Saturday, April 4, 2009

Legendary Latinas Wings To Fly

This is a guest post from Frau Sally of Jump off the Bridge.

Frau Sally Benz lives, works, and blogs in NY. She fights oppression, promotes activism and spreads political awareness at Jump off the Bridge. You can also follow her on twitter (@frausallybenz) if you need a stronger fix.

I've never been the biggest fan of visual art, being more musically-inclined, but Frida Kahlo is an exception to that. Her paintings are raw and real, and there is an honesty and vulnerability in them that I have always been drawn to. She was self-taught and perhaps that's why she wasn't afraid to pour her heart out on the canvas in a very special way. I remember being in awe of several paintings when seeing them for the first (and second, and third) time, and her depictions of reproduction, sexuality, and personal struggles are among my favourite paintings by any artist.

But I'm getting a little bit ahead of myself if you don't know who she is or don't know very much about her. Here's a cliff notes version of her bio:

"The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to, and I paint whatever passes through my head without any other consideration."

Frida was born in Mexico in 1907 to a father of Hungarian/German descent, and a mother of Mexican, indigenous and Spanish descent. When she was 18, she was in an accident that left her with a number of serious injuries. She was bedridden and her father got her paints and brushes to occupy her time. She never fully recovered from the accident and had several other health problems throughout her life, but this is when she started painting seriously.

Frida married Mexican artist (and fellow Communist) Diego Rivera a few years after her accident, when he was 42 and she was 22. To say they had a tumultuous relationship would be an understatement. Diego was never faithful (even sleeping with Frida's sister), and after putting up with that for a while, Frida started having her own affairs with men and women (including Leon Trotsky). They were on again, off again, divorced and remarried, and spent a great deal of time living together, but under separate roofs.

And that's as good an intro as any because, really, her paintings are a much better biography than any words in print will ever be.

"I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality."

Her relationship with Diego was one that I don't think anybody will ever really understand. But, for all of their problems, they certainly couldn't seem to let each other go. Diego was the subject of many of Frida's paintings, directly or indirectly. Her ambivalence about their relationship is depicted in The Two Fridas. She painted a Frida in a Mexican dress, holding a picture of Diego that's meant to symbolize the woman he loved. The other Frida is in a European dress with her heart bleeding out, meant to represent the Frida that Diego didn't want.

Image of Frida Kahlo's painting, Flower of Life But Diego was hardly her only inspiration. Reproduction and fertility, including her own troubles in these areas, made its way to the canvas a number of times. One of my favorite paintings, Flower of Life, uses a flower to symbolize sexuality and fertility. I've always loved that imagery and the power that seems to emanate from the painting. Another favorite of mine, My Birth, was Frida's attempt at illustrating her feelings on childbirth, motherhood, and her own reproductive failures. Her own miscarriage in Detroit was the subject of the graphic painting Henry Ford Hospital, which included symbols of her difficult pregnancy and miscarriage.

As I mentioned earlier, Frida's work around the themes of reproduction and sexuality are among my favorites. She is not the only artist to ever paint about these themes, but her work continues to speak to me in ways no other artist can. They're deeply personal, and obviously come from her own experiences. Yet, they're also universal, in ways a lot of her other personal works are not. You might not be able to relate to the image of her broken body, but childbirth, fertility, sexuality -- these are things that affect all of us in some way. But whether we succeed or fail in our attempts, the emotional, physical and psychological affects are certainly no less complicated. She owns this reality and her own experience, and in doing so, she pushes our buttons and makes us consider that there is beauty and tragedy in the balance of life and death.

"I hope the end is joyful - and I hope never to come back."

Image of Frida Kahlo's painting, The Dream
This is all just a sliver of her life and work. I could go on about her accomplishments and other paintings for days, but I'll leave it to the biographers. What I really want to do is show why it was so easy for me to love a woman who lived with such pain (physically and emotionally), but who was still able to produce work that spoke truth to that pain and to live her life without apologies. Her status as a feminist icon should be honoured for that alone.

"Feet… what do I need them for if I have wings to fly."

For more about Frida's life, love, and art, you should check out:
Frida Kahlo Fans
The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo Quotes

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