Frida Kahlo: The Brush of Anguish

FRIDA KAHLO: THE BRUSH OF ANGUISH abridged and translated by Marilyn Sode Smith. Chronicle Books, 1990.

Ten years ago, we didn’t know her name. Now, after the scholarship of a few pioneering art historians, Frida Kahio seems indispensible and irrefutable as a unique, beautiful force in modern painting. How did we live without her?

Kahlo, born in 1907 near Mexico City to a Mexican mother and a father of German- Jewish descent, was the victim at age 18 of a near-fatal bus accident, beginning what would be a lifetime of surgery, convalescence and physical difficulty. Her marriage at age 22 to the 43-year-old muralist Diego Rivera (who also claimed a Jewish ancestor), began a passionate, roller-coaster partnership, interrupted once by divorce, then re-kindled.

Her paintings, generally small canvasses (and seemingly even smaller in contrast to her husband’s wall-sized murals), are brave and original psychological narratives of emotional and physical pain. There’s the painting of a deer, studded with arrows and wearing Kahlo’s face. There’s her self-portrait, crying, while Diego’s portrait shines on her forehead like a ghostly cameo. There’s the self-portrait where the palette she uses is her heart, and the paint her own blood.

Sound grim, eh? Well, here’s the power of Frida Kahlo — they aren’t. Like a small jewelry box with a big dream inside, a Kahlo painting is full of the artist’s spirit — her pride in her survival, her persistent inventions of herself; they seek out truth and dignity, and therefore never feel hopeless. Kahlo invented herself off the canvas as well, dressing in traditional native costumes of embroidered blouses, layered skirts, and jewelry — an arresting mix of radical, orthodox and folk, a fabulously handsome character of the art world until her death in 1954.

What remains controversial about Kahlo is how much autobiography should be read into her paintings. Because she is a woman, do we falsely assume that she is telling her own story? Male painters are judged on their ability to transform the world through paint—the premise being that honesty is a more “domestic,” less worldly affair. Indeed, the arguments surrounding Kahlo’s work comprise a microcosm of many of the questions of feminist scholarship. Whose standards are we using? Why have we loved her at first sight?

Zamora’s book may blow your mind with its many handsome reproductions and photographs, may have you calling the artist by her first name, may make you itch to visit her house-turned-museum in Coyoacan (which I highly suggest). A real page-turner, with accurate, sensitive text, it is easily read in a devoted sitting.

As yet, no one has written about Kahlo’s relationship to her Jewish ancestry, but there’s definitely material there. In 1933 she and Rivera attended exhibitions and dinners in New York to counter Hitler’s rise; in 1951, at the bottom of her portrait of her father, she inscribed, “… who always fought against Hitler. With adoration, your daughter, Frida Kahlo.” 

Jessica Greenbaum is a poet and an editor of Choice Magazine Listening, a service providing audiotapes of selected magazine articles for the visually-impaired.