The Isar near Grosshessolohe by Wassily Kandinsky (1901)

The Isar near Grosshessolohe by Wassily Kandinsky (1901)

My last blog featured the German artist Gabriele Münter and I talked about her relationship with her one-time art teacher and lover, the Russian painter and gifted writer, Wassily Kandinsky.  Today I am going to delve into his early life and feature one of his earliest paintings.

Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky was born in Moscow in 1866.  He was the son of, Vasily Silverstrovic Kandinsky, a tea merchant.  In a short-lived partnership, his father married Lidia Ticheeva and Wassily was their only child. Wassily recalled that when he was just three years of age he was taken on vacation to Italy and even at that young age he was fascinated by the colours that were all around him.  In his 1913 essay entitled Reminiscences he wrote:

“…The first colours that made a strong impression on me were bright, juicy green, white, carmine red, black and yellow ochre.  These memories go back to the third year of my life.   I saw these colours on various objects, which are no longer as clear in my mind as the colours themselves…”

This photographic memory he had for colours and scenes that he witnessed in his everyday life in his beloved Moscow were to remain with him throughout his life and were to prove to be an inspirational source in his paintings.  Kandinsky loved Moscow and was devastated when at the age of ten he was taken to live in Odessa by his father, who had been made manager of a local tea factory.  Shortly after he and his family moved to Odessa, his father and mother divorced and Wassily was brought up there by his mother’s sister, Elizabeth Ticheeva.  At the age of ten he had his first art and music lessons at the primary and grammar school in Odessa, where he remained for the next nine years.

Aged twenty, Kandinsky enrolled at Moscow University where he attended classes in law, economics and ethnography (a branch of anthropology dealing with the scientific description of individual cultures).  His dissertation, The Legality of Workers’ Wages, focused on the legitimacy of labourers’ wages.  In his last year of studies, he received a commission from the Society of Natural Science, Ethnography and Anthropology to go on a research expedition to Vologda in north west Russia, where he recorded the local peasant laws, and it was during this period that he came into contact with the folk art of the region.  He was taken with the colourful decorative houses and the people dressed in their bright and vibrant peasant costumes, all of which made a lasting impression on him.  He never forgot the colourful scenes and later these memories would be encapsulated in some of his early works.  His report back to the Society after his trip was well received and he was made him a member of the Society, opening the way for him to pursue numerous  lucrative jobs.

His university life came to an end in 1892 when he received his law degree and became a member of the Law Society.  He was the offered a position as lecturer at the university which he accepted and it was whilst in that post that he met his cousin, Anya Chimiakin, and after a short courtship, they married.  In 1896 at the age of thirty he was offered a professorship at Tartu University and this was to be a pivotal point in his life.  He had to decide whether to carry on with his lucrative academic career or veer towards an artistic life and all the financial uncertainties that go with it.  One major factor in his eventual decision to tread the artistic path was when he visited an exhibition of French Impressionists in Moscow at which he saw the painting by Claude Monet entitled Haystack at Giverny, which is now housed in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, Russia.  Kandinsky was in awe of the work.  He later wrote of his thoughts when he saw Monet’s painting:

“…And suddenly for the first time I saw a picture.  The catalogue told me it was a haystack.  I could not recognise it as such.   The inability to perceive was embarrassing.  I felt that the painter had no right to paint so unclearly.  Dully I felt that the subject of the painting was missing.  And I noticed with astonishment and confusion that not only does the picture enthral one, but also impress itself indelibly on the memory, always quite unexpectedly appearing down to the last detail before one’s eyes.  This was all unclear to me and I was unable to draw any simple conclusions from this experience. But what was totally clear to me was the unexpected power of the palette, a power which had earlier been hidden from me, but which surpassed all my dreams…”

Kandinsky decided, at that late age of 30, to give up his academic career and study art.  At this time Munich was regarded as a cosmopolitan city of art and it was an exciting period for art at that time in the German city as the Munich Sezession had just taken place three years earlier when a number of modernist artist groups had split from the conventions of nineteenth century Salon painting and Salon-style exhibitions.  The Munich Sezssion was committed to excellence in all areas of artistic ventures and its paramount raison d’etre was to have an international and multidisciplinary approach to art.   So, in 1896, Kandinsky travelled to Munich and enrolled on a three year course at the Anton Ažbe’s school of painting.  Ažbe was a Slovene realist painter and teacher of art.   He founded his own school of painting in the Bavarian city, which became a popular attraction for Eastern European students. Whilst attending this school of art he met and befriended the Expressionist painters, Alexei Jewlensky, a fellow Russian, and the Russian-Swiss Expressionist painter, Marianne von Werefkin.

After an initial failed attempt in 1898, Kandinsky applied and was accepted into the Munich Academy of Art  in 1900, where one of his tutors was Franz von Stuck, the great German Symbolist and Art Nouveau painter, who at the time was considered the finest draughtsman in Germany.  One of his fellow students in Stuck’s class was Paul Klee who would later work alongside Kandinsky.  In 1900 Kandinsky exhibited some of his work at the Moscow Artists Association.  Kandinsky was not completely happy with the art scene in Munich.  He believed it to be too conventional and conservative and too associated with the affluent middle-class, and very narrow-minded in its doctrines.  The following year Kandinsky decided to bring together some like-minded artist friends so that together they could exhibit a more progressive selection of their work.  This idea bore fruit and in 1901 he, along with Rolf Niczy, Waldemar Hecker, Gustave Freytag and Wilhelm Hüggen, founded the exhibiting association called Phalanx.  Kandinsky was the main driving force behind the project.  The group aimed to help overcome the difficulties that often stood in the way of young artists wishing to exhibit their work and it attempted to redress the sexual inequalities found in the Munich Akademie by allowing men and women equal access to exhibitions.  Following the success of the association Kandinsky, who was its president, opened his own school for painting and drawing, known as the Phalanxschule.  One of the first pupils to enrol in his school was the German artist, and soon his lover, Gabriele Münter (see My Daily Art Display July 28th 2012)

I have chosen for my featured painting today one of Kandinsky’s earliest works.  It is entitled The Isar near Grosshessolohe, which he completed in 1901 and which is now housed in the Stadtische Galerie in Lenbach, Germany.  Großhessolohe is a small town, which lies on the banks of the River Isar, some five miles south of Munich.  To me, the painting has the look of the works of French Impressionists and maybe the exhibition of their works in Moscow, which Kandinsky had witnessed five years earlier, had a bearing on this painting.  Kandinsky had loved the Impressionists use of colour and this early painting of his highlights his similar passion for colour.  Kandinsky was one of the most important innovative painters of modern art and was considered the father of abstraction and yet in this early painting of his we have no hint of how his future works would change.  In my next blog we look a little further into Kandinsky’s life and witness how his art

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The Blue Mountain by Gabriele Münter

The Blue Mountain by Gabriele Münter (1909)

A couple of blogs ago I looked at the life of Frida Kahlo and, in the course of following her life story, talked about her husband the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.  Although Frida was an artist in her own right, I wonder if she suffered from the description:  “Frida, wife of the great Diego Rivera”.  How often was she looked upon as just that – merely the wife of the great Rivera?   There have been many romantic attachments between artists and between literary figures in the past, and they are mostly described in a manner where the men are looked upon as the celebrated ones in the partnership.  The male in the relationship is viewed as the great initiator or the knowledgeable inventor of this and that, while the female of the relationship is denigrated as simply somebody who follows the man subserviently in his shadow.  Today I am going to look at the life of another female artist who, for almost twelve years had, as her lover, the great Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky and one wonders how much influence she had on him and his work.    Her name is Gabriele Münter.  How many of you recognise her as a talented artist in her own right and how many of you just know her as the intimate friend and lover of the “great” Kandinsky?

Gabriele Münter was born in Berlin in 1877.  Her youth was spent in Herford and Koblenz.  She came from an upper middle-class background and from a young age enjoyed to draw and paint.  When she continued to show an interest in art, her parents decided to support her artistic ambitions and provide her with private tuition and when she was twenty years of age and after she had completed her normal education they arranged for her to attend the Malschule für Damen (Womens’ Artist School) in Dusseldorf.  At this time in Germany, women were not allowed to attend German Academies because of their sex for in Germany at the turn of the 20th century, only men were able to access government-subsidised Academies.  Her period at this school lasted just a year as she was disappointed with the artistic education it offered.  For a time she stayed at home with no job and little of interest to occupy her mind.  In 1898, she was twenty-one years of age and by this time,had lost both parents.  On the death of her parents her sister and her inherited a sizeable amount of money and the two of them decided to take a holiday to America, where their father had lived and her mother had been born and it was where the sisters still had family connections.  The two of them remained in America for two years.

In 1901 having returned to Germany, Gabriele decided to once again take up some formal artistic training and enrolled at the Künstlerinnen-Verein in Munich.  This Ladies Academy of the Munich Art Association was modeled on the prestigious Royal Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts and it allowed its female students the freedom to choose their own courses and offered them the opportunity to both paint in studios and paint en plein air.  One of her tutors during at the Academy was Angelo Jank, the German animal painter and graphic artist.   A year later Gabriele left the Academy and in 1902 she  enrolled at the newly established Phalanxschule in Munich The Phalanx  was an association of avant-garde artists who were opposed to old fashioned and conservative viewpoints in art.  One of its founder members was the Russian painter, Wassily Kandinsky.   Kandinsky, who had initially studied law and economics at Moscow University, did not turn to painting until he was thirty years of age.  It was then that he abandoned his promising career in academic law to attend art school in Munich in 1896.    He was elected president of the Phalanx association and also became the director of the Phalanxschule (Phalanx School of Painting). Gabriele was one of its first students.

In 1902 and 1903 Gabriele Münter attended Kandinsky’s summer landscape classes which were held in southern Bavaria.  Kandinsky was, at that time, still a married man having married his cousin, Anna Chimyakina in 1893.  The pair had separated by mutual agreement in September 1904, although they remained friends. They eventually divorced in 1911. However despite being still married, he and Gabriele became close and in 1902 a love affair between the two began.    Münter was always grateful for what she learnt about art in those summer classes especially the ability to paint much quicker.   In Reinhold Heller’s biography of the artist entitled Gabriele Münter: The Years of Expressionism 1903-1920, he quotes her comments on the help she received from Kaminsky:

“…My main difficulty was I could not paint fast enough. My pictures are all moments of life- I mean instantaneous visual experiences, generally noted very rapidly and spontaneously. When I begin to paint, it’s like leaping suddenly into deep waters, and I never know beforehand whether I will be able to swim. Well, it was Kandinsky who taught me the technique of swimming. I mean that he has taught me to work fast enough, and with enough self- assurance, to be able to achieve this kind of rapid and spontaneous recording of moments of life…”

The house in Murnau

Kaminsky and Münter travelled extensively around Europe between 1904 and 1908, including living in Sèvres, a suburb of Paris, for almost a year in 1906.  After years of gruelling travel visiting the major European cities, the pair was ready to settle down and arrived in Murnau, a small Bavarian village in the foothills of the Alps, seventy kilometres south of Munich. The following year Kandinsky persuaded Gabriele to buy a newly-built house in Kottmüllerallee in Murnau.   It had a view to the east, over the valley basin and onto the village and church hill.   Together with Kandinsky, their artist friends Alexi von Javlensky and Marianne von Werefkin, they worked there during the summer months, living a simple life.   Gabriele spent time tending the garden and furnishing the house with her own paintings, religious folk art, and local handicraft. She and Kandinsky lived there until 1914.  In 1909 Münter experimented with a new painting medium.  It was known as Hinterglasmalerei  or as it known here, Reverse painting on glass, which is an art form consisting of applying paint to a piece of glass and then viewing the image by turning the glass over and looking through the glass at the image. In France it was known as Verre Églomisé.  Münter had first learnt this technique whilst she was living in Murnau.

That same year, 1909, that the couple settled in Murnau,  Kandinsky, Gabriele Münter and their fellow artist friend Alexi Jawlensky founded the Neue Künstlevereinigung  (NKV)  (New Artists’ Association), which was an exhibiting group of avant-garde artists.  The members of this association were artists who, although they did not have similar styles of painting, were nevertheless united in their opposition to the official art of Munich.    They held two exhibitions in the art dealer, Heinrich Thannhauser’s Moderne Galerie in Munich in September 1909 and 1910.  In the latter exhibition there were also works from Picasso, Georges Braque and Maurice de Vlaminck.  Kandinsky was to later describe the rooms in the gallery as “perhaps the most beautiful exhibition spaces in all of Munich.”  Many of the works in the second annual exhibition were from Russian artists and maybe because of this, the show was not well received in Bavaria as the Germans were becoming fearful for their own culture.

Probably, due to the fact that the artists in this association had very different ideas on painting styles, discord was bound to occur and the “final straw” came late 1911, just prior to the NKV’s third annual exhibition, when Kandinsky submitted a large abstract painting, entitled Composition V, for inclusion but it was rejected by the exhibition jury for being too abstract and at 193cms x 274cms, it was far too big for inclusion.  Kandinsky was furious and he and Gabriele Münter along with a few others left the group and set up a rival artistic exhibiting association known as Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider).   Then in that December, they simultaneously set up their own exhibition in the building next to the Thannhauser’s Moderne Galerie, where the NYK group was holding their annual exhibition.

Kandinsky and Münter Winter 1916 Stockholm
Kandinsky and Münter Winter 1916 Stockholm

World War I broke out in 1914 and Kandinsky was compelled to leave Germany.  In the August of that year he and Gabriele moved to Switzerland.   Their relationship had been faltering for some time and at the end of 1914 the love affair was over and despite having been engaged to marry they never took that final step.   Gabriele left Switzerland and went on to Sweden whilst Kandinsky returned to his native Moscow.   They met once more in Stockholm at an art exhibition at Gummersson’s Art Gallery but after that their paths would never cross again.   In 1917 Kandinsky married Nina Andreevskya, the daughter of a Russian general, some twenty-seven years his junior.

Between 1917 and 1920 Münter lived in Copenhagen, after which she returned to Germany and her house in Murmau.   In 1925 she moved to Berlin where two years later she met the philosopher and art historian Johannes Eichner.  From 1928 Eichner would be Gabriele Münter’s lifelong companion and from 1931 Gabriele, until the end of her life, lived and worked in Murnau.   She led a reclusive and modest lifestyle but still continued to paint.

One of the greatest gifts Gabriele Münter bestowed on the art world besides her huge role in the history of early German modernism was that during World War II, whilst living in Murmau, she hid Kandinsky’s works and those from other artists from the Nazis and despite several house searches, the works of art were never found.   In 1957, on her eightieth birthday, Münter gave her entire collection, which consisted of more than 80 oil paintings and 330 drawings, to the Stadtliche Galerie in Lenbachhause in Munich, the former villa of the “painter prince” Franz von Lenbach.   This collection consisted of many works by herself and Kandinsky as well as works of their other artist friends in the Blue Rider Circle.   This generous gift turned the Lenbachhaus overnight into a museum of world significance.   The Gabrielle Münter and Johannes Eichner foundation was established and has become a valuable research center for Münter’s art, as well as the art that was done by the Blaue Reiter group

Gabriele Münter died on 19 May 1962 at home in Murnau where she is buried. She was 85 years old.

My featured painting today by Gabriele Münter is entitled The Blue Mountain which she completed in 1908 having just arrived in Murnau.   This painting always brought her fond memories of that time in the tranquil surroundings of the foothills of the Bavarian Alps and her time with Kandinsky.  Almost fifty year later in 1957 she put pen to paper about the painting of this picture.  She wrote:

 “Javlensky stayed behind on the Kohlhuber Landstrasse and painted – I walked on until I turned off to the right and up a bit towards Löb. There, from above, I saw the Berggeist Inn sitting there, and the way the path rose and behind it the blue mountain and the small red evening clouds in the sky. I quickly jotted down the image appearing before me. Then, it was like an awakening for me, and I felt as though I were a bird in song. I never spoke to anyone about this impression, just as I don’t tend to chatter all that much anyway. I kept the memory to myself, and now, after so many years, I am telling it for the first time…”

The trees, clouds, and mountains in this painting are simply reduced to elementary geometric forms and, like the sky and the meadows, they are coloured in artificial tones of green, yellow, and violet.  There is something about this painting and others like it that reminds me of the colourful works of Hockney which I saw at his exhibition at the Royal Academy earlier this year.

Winter Landscape with koek en zopie at night by Andreas Schelfhout

Winter Landscape with Cake and Zopie at night by Andreas Schelfhout (1849)

In my last blog I looked at the life of Johan Jongkind.  His initial artistic tuition came when he attended the Drawing Academy of The Hague and it was here that he was taught by Andreas Schelfhout.  Having looked at the life of the pupil I thought it only right to spend some time looking at the life and work of the teacher, so today my featured artist is Andreas Schelfhout.

After the great periods of Dutch art in the Golden Age of the 17th century, there came many economic and political problems which lessened the activity in art in the country. However, the fine arts in the Netherlands enjoyed a revival around 1830, which is a period that is now referred to as the Romantic School in Dutch painting. The style of painting during this period was an imitation of the great 17th century artists. The most widely accepted paintings of this period were landscapes and paintings which reflected national history.   One of the leading painters of this time was Andreas Schelfhout whose works included landscapes, especially winter scenes, and also paintings depicting woodlands and the dunes between The Hague and Scheveningen.

Andreas Schelfhout became one of the most important and influential Dutch landscape artists of the 19th Century.   He was born in The Hague in 1787.  His father owned a gilding and picture framing business and it was here that Andreas worked until 1811.  During this time Andreas painted a number of pictures in his spare time and in 1811 he submitted some of his works at an exhibition in The Hague for amateur artists.  His paintings were well received, so much so, that his father realised that his son may be able to earn a living as an artist and so arranged for him to study art under Joannes Breckenheimer, a painter of stage scenery.   Breckenheimer taught him to paint motifs such as city scenes and landscape but also instructed him in the technical aspects of painting, such as perspective and paint preparation.  Schelfhout, during this time, made detailed studies of the great 17th Century Dutch  Masters of landscape art such as Meindert Hobbema and Jacob van Ruisdael. It was also during this period that he learned to sketch en plein air.   Schelfhout remained with Breckenheimer for four years at which time he decided to go it alone and set up his own workshop in 1815.

In those early days his works were very popular with the art lovers from The Hague but little was known about him in the outlying areas.  Soon however his fame spread to Belgium and with fame, came commissions.  In 1818 he exhibited a set of four paintings depicting the four seasons at an exhibition in Amsterdam and that year he became a member of the Royal Academy for Visual Arts of Amsterdam.  The following year, 1819, he received a Gold Medal at the exhibition in Antwerp and three years later, in 1822, he was named Fourth Class Correspondent of the Royal Dutch Institute and from that moment on his reputation was ensured.  His landscape work was mainly of summer scenes of the countryside, which at that time were far more popular than the winter landscape works.  However this latter type of landscape painting became increasingly more popular with the art buying public and Schelfhout began to exhibit some of his winter landscape paintings in the many exhibitions held in the towns and cities of the Netherlands as well as the Salons in Brussels and Antwerp.  He completed a large variety of paintings over the next few years, winter and summer landscapes, beach scenes, moonlight subjects and a few paintings of animals.  Records show that his annual painting output was about twenty, of which,  over seventy per cent were winter or summer landscapes.

In 1833, Schelfhout decided that it was time to find new landscapes to paint and to travel again so as to increase his knowledge other artistic trends. He first visited France.  Whilst staying in Paris he came into contact with the French Romantic landscape painters and it was after studying their works that his landscape paintings took on brighter colours in comparison to his previous sober palette.  Two years later, he crossed the Channel to visit England where he was able to study the works of the great English landscape artist, John Constable.  Art historians believe, that following these trips, Schelfhout’s palette became warmer and his choice of motifs became more varied.  He taught at The Hague Academy and, as we saw in my last blog, one of his pupils was Johan Jongkind.

He became a member of the Pulchri Studio which was formed in 1847 and which was, and still is, an important art institution and art studio based in The Hague.  The Pulchri Studio was established as there was a growing discontent among the young artists in The Hague about the apparently insufficient opportunities for training and development.  The founders believed that the studio could provide an outlet for art intellectuals to model their work and to exchange thoughts and opinions.  It was in this studio that Schelfhout would complete paintings from the sketches he had made earlier, during his art trips.

The height of his career came in the 1840‘s and 1850’s when his summer landscapes such as Landscape near Haarlem gained him international renown.  However he will probably always best be remembered for his depiction of Dutch winter scenes with their perfect clarity of the ice and the delicate blue wintry tone.  In his later years he became part of the Hague School, which was the name given to a group of artists who lived and worked in The Hague between 1860 and 1890. Their work was heavily influenced by the realist painters of the French Barbizon School. The painters of The Hague school generally made use of relatively somber colors, which is why the Hague School was sometimes referred to as the Gray School.

Schelfhout died on 23rd April, 1870. He was buried in the Eik en Duinen Cemetery in The Hague. His death made a deep impression on the art-loving city and numerous influential figures followed the funeral procession. His death marked the end of the era we now call Romanticism.

Although his portfolio of work included a wide range of themes, he became best known for his winter scenes. He was a Master of the winter landscape genre often embellished with skaters on the frozen waterways.  It was these works of Andreas Schelfhout which continue to be his most sought after works. His skilfully and delicately executed winter landscapes gained him great success and enhanced his reputation both in his home country and abroad.   He became known as the Claude Lorrain of the winter scene.

My featured work today is a winter landscape scene by Andreas Schelfhout entitled Winter Landscape with koek en zopie at night, which he completed in 1849.  It combines the artist’s talents as a painter of winter landscapes and a painter of scenes bathed in moonlight.  Koek en Zopie is the name given to small stands that sold hot food and drinks that kept the skaters warm. ‘Koek’ is the generic term for cakes and ‘zopie‘ is an old recipe for a warm mix of beer, rum and spices.  In today’s painting we see the Koek en zopie stand on the bank, to the left of the frozen river, illuminated by some sort of brazier, which will, along with the alcoholic zopie,  help to keep the skaters and the vendor warm.

The painting is part of the Rademakers Collection, which is a private compilation of romantic paintings from the 19th century owned by Jef Rademakers, a former owner of a television production company.   In the eighties he was commissioned to make a series of documentaries about art in Dutch collections. These programs brought him into close contact with the art world: museums, dealers, auction houses and art historians.  From this, he started to realise that besides being an admirer of art, one could also become the owner of art works from the past.   In the 1990’s, Jef Rademakers decided to renounce the world of television and to hand over his production company. From that moment on he started a new life as a fulltime collector of art. Nowadays the Rademakers Collection consists of more than a hundred highly romantic paintings from mainly Dutch and Belgian masters of the 19th century.   The art works in his collection are now often loaned out to foreign galleries and museums.

Frigates by Johan Barthold Jongkind

Frigates by Johan Jongkind (1853)

My featured artist today is the nineteenth century Dutch painter and one who is considered to be the forerunner of Impressionism.  His name is Johan Barthold Jongkind.

Jongkind was born in 1819 in the small Dutch town of Lattrop in the Dutch province of Overijssel, close to the German border, although much of his early life was spent in the harbour town of Vlaardingen, which lies on the River Meuse, and where his father, Gerrit Adrianus Jonkind, was a local tax collector.  His father and mother, Wilhelmina, had ten children of which Johan was the eighth.  At the age of sixteen, once he had finished his education, he went to work as a junior clerk in a notary’s office.  A year later in 1836 his father died and Johan moved from Vlaardingen to The Hague where he enrolled at the Academy of Arts to study drawing under the tutelage of the director of Andreas Schelfhout, the Dutch Romantic painter, etcher and lithographer, who was renowned for his landscape works and who, by the end of his life, was looked upon as the leading Dutch landscape painter of the nineteenth century.

He spent almost nine years working at the Schelfhout’s studio training as a landscape painter and studying the great works of the Dutch Golden Age painters who plied their trade between the late sixteenth and mid to latter part of the seventeenth century, such as Jacob von Ruisdael, Meindert Hobbema and Aelbert Cuyp.  It was during this time that Jongkind developed the love of en plein air painting.  The early works of Jongkind depicted themes popular in the Netherlands at the time, harbour scenes with boats as well as canals , windmills and winter scenes featuring skaters on the frozen waterways.  His works grew in popularity and one of the admirers of his paintings was the leader of the French Romantic School, the landscape and seascape painter, Eugène Isabey.  Isabey had accompanied Alfred Emile de Nieuwkerke, who was the directeur des Beaux-Arts in Paris, to The Hague for the unveiling of the equestrian statue of William the Silent in front of the Paleis Noordeinde.  Isabey invites Jongkind to Paris to study in his studio and in 1846, with the financial support from the Prince of Orange, the young Dutch artist headed to the French capital where he remained for ten years.

Jongkind not only studied with Isabey but also with the French painter, François-Edouard Picot.   He also met many of the landscape painters of the Barbizon School with whom he often worked with and exhibited his works alongside theirs.  Despite his initial traditional training as a Dutch landscape artist, his painting technique evolved and soon his works took on a new range of colour and he became fascinated with the pictorial representation of light.  It was this interest in light which would become essential in the development of Impressionism.

When Jongkind had first arrived in Paris he discovered the river Seine and this became a new source of inspiration for his art. He also depicted many aspects of Paris life but preferred to concentrate on the industrial modernity and urban development of the capital rather than the touristy scenes of the crowded city.   His style is often likened to Naturalism, which is the representation of the world with a minimum of abstraction or stylistic distortion.  It is the depiction of realistic objects in a natural setting and is characterised by convincing effects of light and surface texture.

It was whilst in France that he fell in love with the Normandy and Brittany coast which he visited whilst on a painting and sketching trip with Isabey.  He would return to the area many times during his life and some of his best watercolour works incorporate the beautiful and strong lighting found along the Atlantic shoreline.  One of his great artistic successes came in 1850 when he exhibited his work View of Honfleur port at the Paris Salon exhibition.  It received great acclaim from the art critics.

For Jongkind, the streets of Paris were not paved with gold and he spent nine financially difficult years in Paris and had no choice but to live a bohemian existence. He had a number of his paintings rejected by the Salon jurists.  He put forward three of his paintings for inclusion at the 1855 World Exhibition but was disappointed at the lack of interest for his works.  He was now starting to feel dejected and depressed at the way his life was going.   In 1855 his mother died and the thirty-six year old artist returned to The Netherlands and set up home in Rotterdam and with this change of country came his change in painting style as he returned to a more traditional Dutch style of art which he had initially be trained in, during his early life.  Jongkind remained in Holland for five years but the sale of his paintings in his homeland were disappointing.   The only art he managed to sell was to a French art dealer and one of his first patrons, Pierre-Firmin Martin.   Martin’s gallery was on the rue Mogador and he routinely bought works from artists such as Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Jean-FrançoisMillet, Theodore Rousseau, Constant Troyon, and Charles-François Daubigny.   Martin was such a great support figure for these artists that they called him Père or Father in English. Jongkind would send Père Martin a painting and in return he would receive a 100 franc note.  However Jongkind could not survive alone on this and as a result he found himself getting deeper and deeper in debt and so in 1860 he decided to return to Paris where he believed the sale of his works would improve and where his standing as a painter was much greater.  He said at the time:

“…It is Paris where I am recognized as a painter…”

However to return to Paris he needed money and he had none.  However through his Parisian friends led by Comte Doria and Père Martin they put on an auction of their works and managed to raise 6046 francs which was used to bring back their friend to Paris.

Jongkind settles down in Montparnasse in Paris.  His friendship with the art dealer Père Martin continued and it was whilst attending one of his dinners that Jongkind was introduced to Joséphine Fesser-Borrhee, a Dutch lady who taught art at a home for Parisian girls.   This lady who was to shape the rest of Jongkind’s life was an interesting character.  She like him, was born in 1819.   She had been abandoned by her parents and brought up in a children’s home. Although known as Marie Borrhée she would later take the name of Joséphine.    At the age of twenty she arrived in Paris, where she was taught to draw, and later she went on to teach in a home for young girls.   Having had a very difficult childhood she was ideally placed to understand the temperament of her troubled friend, Jongkind,  who in many ways was something of an orphan himself.  Jongkind had immediately taken to Joséphine and shortly after their first meeting at the house of Père Martin; he wrote her a letter in which he commented:

“…When I saw you arrive, it was as if my mother and father were coming to fetch me!…”

She was married to Alexander Fesser with whom she had a son, Jules.   It was the Fesser family and especially Joséphine, who through their kind hospitality and friendship, enabled Jongkind to recover both his physical and mental health  and in doing so had a great impact on the quality of his artistic work.  Jonkind and Fesser would travel around France but on many occasions he would return to Normandy.  It was here in 1862 he met Claude Monet.  Monet once described Jongkind’s and his works of art and chided him for his long-standing inability to master the French language saying:

“….a good-hearted, shy man who butchered French and whose art was too new and too artistic to be, in 1862, appreciated to its true value…”

For the next years, the influence of the Normandy coast showed through Jongkind’s abundant production of etchings and paintings. In Normandy, Jongkind became a close friend of Monet a mixed with the likes of Corot, Diaz, Boudin, Sisley and many of the other great artists who used to gather at the Farm Saint-Simeon run by Mère Toutain.

Joséphine Fesser was to become Jongkind’s guardian angel and companion for life and although she remained married to her husband Alexandre she became Jongkind’s mistress.   She was a very caring person and brought a soothing stability and balance to his life. The sale of his art works grew and Jongkind, reputation as an artist, gained in popularity. The number of his commissions increased and with the rise in his art sales his finances improved and with that came a sort of mental calmness, free from worry, and his personality blossomed.   Through Joséphine,  Jongkind had discovered the Dauphiné region of south-east France.  He soon got himself into an annual routine of spending the summer months there and returning to Paris in the winter months.

The first exhibition of the Impressionists in the studio of the photographer Nadar was held in 1874 and although asked to exhibit some of his works, Jongkind declined as by this time in his life, due to his poor health and intemperance he had given up submitting his paintings to major art exhibitions.  Joséphine’s husband died in 1875 and after his death, Madame Fesser remained with Jongkind in Paris. During the late 1870’s when Jongkind was in his fifties his health started to deteriorate and he spent more time in the warmer climes and fresher air of the Dauphiné.

From 1878 until his death in 1891 Jongkind and Joséphine Fesse live in la Côte-Saint-André near Grenoble.  During the last year of his life Jongkind was beset with mental problems, suffering from bouts of depression and paranoia which led him back to alcohol dependence. His mood swings caused by the excess consumption of alcohol led him to be banned from most of the cultural and social activities of the town.  He died in Saint-Rambert hospital close to Grenoble on February 9th 1891 aged 71.  Joséphine Fesser outlived him by just a few months. They are both buried in the small cemetery of La Côte-Saint-André, on the outskirts of the town.

My featured work today by Johan Jongkind is entitled Frigates.  In the painting we see a seaside port which is an idealised view made up of many sites, which was a technique often used by many Dutch landscape painters.   It was completed in 1853, just a couple of years before he left Paris to return to The Netherlands.  The painting highlights his great ability to depict atmosphere and light effects.  Look how well he has depicted the reflections of the ships in the rippling water of the harbour.  Art historians believed that it was Jongkind’s  mastery of light in his works that was to influence the likes of the young Impressionist painter Claude Monet.

The painting is normally housed in the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts but is now part of the exhibition From Paris: a Taste for Impressionism, which is being held at the Royal Academy in London.   This wonderful exhibition of works by Monet, Manet, Sisley, Renoir and many others is on until September 23rd 2012

Frida Kahlo – Part 4

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.

My Nurse and I by Frida Kahlo (1937)

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.

Señor de las Limas

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.

Self-Portrait dedicated to Leon Trotsky
by Frida Kahlo (1937)

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.

Feet, What do I Need Them For if I Have Wings to Fly

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.

Viva la Vida by Frida Kahlo (1954)

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.

Frida and Diego in 1954
The year she died

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.

Frida Kahlo – Part 3

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944)

My blog today is the third part of the biography of the Mexican Surrealist artist, Frida Kahlo.  My first look at her life and her paintings concentrated on her parents and ancestors and the second one followed her from birth to her high school days.  Today I am looking at the middle part of her life once her school days were behind her.   In my last blog I talked about the two most important men in her life at that time, her father and her first lover, Alejandro.   Her love affair with her fellow student Alejandro Gómez Arias had run its course and ended after three years in late 1927.

In truth, there were actually three main men in Frida Kahlo’s life and although she had seen this third one when she started at the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria school in 1922, she had not been introduced to him.  Mexican Muralism, which was the promotion of mural painting, began in the early 1920s.  The murals more often or not contained social and political messages.  The reason for this was the desire of the country to try and reunify the population after the bloody Mexican Revolution with its one million death toll.  Three painters were chosen by the government to lead the operation to paint these “murals with messages” in public buildings, churches, libraries and schools and one of them was Diego Rivera.  In 1922, Diego Rivera began painting his mural “Creation” at the school’s lecture hall of Frida’s school.  Frida was fascinated by Rivera’s work and would often stop and watch him create his mural.  The bus crash followed in 1925 which devastated Frida’s life and all her dreams of studying medicine evaporated.

By 1928, Frida had almost completely recovered from her serious injuries although the physical pain would remain with her for the rest of her life as well as the numerous on-going operations which would follow.  However she was a fighter and tried as best she could to once again lead a normal life.  She started to mix again with her old school friends who had all now graduated.   It was one of these friends that introduced her to a group of young people who were interested in the Cuban Communist Julio Antonio Mella, who at the time was in exile in Mexico.    One of the members of this group was the photographer and silent film star Tina Modotti, who was the lover of Mella and also an acquaintance of Diego Rivera.   It was whilst at a party hosted by Modotti that Frida finally met Diego Rivera face-to-face for the first time although they never spoke to each other.  Days later she was introduced to Diego Rivera, the man, who six years earlier, she had watched painting a mural at the amphitheatre of her school.   She showed him some of her paintings and asks his opinion about the standard of her work.  Rivera was impressed and told her so and it is at this point that Frida decided to take up art as a career.   Rivera was not only impressed by Frida’s art but he was also very impressed with the woman herself and started to go out with her.  Rivera approached Frida’s father, Guillermo Kahlo, and asked his permission to marry his daughter.   His father was reputed to have warned Rivera about his daughter, saying:

“My daughter is sick and always will be….she’s intelligent but not pretty…I see that you are interested in my daughter…eh..?

When Rivera replied that he was, Kahlo said,

She is a devil”.

Frida Kahl;o and Diego Rivera
(wedding photograph, 1929)

After a whirlwind romance Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo married in a civil ceremony in the town hall of Frida’s home town, Coyoacán, on August 21st 1929.  For Rivera, Frida had become his third wife.  They made for an odd couple.  Frida was twenty-two years of age, slim, of medium height, weighing a mere 98 pounds whereas her forty-two year old husband was over six feet tall, obese in the extreme, weighing in at 300 pounds.  As far as Frida’s mother was concerned this was not a marriage made in heaven and saw only the worst in Frida’s husband.  According Frida’s mother, Matilde, who was a staunch Catholic, Rivera was too old, too fat and to make things even worse in her mind, he was a Communist and a proclaimed atheist.  She did not attend the wedding ceremony.  She described it as:

“… the marriage between an elephant and a dove…

 Frida’s father on the other hand did attend and was not as damning in his opinion of his new son-in-law as he was well aware that Rivera was financially sound and could pay Frida’s medical bills.  Many of Frida’s friends were horrified by her choice of husband for reasons of his age and his appearance but some realised that by marrying him, Frida could get a foothold in the Mexican and American art world.

More heartbreak followed for Frida with two terminations of pregnancy due to complications which occurred through the physical injuries caused by the bus crash.  The fact that Frida had actually survived was almost a miracle. However, part of her injuries were caused by a steel handrail of the bus which had literally skewered her body in the abdomen and out the vagina. She never had a day without pain because these severe injuries never fully healed.

Whilst Frida was saddened by the terminations, Rivera was relieved as he never wanted children as he believed they would hamper his career and the travelling required carrying out various commissions.   In 1930 Frida and Rivera travelled to America where they remained for three years.  The American public became fascinated with the Mexican cultural development since the revolution and especially interested in Mexican Muralism of which Rivera was a leading proponent.  The couple settled in San Francisco and Rivera was idolized by the elite of the city and commissions for his work poured in.  Unfortunately for Frida, it was Rivera’s work which was in demand and it was he alone who achieved a God-like persona whereas she was looked upon as simply an “add-on”

There can be no doubt as to the amount of physical pain she had to endure following the bus crash and this was highlighted by the self portrait she completed in 1944 entitled The Broken Column which is today’s featured work  It was in 1944, ten years before her death, that her physical decline became more life-threatening. She has to endure painful spinal taps and was confined in a series of corsets and for her last ten years had to suffer many severe and painful operations on her back and leg.  Her physical and mental wellbeing was almost tested to breaking point at this time in her life and this can be seen encapsulated in this very moving self portrait.

Look how the silent tears cascade down her cheeks, the sharp metal nails puncturing her body all form part of her pain and we wonder how she had managed to endure it.  She stands alone in a desolate wasteland without any sign of hope on the horizon. This is a depressing self image but Kahlo’s fortitude courageously prevails in this barren landscape of despair.

I think this painting also gives one an idea of the mental suffering the accident had also caused Frida.   In the painting we see her with her nude torso surrounded by a brutal body cast which holds her broken body together.  Her spinal column is represented by a stone column which is broken in several places.  The mental torment of the young women can be seen by the way she portrays herself, not as a beautiful woman but as an ugly person with her joined eyebrows.   Could it be that this self-portrait highlights a sort of double life she had to endure – outwardly proud but inwardly broken.  In Helga Prignitz-Poda’s 2004 biography on Frida Kahlo entitled Frida Kahlo: The painter and her work she quotes the artist’s own comments with regards the painting.  Frida said of it:

“…Waiting with anguish hidden away, the broken column, and the immense glance, footless through the vast path … carrying on my life enclosed in steel … If only I had his caresses upon me as the air touches the earth…”

It is a harrowing painting.  One is mesmerised by it.  We can feel her distress and pain as she sorrowfully stares out at us.  The physical pain we can understand but the mental pain associated with her illnesses, her accident and the turbulent life she had with Diego Rivera are a little harder to contemplate.

In my next blog I will conclude the look at Frida Kahlo’s life.

Frida Kahlo – Part 2

In my last blog I started to look at the life of Frida Kahlo, the great Mexican surrealist painter and had reached a point where Frida was born on July 6th 1907 and was living in Coyocoán, the small town on the outskirts of Mexico City with her father Guillermo and her mother Matilde.  They lived at La Casa Azul, the house the father had built for the family and in which Frida was born.   Today I am carrying on with her life story and taking a look at two men who had a great effect on her life, her father and her first true love.

Frida’s father had arrived in Mexico in 1891 aged nineteen and had managed to get some work at a jewellery store in Mexico City.  He had married in 1895 but was widowed three years later.  He married for the second time in 1898.  His second wife, Matilde, was his co-worker.  Matilde was a devout catholic and was the oldest of twelve children.  Matilde’s father was a photographer and it was through him that Guillermo took up photography and in 1901 he opened up a photography studio and made photography his full time profession.  He received a number of government commissions and his business thrived until 1910 when the Mexican Revolution began and the government fell.  For the duration of the turmoil, which lasted ten years, Guillermo and his family struggled to survive financially and it was not until the late 1920’s that his photographic work was once again appreciated and money from commissions started to roll back in.   Frida often spoke of the relationship between her mother and father.    She said that her mother did not love her father and she said her mother had told her that she only married Guillermo because he was German and he reminded her of a previous young German lover, Luis Bauer, who had committed suicide in her presence. Frida recounted how her mother secretly grieved her whole life for her first love and the manner of his death was to haunt her all her life.

It is believed that her mother’s fanatical and obsessive piety may have hampered the likelihood of a close mother-daughter relationship.  Frrida was close to her father.  It was through her father’s love of photography, painting and other creative interests that would later influence his daughter and it was this shared interest that probably made Frida become closer to her father than her mother.     Later, Frida wrote in her diary that her father was the only one who understood all her problems.  Her father who suffered from epileptic fits all his life was also prone to bouts of depression and his daughter described him as “a kind of fearful mystery”.  Throughout her life, Frida kept a photograph of him pinned to the headboard of her bed.   In a diary entry she wrote about her father and her relationship with him:

“My childhood was marvelous because, although my father was a sick man [he had epilepsy], he was an immense example to me of tenderness, of work (photographer and also painter)….”

Portrait of My Father by Frida Kahlo (1951)

In 1951, ten years after his death, Frida completed a painting of her father simply entitled Portrait of My Father.  It is an oil on masonite work and is housed in the Museo Frida Kahlo in Mexico City.

Under the portrait are the words:

“…I painted my father Wilhelm Kahlo, of Hungarian-German origin, artist-photographer by profession, in character generous, intelligent and fine, valiant because he suffered for sixty years with epilepsy, but never gave up working and fought against Hitler, with adoration. His daughter Frida Kahlo…”

Guillermo died of a heart attack in 1941.   Frida then aged thirty-four, was devastated and at the time she wrote:

“…The death of my father was something terrible for me. I think that it’s owing to this that I became much less well and I grew rather thin again. You remember how handsome he was and how good?…”

Around the age of 6, Frida contracted polio, which caused her to be bedridden for nine months. Although she did recover from the illness, she limped when she walked because the disease had damaged her right leg and foot. In order to help her recover, her father encouraged her to play soccer, go swimming, and even wrestle, which were highly unusual pastimes for a young girl of her age.  Her right leg was slightly withered and later in life, being conscious of this she would hide her legs under long flowing colourful skirts or trousers.

It was a time of violent turmoil in Mexico during the Mexican Revolution which had started in 1910 and was to last for ten years.  The young Frida witnessed the violence of the street fighting throughout that period.   She was a great supporter of the Mexican Revolution and would, later in life, give the date of her birth as July 7th 1910 to coincide with the start of the revolutionary struggle or maybe she was just reducing her age by three years !!!.   Frida attended classes at a German elementary school, Colegio Aleman in Mexico City and had to put up with taunts from her classmates about her pronounced limp.  In 1922, aged fifteen, having completed her primary education, she was enrolled in one of the top schools of the country, the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria,  where she studied natural sciences and it was hoped that eventually she would achieve good enough grades to go on to study medicine.   The decision to send Frida to this type of educational establishment was solely made by her father who wanted the best education money could buy for his daughter.   Frida’s mother was vehemently opposed to the decision on the basis that the school, which was a one hour bus ride from home, was too far to travel each day and she saw no point in her daughter receiving such an education as she had already taught her daughter to cook and sew.   It should be remembered that Frida’s mother was one of twelve children and because of the size of the family received no formal education and probably saw no need for her daughters to receive a high standard of teaching.

At this point in her life Frida still had no wish to become a professional artist as she still had her heart set on becoming a doctor.  She was one of only a few girls to attend this school and she was known for her high spirits and the colourful way in which she dressed.  While at school, Kahlo hung out with a group of politically and intellectually like-minded students and becomes a member of their group known as “Los Cachuchas“, a socialist-nationalist political group.  The leader of this group was a law student, Alejandro Gómez Arias, who later became Frida’s boyfriend and lover.  He was to be her first true and enduring love.  The couple were almost inseparable.  During the next few years, Frida helped her father in his photography studio and it is during these times that he teaches her how to use a camera and how to develop, retouch and colour photographs.  Frida is taken on as a paid apprentice by the commercial printmaker Fernando Fernandez who was a close friend of Guillermo Kahlo and it was he who taught Frida to draw and how to copy prints by the Swedish Impressionist Anders Zorn

The year 1925 saw  Frida in her final school year and plans had been drawn up for her to attend a medical school but Frida’s life was about to take a tragic twist as on September 17th, a rainy day, whilst the eighteen year old Frida and Alejandro were taking a bus journey home from school, the bus they were riding in was in collision with a trolley car.  Alejandro was lucky not to be seriously injured but Frida sustained major injuries including a broken spinal column, broken collarbone, ribs and pelvis and multiple fractures to her right leg and was almost left for dead had Alejandro not persuaded the doctors at the Red Cross Hospital, where they had been taken, to attend his badly injured girlfriend.  Subsequently her life was saved but she was hospitalised in the Mexican capital for several weeks.  From there she returned home to rest and recuperate and was confined to bed for several months.   It was during this convalescent period, with encouragement from her father, who was besides being a photographer, an amateur painter, that Frida started to take an interest in painting.

While recovering from the accident, Frida wrote numerous letters to Alejandro.  She would talk about the pain she was in and how she was becoming depressed and wondered what would happen to her in the future.  In one letter to him she wrote:

 “…what is going to happen in 30 years how am I going to be when I am 30…”

Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress by Frida Kahlo (1926)

In 1926, her relationship with Alejandro was beginning to hit problems as he had heard rumours that Frida had been unfaithful prior to the accident.  Frida denied that she had been unfaithful to him and in a desperate attempt to salvage their relationship she painted a self-portrait, entitled Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress and gave it to him as a gift.  In some ways the painting was to be a substitute for her as she still could not physically be with him and the couple had drifted apart.  She sent it to Alejandro in late September. On the reverse side of the painting she inscribed a dedication:

“…For Alex. Frida Kahlo, at the age of 17, September 1926 – Coyoacan -Heute ist Immer Noch…” (Today still goes on).

One cannot help but notice the elongated neck and fingers which leads us to believe that Frida was aware of the European Mannerist style of art.

The following year Alejandro, funded by his parents went on a tour of Europe with his uncle.   His parents had never liked Frida and believed by sending him abroad it would finally end his relationship with her.   Before he left for Europe he gave the painting back to Frida for her to keep safe.  They wrote to each other whilst he was on tour and eight months later he returned to Mexico but the long separation had been the death knell to their relationship and it was soon over.

Portrait of Alejandro Gomez Arias by Frida Kahlo (1928)

In 1928 Frida Kahlo completed a portrait of Alejandro, entitled Portrait of Alejandro Gomez Arias and in the top right of the painting are the words:

“…Alex, with affection I painted your portrait, that he is one of my comrades forever, Frida Kahlo, 30 years later…”

This painting disappeared and was thought to have been lost but it resurfaced in 1994.  However what is interesting about this work was whilst being exhibited at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City in 2007 it was seen by Rachel Tibol, a well known Mexican art critic and author of several Kahlo books.  She was unequivocal in stating that the painting she was looking at was a fake!  Its authenticity is currently being investigated.