My blog today is the fourth and final part of Frida Kahlo’s life story. Over the last three blogs I have looked at her ancestry, her birth, her school days and her first marriage to Diego Rivera. Today I am going to talk about the latter stages of her life and her continued sufferings both mental and physical.
It is November 1931, and after having spent the summer back in Mexico, Frida and Diego Rivera sailed to New York for his retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art that December. From New York the couple moved on to Philadelphia and Detroit where, in the spring of 1932, Rivera was commissioned to paint a mural at the Detroit Art Institute. Early that September, Frida received the sad news that her mother was dying of breast cancer. She and her friend Lucienne Bloch returned to the Frida’s family home in Mexico. Her mother, Matilde, died following gall-bladder surgery on September 15th. Art historians have always asserted that Frida, despite her many attempts, had never been able to form a close bond with her mother. However this contention was brought into question in 2007 when an exhibition was held at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, entitled Mamacita Linda: Letters between Frida Kahlo and her Mother, which featured a collection of letters sent between Frida and her family and friends. Some of the letters were between mother and daughter in the years before her mother’s death and these show remarkable tenderness and affection between the two women which may prompt scholars to re-evaluate the way they look at the mother’s impact on her daughter’s life and work. The contents of the letters between the two women are very moving especially at the time when the health of Frida’s mother was beginning to fail. The collection contained the last letter her mother ever wrote to Frida in which she tells her how happy she was to talk to her on the telephone.
The first painting by Frida Kahlo I am featuring today is entitled My Nurse and I which she completed in 1937 and can be now found in the Dolores Olmedo Patiño Museum in Mexico City. The year 1937 was the one in which Frida suffered one of her many miscarriages or abortions and these traumatic incidents in her life sparked off a series of paintings in which her yearning for a child became merged with reminiscences of her own childhood.
It is a small work of art, just 12” x 14”, which harks back to her birth and her early relationship with her mother. The depiction and posture of the adult and baby in this painting by Frida Kahlo could have derived from Señor de las Limas, the greenstone sculpture which was found around Vera Cruz in Mexico and dates back 3000 years.
Matilde, Frida’s mother, was unable to breastfeed Frida because her sister Cristina was born just eleven months after her. For this reason, she had to be fed by a native Indian wet-nurse, whom the family hired for that sole purpose. Unfortunately her term of employment had to be ended abruptly as she had alcohol-related problems and was fired for drinking on the job! In this painting, we see the wet nurse holding the baby Frida, who is dressed in European-style garb, but with an adult head and long black hair. In the original painting Frida painted her baby-image with short hair but later changed it. In the picture we see the wet nurse suckling the baby and the ducts and glands of the lactating breast are repeated in the white coloured leaf behind the two figures. The landscape is lush with vegetation and the sky is raining milk upon them. This aspect is more than likely derived from the wet nurse’s description of rain as “milk from the Virgin”. Milk also drips from both breasts emphasizing both fertility and nourishment. The relationship between the wet nurse and the baby appears detached and aloof. The wet nurse does not embrace nor cuddle Frida and it almost looks as if she is holding her up to us as if the baby is a sacrificial offering. The painting highlights the fact that there seems to have been no maternal-type love between wet nurse and baby and simply reduced it to the practical process of feeding.
The baby in the painting has an adult head because it was the adult Frida who had the memory of this time. As Frida has no memory of what her wet nurse looked like, she covered her face with a Teotihuacan funerary mask. Of this aspect of the painting Frida said:
“…I came out looking like such a little girl and she so strong and so saturated with providence that it made me long to sleep…”
At the bottom of the painting there is an unfurled blank scroll which makes one believe that at some time during painting the work Frida was going to add a message explaining the meaning behind it. Frida considered this to be one of her most powerful works and wrote about this painting saying:
“…I am in my nurse’s arms, with the face of a grown up woman and the body of a little girl, while milk falls from her nipples as if from the heavens…”
In December 1933, Frida and Diego return to Mexico. Upon their return they moved into the double studio-houses in San Angel. Frida lived in one, Rivera in the other. In early 1934, after being pregnant for 3 months, Frida’s third pregnancy and health was again in trouble. She underwent an appendectomy, an abortion, and an operation on her foot in which three toes were removed. Her marriage to Rivera was not running smoothly and he was involved in a number of extra-marital affairs. Frida was aware of many of these and in many of her self-portraits around this time they show her, not as a smiling happy young woman, but as a person who has had her heart broken on many occasions. However it all came to a head when Frida found out that her husband was having an affair with her younger sister Christina. Although Cristina was married, her husband had abandoned her and their two children. Cristina had worked as one of Diego’s models and had become his favourite muse. Soon she began appearing in his murals. When she found out about this affair, Frida was devastated and she left Rivera. The separation lasted until the end of 1935 when the couple were reconciled albeit they led separate lives.
Frida was also far from faithful in her marriage, and had a number of affairs with both men and women. Although Rivera was willing to accept Frida’s homosexual affairs he would not tolerate any sexual liaisons she had with men. The most famous of her male lovers was Leon Trotsky, the Russian revolutionary, who fled to Mexico, with his wife Natalia, to escape the clutches of Stalin. Rivera had secured asylum for them and Frida had loaned them her home in Coyoacán. She had a brief love affair with him in the summer of 1937 but it all ended when Rivera became suspicious of her relationship with the Russian. On November 7th 1937, which was both his birthday and the anniversary of the Russian Revolution, she gave Trotsky a self-portrait for him to keep as a reminder of their short affair. The painting was entitled Self-Portrait dedicated to Leon Trotsky and was one of her most seductive self-portraits. In the painting we see Frida beautifully dressed in the clothes of a colonial aristocrat holding a letter addressed to Trotsky and on it are the words:
“…To Leon Trotsky, with all my love, I dedicate this painting on 7th November 1937. Frida Kahlo in Saint Angel, Mexico…“
The painting came back into her possession in 1939 when Trotsky and his wife left the area. In August 1940 Frida was devastated to hear that Trotsky had been assassinated in Mexico City.
Frida travelled to New York in 1938 where she had the first solo exhibition of her paintings at the Julien Levy Gallery. The following year she went to Paris where her paintings were being shown at the Colle Gallery. After this she returns to Mexico and goes back to live in her family home in Coyoacán. Frida and Rivera agreed to separate and divorce proceedings began. The divorce was finalised in November 1939. Frida’s health was slowly but surely deteriorating all the time and in 1940 she travelled to San Francisco where she received medical attention and a second opinion from Doctor Eloesser, who was to become a great friend of hers and remained such right up to her death. The doctor was also a close friend of Diego Rivera, who also happened to be in San Francisco at the time and it was due to the persuasive powers of Doctor Eloesser that Frida reconciled with Rivera and the pair re-marry on December 8th 1940. That day also happened to be Rivera’s fifty-fourth birthday. At the end of the year Frida returned to Mexico whilst her husband remained in San Francisco. The reason for this was that because he had had vociferously and publicly criticised Trotsky he had come under suspicion with regards the Russian’s assassination. In February 1941, no longer under suspicion, Diego returned to Mexico. He went back to live in the Kahlo family home in Coyoacán with Frida, using the San Angel house as his studio. More tragedy strikes Frida when that April, her father died. It was thought that he had suffered a heart attack while others said it was an epileptic seizure. Frida was distraught and became depressed which exacerbated her failing health.
In 1950, Kahlo was hospitalized due to recurring spinal problems. She underwent a total of seven operations on her spine during that year. After her discharge from the hospital in 1951, she was confined to her bed for much of the time and full-time nurses were hired to care for her and give her injections of pain killers.
In August 1953, the gangrene on Frida’s right foot worsened and doctors were forced to amputate her right leg below the knee. She was fitted with a wooden leg but her addiction to pain killers and alcohol left her balance unstable making it hazardous for her to walk with the prosthetic. She wrote in her diary alongside a sketch of her amputated leg:
“…Feet…what do I need them for if I have wings to fly….“
In April 1954, Frida contracted pneumonia and was hospitalized for two months. Three months later, on July 7th, Frida had her 47th birthday. That morning, dressed in a traditional white Yalalag huipil with a lavender tassel, make-up on and flowers in her hair, she was carried down the stairs into the dining room. There she entertained more than 100 guests throughout the day. At 8 o’clock in the evening she was taken back upstairs to rest but continued to hold court.
My final painting by Frida Kahlo is her last work of art which she completed just eight days before she died. It is entitled Viva la vida and is a still-life work. It is a juxtaposition of the crimson of the chopped and sliced watermelon with the half dark, half light sky. The last element of this painting was the inscription Frida painted on the slice of melon we see in the foreground:
VIVA LA VIDA
Coyoacán 1954 Mexico
The night before Frida died she was critically ill with pneumonia. Diego sat beside her bed until 2:30 am. That night Frida gave Diego a ring that she had bought for him as a gift for their 25th anniversary, which was still seventeen days away. When he asked why she was giving it to him so early Frida simply replied
“…Because I feel I am going to leave you very soon…”
In the early morning of Tuesday, July 13th, 1954, Frida died in the “Blue House” where she was born 47 years earlier. The cause of death was officially reported as a pulmonary embolism. Frida’s old schoolmate from the Preparatoria, Andrés Iduarte, who was now the director of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, gave Diego permission for Frida’s body to lie in state in the huge high-ceiling hall. That night, dressed in Tehuana attire and over accessorized with jewellery, Frida’s body lay in state in the foyer of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, with Diego at her side the whole night. By noon the next day more than 600 mourners had passed by her coffin to pay their last respects.
Onc,e when asked what should be done with her body when she dies, Frida replied:
“Burn it…I don’t want to be buried. I have spent too much time lying down…just burn it!”.
On November 24, 1957, Diego Rivera died of heart failure in his San Angel studio.
I leave you with a diary entry Frida made during the last painful months of her life, which shows how, despite all the setbacks she suffered and the pain she had to endure, she was still an optimist and a fighter and still very much in love with her husband:
I have achieved a lot,
I will be able to walk
I will be able to paint
I love Diego more
than I love myself
My will is great
My will remains
As was the case when I wrote about the great Italian female painter, Artemisia Gentileschi, (My Daily Art Display November 24th 2011) this has not just been a tale about art and an artist but a tale of sadness and suffering and one wonders why some people have to suffer so much in their life time.