, sends a scientific expedition down to the very center of the earth, all that the explorers receive, when they touch the planet's core, is a terrifying scream which almost makes them lose their minds.
Pain, writes Scarry, resists becoming an object of language. So pain is best expressed by those who do not feel it but speak in the name of pain. In a famous page, Nietzsche says that he has decided to call his pain "Dog." "It is equally faithful, unobtrusive and shameless, equally fun to be with ... and I can scold it and vent my evil tempers on it. . . ."
Frida Kahlo had a Dog called Pain, more than a Pain called Dog. I mean, she directly describes her own pain, it does not render her mute, her scream is articulate because it achieves a visible and emotional form. Frida Kahlo is one of the greatest speakers for pain in a century that has known, perhaps not more suffering than other times, but certainly a more unjustified and therefore shameful, cynical and publicized, programmed, irrational, and deliberate form of suffering than ever. From the Armenian massacres to Auschwitz, from the rape of Nanking to the gulag, from the Japanese POW camps to the nuclear holocaust in Hiroshima, we have seen pain, we have felt horror, as never before in history. How could this all happen in our own modern, progressive, civilized times?
The bloodshed of the Mexican Revolution is small beer indeed next to the executions ordered by Hitler and Stalin. Frida Kahlo, as no other artist of our tortured century, translated pain into art. She suffered thirty-two operations from the day of her accident to the day of her death. Her biography consists of twenty-nine years of pain, From 1944 on, she is forced to wear eight corsets. In 1913, her leg is amputated as gangrene sets in. She secretes through her wounded back, "smelling like a dead dog." She is hung naked, head down, from her feet, to strengthen her spinal column. She loses her fetuses in pools of blood. She is forever surrounded by clots, chloroform, bandages, needles, scalpels. She is the Mexican Saint Sebastian, slinged and arrowed. She is the tragic embodiment of Plato's very forthright description: The body is like a tomb that imprisons us much as the oyster is caught within the shell.
She reminds one of the Aztec goddesses of Birth and Earth, but even more of the flagellant deity, Xipe Totec, Our Lord of the Flayed Skin, the dualistic divinity whose skin was never his own, whether he wore that of the sacrificial victim as a macabre cloak, or whether he himself was shedding his own skin, as a serpent does, to signify a rite of renewal, even of resurrection, (The gods of Mexico have this ambiguous quality: the good they promise is inseparable from the evils they bestow. Xipe Totec, symbol of resurrection, Spring deity, also inflicts sacrifices, blisters, and festering on his human devotees.)
In The Broken Column or in Tree of Hope, Kahlo portrays herself as this flayed skin, this bleeding, open skin, cut in half like a papaya fruit. As she lies naked in a hospital bed in Detroit, bleeding and pregnant, Rivera writes: "endurance of truth, reality, cruelty, and suffering. Never before had a woman put such agonized poetry on canvas. . . ." For what she lives is what she paints. But no human experience, painful as it may be, becomes art by itself. How did Kahlo transform personal suffering into art, not impersonal, but shared?
ART: LIONS IN THE BOOKSHELF
Her pain, Her body. These are sources of Kahlo's art, but not sufficient, not the only. There is Guillermo Kahlo, her father, a photographer of German and Hungarian-Jewish descent, whose work is close to the rigidity of the posed nineteenth-century portrait. Guillermo Kahlo was much in demand for calendar pictures, probably still caught in the astonishment of being able to give everybody a face. The camera robs the court and even the bourgeois painter of their privilege. Not only the rich, not only the powerful, have a right to own a face. You need no longer count on Velazquez or Joshua Reynolds to immortalize your unique, irrepeatable, but alas, mortal features. Now, the inexpensive camera frees you from anonymity.
Then there is the Mexican church retablo, the humble ex-voto painted on wood or metal by anonymous and equally humble hands, recounting a terrible happening, an accident, an illness, a painful loss, and thanking the saints, God, the Holy Virgin, and their local manifestations --the Virgin of Zapopan, the Holy Child of Atocha --for saving our life, our health, our resilience to loss, illness, pain. Thanks for the Miracle.
And then there is Jose Guadalupe Posada, the marvelous Mexican graphic artist of the turn of the century, who drew and printed broadsheets informing the voiceless and the untutored of the happenings, big and small, that concerned their curiosity and even their lives: scenes of murder, suicide, strangulation, mayhem in the streets, brawls in cantinas, monstrosities, and revolutions. Death, whether riding a bicycle or wearing a Lillian Russell hat, presides over the news. It presides over time and history, Only dreams, including nightmares, seem to have an autonomous, liberated spirit.
But Posada descends from the artistic parentage of Goya, the Spanish universalizer of the eccentric and the marginal from the medieval roundelays of pestilence and death, the danse macabre, and from Brueghel and his rendering of popular life in colorful, minute detail. And to them all, Kahlo adds two favorites, one from the past, one from the present: Bosch and Magritte. They teach Frida that fantasy requires a realistic brush.
She is capable of coming back to her original sources and transforming them. She animates her father's photographs, while retaining some of their stilted flavor. She also takes his calendars and fills them with an interior time, a subjective experience of night and day, summer and fall. "September" is her "September," not the ninth month -- birth, perhaps miscarriage -- of a successive year. Time stands still only to go underground and reappear tinged with the personal images of Frida Kahlo. Not a painter of dreams, she insisted, but a painter of her own reality. "I paint myself because I am alone. I am the subject I know best."
Her reality is her own face, the temple of her broken body, the soul she has left. Like Rembrandt, like Van Gogh, Kahlo tells her biography through her self-portraits. The stages of passion, innocence, suffering, and finally, wisdom, are as evident in the Mexican as in the two great Dutch self-portraitists. But the aura of strangeness, displacement, of objects and dislocation of sceneries, as well as her spontaneous irrationality, have sometimes associated her, as well, with Surrealism.
A ribbon around a bombshell is how Andre Breton described her art, paraphrasing, in a way, Lautreamont's celebrated definition of art as "the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissection table." She is not foreign to the spirit of Surrealism, to be sure. She adores surprises. She would like to see lions come out of bookshelves, instead of books. There is perhaps a marvelous innocence in all of this. Luis Bunuel visited Breton on his deathbed. The old pope of Surrealism took the great filmmaker's hand and said: "Do you realize that no one is surprised any more?"
It is a fitting epitaph on the twentieth-century vanguard's penchant for shocking the bourgeoisie.
Yet Frida Kahlo remains (along with Posada) the most powerful reminder that what the French Surrealists codified has always been an everyday reality in Mexico and Latin America, part of the cultural stream, a spontaneous fusing of myth and fact, dream and vigil, reason and fantasy. The works of Gabriel Garcia Mirquez and what has come to be labeled "magical realism" are the contemporary images of this truth. Yet the great contribution of the Hispanic spirit, from Cervantes to Borges, and from Velizquez to Kahlo, is the certainty that imagination is capable of founding, if not the world, then certainly a world.
Don Quixote, Las Meninas, the Caprichos of Goya, The Aleph by Borges, the paintings of Matta, Lam, or Tamayo, One Hundred Years of Solitude, add something to reality that was not there before. This is a project far more conscious and acute in societies where reality itself finds scarce political representation.The artist then gives to the society what a repressive authoritarian system takes from, or deprives the society, of.
Miguel Angel Asturias, the Guatemalan writer, and Alejo Carpentier, the Cuban novelist, witnessing the Surrealist Revolution of the 1920s in Paris, soon realized that what Breton and his friends were legislating in France was already the law of life and the imagination in Latin America. Pre-Columbian myth, Afro-American rites, the Baroque hunger for the object of desire, the masks Of religious syncretism, gave Latin America its own patent for Surrealism with no need to submit, in the name of anti-Cartesian freedom of association, to very Cartesian rules on what dreams, intuitions, and prosody should property be like. The French Surrealists, while advocating automatic expression, would still write like eighteenth-century court diarists. Breton's prose is as correct and elegant as that of the Duc de Saint-Simon. Luis Bunuel and Max Ernst, the greatest Surrealists, found their sources, as well as their power to alter and criticize the world, in their own national cultures. Bunuel's films are a single, anarchical, corrosive revision of the very Catholic Spanish culture that nurtured him, while Ernst is the last descendant of the Brothers Grimm and the fantastic fairy tales of the dark German forests: thanks to this tradition, he makes visible the obscurest recesses of dream and nightmare.
This is Kahlo's brand of Surrealism: a capacity to convoke a whole universe out of the bits and fragments of her own self and out of the persistent traditions of her own culture. A vast culture, as I have pointed out. From Bosch and Brueghel to Posada, photography, ex-votos, and perhaps film. Kahlo loved comic film. Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, were her great entertainments. And who and what were these comedians? They are anarchists, perpetually at odds with the law, pursued by the fuzz, answering the demands of law and order with pratfalls, custard pies, and an undefeatable innocence.
Yet no matter how many strands and strains we find in Kahlo's artistic family tree, there always remains a shining, solitary, untransferable question for the artist: How and why did she create such good art? She herself would give a number of answers. Her love of surprise (lions in the bookshelves), her sense that frankness and intimacy were inseparable, her will to eliminate from her paintings all that did not originate in her own interior, lyrical impulses. My themes, she said, are my sensations, my states of mind, my reactions to life. There is Mexico, of course, a country where everything is (or used to be, B.P.: Before Plastics) art, from the humblest kitchen utensil to the loftiest Baroque altar.
All of this, nevertheless, does not account, item by item, for an art which is fused through and through by beauty. What sort of beauty? we have a right to ask. Is this beauty, this terrifying sequence of open wounds, blood clots, miscarriages, black tears, un mar de lagrimas, indeed, a sea of tears?
Frida Kahlo understood, as a part of both her European and Mexican heritage, this simple fact: It is one thing to be a body, and another thing to be beautiful. Kahlo managed to establish a distance from ugliness only to see what was ugly, painful, or cruel with a clearer eye, discovering her affinity, if not with the current model of beauty (Memling, thin? Rubens, fat? Parton, bust? Bardot, derriere? Mae West or Twiggy), then with the truth about her own self, her own face, her own body. Through her art, Kahlo seems to come to terms with her own reality: The horrible, the painful, can lead us to the truth of self knowledge. It then becomes beautiful simply because it identifies our very being, our innermost qualities. Kahlo's self-portraits are beautiful for the same reason as Rembrandt's: They show us the successive identities of a human being who is not yet, but who is becoming.
This manner of conceiving beauty as truth and self-knowledge, as becoming -- devenir-- requires unblinking courage and is Kahlo's great legacy to the marginal, the invisible men and women of an increasingly faceless, anonymous planet, where only the "photogenic" or the "shocking," as seen on the screens, merits our vision.
Socrates, famous for his ugliness, asked us to close our eyes in order to see "our own internal beauty." Kahlo goes beyond the Socratic demand to close our eyes and open them to a new way of seeing. Sight is the clearest of all the senses, writes Plotinus, yet it is incapable of seeing the soul. And this is so, he adds, because if we were able to see the soul, it would awaken in us a terrible love, an intolerable love, Only beauty has the privilege of looking at the soul without being blinded.
This is Kahlo's privilege. Her art is certainly not an absolute way of discovering the inner self and its identification with beauty in spite of external appearances. Far more than that, it is an approximation of self, of becoming, of not yet, never a fulfillment, always an approach, a search for form which, when found, achieves the Yeatsian aesthetics I evoked a few pages back: "All changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty is born."
POLITICS: A BOMB WRAPPED IN RIBBONS
There is an anecdote in Hayden Herrera's famous biography of Kahlo. A frustrated young North American dilettante, Dorothy Hale, committed suicide in 1939 by jumping from a high floor in the Hampshire House building in New York. Her friend Clare Boothe Luce asked Kahlo to paint an homage to the unfortunate and beautiful young woman. The result horrified Luce. Instead of an image of piety and respect-for-the-dead, Frida came up with a startling, sequential yet simultaneistic narrative picture of the suicide itself. We see Hale jumping, in midair, and finally crushed, lifeless and bleeding, on the pavement, staring at the world -- at us -- with eternally open eyes.
Luce admits that she wanted "to destroy the painting with a pair of library scissors, and I wanted a witness to this act." However, she was finally contented when the "offensive legend" saying that she had commissioned the painting was rubbed out.
"Rubbed out": this underworld term, so often heard in Hollywood gangster films, reveals and recalls two facts of Mexican art in relation to U.S. culture. For if the culture of Mexico, as implied in Clare Boothe Luce's censorship of Kahlo's painting, is violent, so is that of Anglo-Saxon America. The genocide of the native Indians, the rape and robbery of their lands, Black slavery, wars against weaker nations, territorial annexations, robber barons, capitalist exploitation, all of this, right down to the urban violence of our own days: this great violence has been generally rubbed out of U.S. history in favor of more epic or idyllic visions. But the culture is then left without appropriate, cathartic, lasting, and even beautiful images of its own violence.
The question, then, is not, when did the U.S.A. lose its innocence? but rather, was the U.S.A. ever innocent? And in consequence, if North American violence is ugly, factual, and lacking in an aesthetic imagery, is it the destiny of Mexico to provide the U.S.A. with beautiful, lasting images of death -- including violence? I am not belittling the great beauty of many films, paintings, novels, poems, from Hawthorne to Warhol, from Poe to Peckinpab, which express the violence of the U.S.A. I am merely trying to establish a relationship, a questioning, probably a Mexican self-delusion, in relation to the U.S.A.: is it the destiny of Mexico to provide its northern neighbor with beautiful, lasting images of violence, including death?
"Rubbed out": is it not significant, in this sense, that Mexican art in the U.S.A. should constantly have been censored, picketed, hung down, rubbed out (and also, to be just, courageously defended)? The Siqueiros mural in Olvera Street, Los Angeles. The Rivera murals in Rockefeller Center, Detroit, and the New School. The Orozco mural at Pomona College, California, where a penis-less Prometheus resists the torture of vultures pecking at his body. Have the birds of prey cannibalized, Bobbitt-like, his dick? The vendetta of the student body at Pomona against the censorship imposed on Orozco by the academic authorities is a graffito under the mural: "Prometheus, you must hang it out before you slip it in."
What is this fear, objectively demonstrated in acts of censorship, of the Mexican symbol -- sexual, political, or otherwise -- in the Anglo-American mind? I A ribbon around a bombshell, answered Andre Breton, defining the art of Frida Kahlo, its explosive or, even better, as Breton would have it, its convulsive beauty. The political dimension of this sentence is of course closely related to the Surrealist nostalgia for unity recovered. The internal, oneiric, psychic revolution should be inseparable from the external, political, material, liberating revolution. The marriage of Marx and Freud. But in Kahlo's truly subversive mind, perhaps this would turn out to be the marriage of Groucho Marx and Woody Allen. In an interview several years ago, my wife asked Eugene Ionesco who the two most intelligent and most foolish men of modern times had been. lonesco answered: Marx and Freud, on both counts. They were rabbis of genius, but foolish rabbis, for they were talkative and betrayed the rabbinical wisdom of silence.
The conflict between the two revolutions, the internal and the external, has pursued all of the writers and artists of the twentieth century. Surrealism shared with Marxism the dream of a humankind liberated from alienation and returned to its pristine origin, the age of gold, when all things belonged to all men, and no one said: This is mine. The Surrealists, furthermore, were the final heirs to the last great all-encompassing European cultural movement, Romanticism. And Romanticism preached, also, a return to the wholeness of man, the unity of the origin, fractured by the history of greed, oppression, alienation. In this, again, Marxists and Romantics could shake hands.
Milan Kundera is perhaps (because of his Czech education) the first writer to have explained that Communism exerted a great attraction on young people everywhere, not because of its abstruse materialist philosophy or even because of Marx's deep and lasting critique of the economy, but because it offered an idyll of purity, of return to original humankind. This was the political culmination of the Romantic dream. Stalin certainly put an end to this illusion, but in the Mexico of the 1930s, Trotsky's exile gave hope to many that the Stalinist perversion could still be corrected and a true worker's state set up, sometime, somewhere.
Frida Kahlo lived in the political Mexico of the revolutionary one-party state, the system of the PNR (National Revolutionary Party), grandparent of the present, endless PRI (Party of Revolutionary Institutions). In the name of furthering the conquests of the Revolution, the Party demanded unity and subservience. There was no other way of combating the foes of the Revolution, i.e., the internal reactionaries (the Catholic Church, the expropriated landowners) and the external reactionaries (the government of the U.S.A. and the companies it protected in Mexico). In exchange for unity, the government would vive Mexicans economic development and social peace. But not democracy, since political freedom would diminish the supreme value of National Unity against foes internal and external.
Nevertheless, the revolutionary governments did push through agrarian reform, public education, a national health and communications system. The aura of revolutionary progress in Mexico attracted many foreign radicals to our country. Frida Kahlo knew Julio Antonio Mella, the founder of the Cuban Communist Party, and his equally radical paramour, the Italian photographer Tina Modotti -- he assassinated on a Mexico City street by agents of the Cuban government, she by his side.
Closer to home, Frida's first and great love, the student leader Alejandro Gomez Arias, was unmasking the Mexican government's revolutionary pretensions and calling for the nation's youth, "the Mexican Samurais," to challenge the one-party system. So did the philosopher Jose Vasconcelos, himself the first Education Minister of the Revolution, our Lunacharsky, the philosopher statesman who gave the public buildings over to the mural painters. In 1929, Vasconcelos starred in an ill-fated attempt to win the presidency in a rigged election. Also in 1929, Kahlo saw the young revolutionary dandy German de Campo, a wonderful orator, fall in a public park as he spoke, killed by a government bullet. The Revolution, like Saturn, was eating her own children. Revolutionary generals opposed to the ruling generals, and uprisings of disaffected military abounded.
Lazaro Cardenas, president between 1934 and 1940, attempted to reconcile national unity and authentic social progress. It was Cardenas who admitted Leon Trotsky to Mexico, saving him, for a time, from Stalin's assassins. Diego Rivera received Trotsky, offered him hospitality and protection, and weathered the blistering attacks of the Mexican Communists. Frida's politics, such as they were, could not be separated from the personality and the actions of Diego Rivera.
First an exciting young Cubist in Paris, Rivera discovered the epic thrill of Renaissance painting (particularly Uccello) and allied it to the nativist lines of Gauguin in Tahiti. His "Mexican" vision -- quite legitimately so -- owed its techniques to European art, more than to Mexican Pre-Columbian aesthetics or, even, to Mexican popular art (Frida was much closer to this than he). Nothing new here. The other muralists were also, formally, more European than they cared to recognize. Jose Clemente Orozco was a German Expressionist and David Alfaro Siqueiros an Italian Futurist. Maya or Aztec artists they certainly were not, and could not be. Their Mexicanist themes required the new, universal forms of the European vanguard in order to be artistically relevant.
A clue to the Mexican artists' love affair with the modern is supplied by Rivera's admiration for modern industry. He surprised many North American and European intellectuals by his glorification of steel and smoke, even praising the beauty of the bank vault. This was the alienation denounced by the likes of Chaplin, in Modern Times, and before him by the solar-plexus novels of D. H. Lawrence, and of course, at the very beginning of the Industrial Revolution, by Blake when he spoke of industry's "dark Satanic mills."
That a contemporary Mexican Marxist, so enamored of the humble Indian and the exploited peasant, should also espouse the idyll of industry and materialism only serves to underscore the apparent contradictions of the whole Mexican process, so captured between its native impulses, the Zapata syndrome, and its modernizing impulses, the Ford syndrome. I think that for Rivera there was no contradiction between the two. The great staircase murals at the National Palace in Mexico City actually describe his chiliastic vision of history. The Indian panel culminates with the Emperor and the Sun. The Colonial panel with the Church and the Cross. The Republican panel, with the Red Flag and Karl Marx. All, finally, are millenarist visions of the Church triumphant, not civil or civic proposals.
But when all is said and done, what Rivera, Kahlo, and all the artists of the Mexican Revolution were really discovering, without fully realizing it, was that Mexico has an unbroken, generous, all-encompassing culture in which the past is always present. On this basis we should be able to create an inclusive, not an exclusive, modernity. This, I believe, is the true goal of Latin America, a continent that cannot hope to be explained without its Indian, Black, and European (Mediterranean, Iberian, Greek, Roman, Arab, Jewish) roots.
Frida, then, saw politics through Rivera. And Rivera was an anarchist, a mythomaniac, a compulsive liar, and a fantastic storyteller. How were these qualities (or defects, if you wish) to blend with dogmatic Communism? I have a suspicion that many Latin American Communists are really lapsed Catholics in need of reassurance. Having lost the Catholic roof, they yearn for the Communist shelter. After all, Saint Peter's was a relic of the past, the Kremlin a harbinger of the future. Today when religions resurrect and Marxism is pronounced dead, it is interesting to hark back to the 1930s and try to understand both its illusions and loss of the same. Perhaps our premature burials and resurrections will also be severely judged someday.
Frida and Diego: She admitted that she had suffered two accidents in her life, the streetcar accident and Diego Rivera. Of her love for the man there can be no doubt. He was unfaithful. She reproached him: How could he consort with women unworthy of him or inferior to her?
He admitted it: "The more I loved her, the more I wanted to hurt her." She riposted with many lovers, both men and women. He tolerated the women who loved Frida, but not the men. She absorbed it all in her almost pantheistic, earthmother, Coatlicue and Lady of Elche, cleansing-vulture manner of love. She wanted to "give birth to Diego Rivera." "I am him," she wrote, "from the most primitive and ancient cells ... at every moment he is my child, my child born every moment, daily from my self."
Such a love, for such a man, in such conditions, could only lead to both sexual fulfillment outside of the child-marriage and to political allegiance within it. Perhaps Frida attempted to bridge both fulfillment and allegiance through her love affair with Leon Trotsky. But Trotsky and Rivera were so different that the arrangement could not hold. The formal, rationalist, disciplined, authoritarian, extremely Old World, European Trotsky was like ice to the fire of the fibbing, sensual, informal, intuitive, taunting, and joking, very New World Rivera. Lev Davidovich the dialectician. Diego Maria the anarchist. Never the twain could meet, and the final rupture between the two men made the woman follow her true, unfaithful, magnificent, torturing, and tender lover. Diego Rivera.
Rivera himself had his eternal love affair with Communism. In and out of the Party, to the extent of firing himself from it, or receiving the heretic Trotsky in Mexico, he withstood the constant assaults of the apparatchiks. What kind of revolutionary was this Rivera, painting murals in Mexican public buildings and American capitalist citadels, receiving money from reactionary Mexican governments and gringo millionaires? Rivera must have had a good laugh--here he was, called a tool of Communism by the millionaires and a tool of capitalism by the Communists. In a sense, it was the best of both worlds! But Frida was right: like many lapsed Catholics who on their deathbeds ask for a priest to confess them, Rivera needed the final rites of the Communist Party.
He was finally readmitted to the political church in 1954. (Frida had dutifully also sought readmission.) Marx, Lenin, and Stalin began to appear in her iconography with the same regularity that Christ, the Virgin, and the saints appear in the Catholic ex-votas that so influenced her art. Marx, Lenin, Stalin. They were the new mediators. Thanks to them the new miracle would occur.
The Cold War sealed these political positions. Not everyone was capable of humor as the Strangeloves held sway in Washington and Moscow and taught us to fear the bomb. I remember the day of Stalin's death, March 4, 1953. My friends and I held a party (Dzhugashvili's Wake) at the loft of the painter and poet Salvador Elizondo in an old Colonial palace on Tacuba Street, where we drank and celebrated the passing of the Man of Steel around a celebrated clipping from that day's edition of a Mexican newspaper, sporting Stalin's effigy framed in black and the supremely pithy headline- "iYA!" ("DEAD!" "GONE!" "NO MORE!"), surrounded, as the church retablos, as Frida's own paintings, by votive lamps. "I lost my balance with the death of Stalin," Frida wrote.
But were we not all together again, united in July of 1954, by the overthrow of the democratic government in Guatemala by a CIA-organized coup? The Good Neighbor Policy was over. The years of Franklin Roosevelt were over. Now, John Foster Dulles pronounced the Guatemala adventure "a glorious victory for democracy." Guatemala sank into forty years of unending dictatorship, genocide, torture, and suffering. Perhaps Frida and Diego grossly overestimated the Communist promise. They did not underestimate the menace of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America.
Such were the parameters of our political life as my generation struggled to find a level of reason and humanity between the Manichean demands of the Cold War and its frozen inhuman warriors - the Berias, Molotovs, and Vishinskys on one side, the Dulleses, Nixons, and McCarthys on the other. The manifestation for Guatemala was Frida's last appearance in public. She now began her cruel decline towards final suffering and death.
But was there not a deeper sense to her politics than Rivera, Marxism, the Cold War? A glance at her art tells us the truth: Frida Kahlo was a natural pantheist, a woman and an artist involved in the glory of universal celebration, an explorer of the interrelatedness of all things, a priestess declaring everything created as sacred. Fertility symbols - flowers, fruits, monkeys, parrots--abound in her art, but never in isolation, always intertwined with ribbons, necklaces, vines, veins, and even thorns. The latter may hurt, but they also bind. Love was the great celebration, the great union, the sacred event, and Frida's love letters to Alejandro Gomez Arias seem written by Catherine Earnshaw to Heathcliff in a Mexican Wuthering Heights, where great romantic passion is driven by the necessity to reunite the whole of creation:
Deep down, you understand me, you know I adore you. You are not only something that is mine, you are me myself.
No wonder that to the demands of revolutionary realism in art she could only answer, truthfully, privately, in her Diary: "I cannot, I cannot!" Her iconographic tokens are there. Her art is elsewhere, engaged not in bowing to reality, but in convoking yet another, a further, an invented reality.
DRESSED FOR PARADISE
There is a humor in Kahlo that transcends politics and even aesthetics, tickling the ribs of life itself. The Diary is the best example of this ribald, punning, dynamic genius for humorous language that makes Kahlo such an endearing and, finally, happy figure, in spite of all the suffering. Her voice, all who knew her tell us, was deep, rebellious, punctuated by caracajadas -- belly laughs -- and by leperadas --four-letter words.
To be obscene means to be out of stage, un-scene, un-seen, and Kahlo filled the cup of her moments outside the scene of art and the stage of her highly theatrical persona with jokes both practical and linguistic. The irreverence dated back to the Cachucha days, the stealing of streetcars, the mocking of professors, her ability, in spite of polio, to jump off and onto streetcars, her final mutilation by a streetcar, her love for carpas and cantinas, her joy in singing and hearing Mexican love songs, ballads, and corridos - history as recalled and sung by the people, yet another link with the art of Posada and the ex-voto. Her immense love of friends, her cuates, her cuatachos, her cuatezones, that is, in an Aztec derivation which is extremely popular in Mexico, her friends seen as her twins, her comrades, her brethren.
She could sing the beautiful couplets of La Malaguena with a perfect falsetto. She got along with carpenters, bartenders, shoemakers, anarchists, servants, budding artists. She had the Mexican knack of turning all words into diminutives, charming the words, babying them, caressing them, discovering, as it were, the clitoris of pleasure in each word: chaparrita for small women, chulito for her male friends, doctorcito, even doctorcito Wilsoncito, for her many doctors, signing herself chiquita, chicuita, tiny one, the smallest one, Friducha, little ol' Frida, herself.
Mexican diminutives are a form of defense against the arrogance of the rich and the oppression of the Mexican authoritarian tradition. Diminutives fake courtesy and submission before the powerful, they anesthetize the arrogant. Then, one day, like Kahlo on her bed of pain, Mexico starts "shooting my way out of the hospital and starting my own revolution." As an artist of great merit and popularity, she was also conscious of the critical cannibalizing which is a permanent characteristic of Mexican intellectual life, where bevies of frustrated dwarfs have their machetes ready to decapitate anyone who stands above them. Her humor, her language, her own very personal chutzpah, were ways of defending herself against the bastards -- Defenderse de los cabrones.
She applied her humor, as well, to the U.S.A., all the time admitting that the Rockefellers fired you while showing their faces, while Mexicans practiced the stab in the back. Like Rivera, nevertheless, she was baffled by gringo faces and could not paint them. They seemed colorless to her, like half-baked rolls, she said. And the American women who tried to imitate her ended up looking like "cabbages."
But in the U.S.A., as in Mexico, Kahlo and Rivera loved to puncture pretension and defy prejudice. She descended from Hungarian Jews, he from Sephardic exiles of the Spanish Diaspora of 1492. What better way of entering the U.S.A., when some hotels were barred to Jews, than announcing (ten years before Laura Hobson's Gentleman Agreement) as they registered at the front desk, that they, the Riveras, were Jewish? What greater fun than sitting at dinner with the renowned anti-Semite Henry Ford and inquiring: "Mr. Ford, are you Jewish?"
Necklaces, rings, white organdy headgear, flowery peasant blouses, garnet colored shawls, long skirts, all of it covering the broken body. Yet dress was a form of humor, too, a great disguise, a theatrical, self-fascinated form of autoeroticism, but also a call to imagine the suffering, naked body underneath and discover its secrets. Rivera said that women are more pornographic than men, for they have sensuality in every part of their body, whereas men have their sexual organs "in just one place." Perhaps Frida pretended to agree and tried not to disappoint Rivera. But in some of her descriptions of her Frog Prince of a husband, she shows us how aware she was that men have as many erogenous zones as women.
The clothes of Frida Kahlo were, nevertheless, more than a second skin. She said it herself. They were a manner of dressing for paradise, of preparing for death. Perhaps she knew that the ancient masks of Teotihuacdn, beautifully wrought in mosaic, were meant to cover the faces of the dead, so as to make the corpses presentable in their trip to paradise.
Perhaps her extraordinary regalia, capable of drowning out a Wagner opera when she entered the theater, was but an anticipation of her shroud, She took to her clothes, writes Hayden Herrera, as a nun takes to her veil. She feared ending like the old king Tezozomoc, who was put inside a basket, all wrapped in cotton, for the rest of his days. Her luxurious dresses hid her broken body; they also permitted her to act in a ceremony of ceremonies, a dressing and undressing of herself as laborious, regal, and ritualistic as those of the Emperor Moctezuma, who was helped by several dozen handmaidens, or the levie of the French kings at Versailles, which was witnessed by practically the whole court.
While death tiptoed towards her, she dressed in full regalia to lie in bed and paint. "I am not sick," she would write. "I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint." But as death approaches, the tone changes. "You are killing yourself," she realizes, as drugs and alcohol both alleviate and condemn her increasingly. But she quickly adds: "There are those who will no longer forget you...."
Her death comes in Mexico, from Mexico, on July 13, 1954. Our difference from the European conceptions of death as finality is that we see death as origin. We descend from death. We are all children of death. Without the dead, we would not be here, we would not be alive. Death is our companion. Frida had the sense of fooling death, of fooling around with death, using her powers of language to describe death as La Mera Dientona, Old Buck Teeth; La Tostada, The Toasted One; a euphemism for La Chingada, the Fucked One; La Catrina, The Belle of the Ball; La Pelona, The Hairless Bitch, like her beloved itzcuintli puppy dogs. She also spoke of death as La Tia de las Muchachas, The Girls' Aunt, a curious reference to the Spanish title of the Brandon Thomas farce of 1892, Charley's Aunt, where one of the male characters has to disguise himself in lace and crepes as a ponderous old maid, Charley's aunt from Brazil, "where the nuts come from."
Humorous and companionable as death may be, it is important, it is Henry James's "the distinguished thing." Kahlo says almost the same, calling death "an enormous and very silent exit."
Incinerated, she sits bolt upright in the oven, her hair on fire like a halo. She smiles at her friends before dissolving.
FK, Frida Kahlo, Franz Kafka. Two of the greatest symbolic figures of the twentieth century share their initials, their pain, perhaps even their positions in the world. Kafka sees himself as an animal hanging over an abyss, his hind legs still stuck to his father's traditions, his forelegs finding no firm ground. Kahlo, tortured, hung, mutilated, cut up in bits and pieces, eternally metamorphosed by both sickness and art, could say along with her brother Jew from Prague: "There shall be much hope, but not for us": Prague, "the little mother," has claws. So does Mexico City. They do not let go. Kafka's Kahlo, Franz's Frieda: The heroine of The Castle, Kafka's Frieda, is both the way to salvation and the agony of romantic love. For them both, the K of Prague and the K of Mexico, Nietzsche memorably wrote, "Whoever has built a new heaven has found the strength for it only in his own hell."
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 every one of us, "I am writing to you with my eyes."
Mexico City, January 1995