The place: Mexico. The year: Post-1910. Mexico was on the verge of change. Political instability, the blight of dictatorship, a peasants’ revolt: with events such as the Mexican Revolution fresh in everyone’s minds, passions must have run high. Actions were no longer as restrained. The freedoms of speech and desire were rife. We need only look to those well-known Mexican painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera for reference.
Despite the volatile relationship shared by the painters (both of whom had several extra-marital affairs during their time together), Kahlo lived in an isolated world. A pain-filled existence was all she ever knew from the age of 6, when she contracted polio, leaving her left leg crippled. At 18 she was left with life-long injuries following a severe bus accident, including a perforated abdomen and uterus, which led to three terminated pregnancies in later life.
These experiences, and the pain that followed, must undoubtedly have trapped her in a separate universe from her contemporaries. What solace she may have been looking for in her relationships and affairs, she truly found in her art. In her art, she was able to express herself, share her suffering, and found the ability to heal.
Many of her paintings are self-portraits, symbolising the solitude that she felt; her own figure and visage being the one that she was most familiar with. However, in several of her paintings she also references Diego, either as a symbol of love or of pain.
One painting which perhaps best characterises the depth of her feelings for Rivera is ‘The two Fridas’. A double portrait of herself, it shows the Frida that was rejected by Diego at the time of their divorce. Her heart has been broken, and is bleeding. The Frida on the right is the Frida that Diego still loves; her heart is whole, and she is holding a small portrait of Diego in her hand.
An unusual feature of several of her self-portraits is the inclusion of the monkey. In Mexico, this creature is a symbol of lust; however Kahlo transformed this concept into one of tenderness. In her painting ‘Self-Portrait with Monkeys’, she places four monkeys directly around herself, all with tender expressions. Two of the monkeys have their paws over her heart. This can be interpreted as her desire for love, not lust. She is expressing heartache and a desire for a single commitment of love, most probably from Diego, as this was painted during her second marriage to the artist.
I for one am grateful for the artistic talents of Frida Kahlo. Her honesty is touching, her emotions relatable, and her story compelling. I read it as inspirational that the solitary pain of one woman has the potential ability to affect and heal the lives of others; through her art, it is possible to understand and come to terms with the realms of human emotion.
For a closer look at the turbulent life of Kahlo and Rivera in painting, Canadians rejoice! The Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto is hosting an exhibition of their works, as well as several photographs of the couple, from the 20th October 2012 – 20th January 2013. As well as showing their lives together, these combined works also reflect the couple’s interest in the changing values of post-revolutionary Mexico. For those living a little too far away from the Canadian border, these paintings can also be found in the works by Gerry Souter: Frida Kahlo and Rivera.
– Fiona Torsch