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 One

There has been a much longer period since my last blog than I would have liked or I had intended.  I could simply explain that the reason for the delay being down to how busy I am with my Bed and Breakfast business, which is true, but there is another reason.  My blogs, as you know, take the form of an artist’s biography or the biography of the sitter and the painting itself.  The problem arises when I get sucked into the life of the artist or sitter.  The more I read of their life story, the more I delve further into their personal life and time soon passes.  Then of course I have to decide what to leave out to make the blog more manageable.  The problem with reading from so many sources is that they do not always agree on dates so I have had to make educated guesses in some cases as which of the sources is correct.  Sometimes the life story of the artist is so fascinating and so all-consuming, as is the case of today’s artist, I just don’t want to edit out any of the details and so have to run with the artist over a number of blogs.  My featured artist today is the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.  Her life was controversial, traumatic and often full of sadness and as I recount her fascinating life story in the next few blogs, I will look at a couple of her paintings.  Today I want to focus on her arrival into this world, her family and her ancestors.

Frida was born Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderón on July 6, 1907 at the family home, La Casa Azul (The Blue House) that was built in 1904 by her father in Coyocoán, a small town on the outskirts of Mexico City.   She was later to change the German spelling of her Christian name from Frieda to Frida.

Her paternal grandparents, Jakob Heinrich Kahlo, who owned a jewellery shop, and Henriette Kahlo (née Kaufmann) were European Jews who originally came from Arad, which was formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but which is now part of Romania.  Much has been written about this assertion by Frida Kahlo that she has Jewish ancestry.   However, the Jewish family connection and ancestry has been contested a number of times.  In a 2006 newspaper an article by Meir Ronnen in the Jerusalem Post cast doubt on the authenticity of the Jewish claim.   In a book published in 2005 by Gaby Franger and Rainer Huhle, about the photography of Frida’s father entitled Fridas Vater: Der Fotograf Guillermo Kahlo they dispute Frida’s assertion of her Jewish ancestry, agreeing that her father was born in Germany but that he came from a long line of German Lutherans and they reasoned that Frida’s story of Jewish heritage was so that she could disassociate herself from the German Nazis during World War II.

In 1860 the family moved to Germany.   Frida’s father, Wilhelm Kahlo, was born in Baden- Baden in October 1871 and was the eldest of four children.  After early schooling, he attended the University of Nuremburg, however the onset of epileptic seizures cut short his academic studies.   In 1890 Frida’s paternal grandmother Henriette died and her paternal grandfather married Ludowika Karolina Rahm.  Frida’s father Wilhelm did not get on well with his stepmother and with financial help from his father he decided to leave the family home and leave Germany altogether.   The following year, 1891, Frida’s father who was just nineteen year old, set sail from Hamburg on the freighter Borussia bound for Vera Cruz, Mexico.   His complete change of lifestyle included changing his forename name from the Germanic Wilhelm to the Spanish Guillermo although throughout his life he never lost his Germanic ancestry as he always spoke with a heavy German accent and Frida referred to him in mock formality as “Herr Kahlo”.  He soon found work in the up-market Diener Brothers jewellery store in the city, probably through his German/Jewish jeweller connections.

Guillermo married his first wife Maria Cardena in 1895 and the couple had three daughters but sadly the middle girl survived only a few days after her birth.   Maria Luisa, born in 1894, was the eldest and Margarita the youngest.   The marriage ended tragically in 1898 when his wife died during the birth of their third child, Margarita.  The night his wife died he sought help and comfort from his co-worker at the jewellery store, Matilde Calderón and her mother, Isabel, both of whom came to his house to offer their support.  Matilde Calderón y Gonzalez was a woman of Spanish and Mexican-Indian descent.  Her mother was a Spanish Catholic and her father was a native Mexican Indian.  Guillermo now faced having to bring up a four year old girl and a baby alone and he did not keep the best of health as throughout his life as he continued to suffer from bouts of epilepsy.  Whether it was because he knew he would be unable to cope alone bringing up his two young daughters, whether he wanted to avoid loneliness or whether, according to Raquel Tibol in her 1983 biography, Frida Kahlo: an Open Life, we should believe Frida when she says her father and mother simply fell in love.  Whatever his reason was, he soon proposed to Frida’s mother, Matilde Calderón, and they were married later that year.  Matilde was twenty-two years of age and Guillermo twenty-seven years of age when they got married.   The couple went on to have four daughters of which Frida was the third.  She had two older sisters, Matilde born in 1899 and Adriana born in 1902, and one younger sister, Cristina, who was born in 1908.

My Grandparents, My Parents and I (Family Tree) by Frida Kahlo (1936)

The reason I gave you that detailed family tree was as an accompaniment to the very unusual painting I am featuring today, which Frida Kahlo completed in 1936 entitled My Grandparents, My Parents and I (Family Tree).

Frida described the work:

“….Me in the middle of this house, when I was about two years old. The whole house is in perspective as I remember it. On top of the house in the clouds are my father and mother when they were married (portraits taken from photographs). The ribbon about me and my mother’s waist becomes an umbilical cord and I become a foetus.  On the right, the paternal grandparents, on the left the maternal grandparents.  A ribbon circles all the group — symbolic of the family relation. The German grandparents are symbolized by the sea, the Mexican by the earth…”