Wednesday, July 13, 2011


Photo by Imogen Cunningham
I'm thinking a lot about Frida Kahlo today, about her survival as a woman and an artist. I'm reading The Diary of Frida Kahlo for the first time. Ms. Radish King mentioned it in a recent post and I realized I had never read it. It was published right around the time my daughter was born, and my attention was elsewhere, and then I didn't think of Frida for a while, this courageous woman who had made my own loneliness during the decade of my twenties bearable.

Frida poured out oils in many colors onto roiling emotional seas. I'm ashamed to admit that I romanticized her pain when I was in my twenties. I thought to be a true artist, you had to be tortured in body and soul, the more tortured, the more inspired, the more true. I devoured every book I could find on Frida, and stood before her paintings with their pulsing hearts floating disembodied, on display at the Museum of Furniture Design, of all places. As I stood there I even scolded the love of her life, the painter Diego Rivera, for the way he sometimes neglected her astonishing gifts, more than equal to his, pursuing his own enormous ambition. But she let him do that. She never painted for fame and adulation. Other demons drove her.

"The Broken Column," 1944
The pain in her work was never metaphorical. It was excruciatingly real, bequeathed to her for life by a freak accident. The bus 18-year-old Frida was riding on collided with a trolley car in Mexico City in 1925. Frida was impaled on an iron handrail that tore off her clothes and pierced her through from stern to stem, breaking her spine, crushing her pelvis, doing its worst. They found her naked and sprinkled with gold dust that an artisan had been carrying, which scattered everywhere in the accident, settling on young Frida's broken and bloodied body. I have never been able to get that image out of my mind. Now that I am the age I am, I know that emotional and physical pain such as Frida endured her entire life either forges one or destroys one utterly. In Frida, it forged an artist whose anguish became her great subject. That she didn't flinch in setting it down, every surgery, every loss, every defiance of what was, it gave me the courage to face whatever came in my life, too. She endured so much. How could I crumble when my challenges were so much less?

I now own a copy of her reproduced diary, and I am lost in its extraordinary pages, the flowing cursive in colored pens, the surreal colors and themes of the art she did only for herself, working out elements of her paintings, or journaling through startlingly beautiful and horrifying images of suffering and trauma and revolution and love and loneliness and irony and infatuation and always the pain. The French writer Andre Breton described her art as "a ribbon tied around a bombshell." I think that says it as well as anything. And yet she staved off the bomb's full detonation through art and maybe also through love.

From The Diary of Frida Kahlo

"Feet what do I need you for
when I have wings to fly. 1953"

Frida had many lovers, male and female, but it was Diego Rivera she loved best. And it is his description of her work that I find most haunting. "I recommend her to you, not as a husband but as an enthusiastic admirer of her work," he is reported to have said to Picasso. "Acid and tender, hard as steel and delicate and fine as a butterfly's wing, lovable as a beautiful smile, and profound and cruel as the bitterness of life." I like to think that in the end Frida's strength and stubborn perseverance in the face of her life's trauma came from some memory of grace. I'm still romanticizing.


  1. So many of us find so much in Frida and her work. Inspiration, awe, mystery, explanations for love and art.
    I don't know why she was the way she was. I am more interested in the fact that she WAS. I see in her The Goddess, The Artist, The Woman. Even, yes, The Mother, although she was never able to give birth to a baby. She gave birth to art and to herself. Over and over again.

  2. Ms. Moon, i know there are many here who see the Goddess in her, as you do. And the thing I didn't mention, her face. Such a face. Her eyes look into and through you. It is the work, yes, and her survival, but it is also the woman herself, as you say. Love to you.

  3. That book looks amazing -- you've written a really fine review of both it and HER.

  4. one of my long-time female idols. i did a report on her in high school and did so much research on her and was incredibly intrigued by her story. diego was a great muralist as well but frida's feminism and her life story, in addition to her superior artwork, is awe-inspiring.

    great post.

  5. Elizabeth, she fascinates me because no matter how much i peer into her life, i can never really truly fathom where her strength and fortitude came from. it was so much. love to you, dear friend.

    Candice, somehow it doesn't surprise me that you are a Frida lover too. xo

  6. am sure it is no coincidence that you posted this wonderful tribute to frida on 13 july.

    rest in piece frida.

    have you read the lacuna by kingsolver? if so what did you think of her refashioning history.

    wait till you see the pic i snapped today of ms t - total frida channelling!! coming soon to the mouse, i'll give you a head's up when i post it.....


  7. Ah, Frida. . . a remarkable woman, whose courage and spirit(edness) endures.

    I came upon these lines this morning, Angella, and thought of you. . .

    "Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time." - Thomas Merton

    Love to you from the South of the South Island, NZ - C xo

  8. mouse, dear friend, suppose i confessed that I completely did not think of the significance of the date, which makes my posting this today somewhat eerie. I've just been feeling frida a lot lately, she was such a courageous soul, and we take courage from whatever source is at hand. but yes, it is indeed the perfect date to have posted this. the perfect month, as she was both born and died in july. ah, frida. can't wait to see your pic of ms t!

    Claire, thank you for this, and for the love from the other side of the world. I send love to you, too.

  9. Ah, Frida. I have been a longtime admirer of this incredible woman but became even more so after reading her biography many years ago. It was then that I discovered that the woman whom I admired also suffered from the same chronic illness that I live with today. After that, I felt connected to her in a way that made me relate to her on a very personal level. To achieve all that she achieved while coping with the stress of daily 8 level pain on a scale of 1-10, makes her a hero to me. I can barely get out of bed in the early afternoon and she was able to achieve some extremely extraordinary things. Her spirit. Her spirit is what creates a lump in my throat every time I think about her...

    I purchased The Diary of Frida Kahlo when it first came out but have not yet read it. You have inspired me to pull it back out again. I read The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver last summer and I LOVED it. I know that it was a piece of historical fiction, but I still came away from it with a feeling of knowing Frida and Diego in a more intimate way. I think you would enjoy it.

    Lots of love and big hugs,