Culture

Kahlo’s work still tells a story we struggle to talk about, even today

By Kat Lister

Happy Birthday Frida Kahlo! A mere 107 she would have been on 6 July; alas she died young at only 47.

60 years later, her 1932 painting Henry Ford Hospital (otherwise known as ‘The Flying Bed’) still pierces us with a painful image of womanhood we barely allow ourselves to talk about, let alone look at. Frida Kahlo dared to paint it. She was one of the first female artists to ever portray the realities of womanhood on canvas: the earth red ground beneath her a symbol of her loneliness. “I don’t paint dreams or nightmares,” she said, “I paint my own reality.” Decades later, her reality still beguiles us.

As Frida Kahlo lies splayed on the blood-splattered bed, hovering above ground, reality and reason, six images surround her, tied down with umbilical cords like six lead balloons against a barren sky: the foetus, Dieguito (“Little Diego”), who will never exist; a snail representing the slow horror of losing a baby; an autoclave, a device for sterilizing surgical instruments, the symbol of infertility, “bad luck and pain”; an orchid, a hospital gift from her husband Diego Rivera – a strange mix of sex and sentimentality; the pelvis and uterus, two anatomical signs of her broken body.

On 4 July 1932, Frida’s pregnancy ended in miscarriage at Henry Ford Hospital. With this loss came the painful realisation that she would never physically be able to carry a baby to term. It was a reality she had already mythologised seven years earlier. On 17 September 1925 Frida and her boyfriend got onto a school bus. Minutes later it was hit by a tram. In addition to suffering a broken spinal column, a broken collarbone, broken ribs and a broken pelvis, a metal handrail pierced her abdomen, exiting through her vagina, permanently damaging her reproductive capacity. While in recovery, Frida was forced to face her reality: she may never be able to walk again, let alone have children. She responded by creating a birth certificate for an imaginary son she called “Leonardo”. It was at this moment of reality-versus-imagination that Frida Kahlo began painting seriously for the first time.

To understand Frida is to understand her pain. That doesn’t make her a victim, or her suffering a perversion. Frida Kahlo’s husband Diego Rivera once talked about Frida’s art as “paintings that exalted the feminine qualities of endurance and truth, reality, cruelty, and suffering.” He would go on to conclude: “Never before has a woman put such agonized poetry on canvas.”

Whether Frida would have ever identified herself as a feminist remains punctuated with a question mark. For many today, her traumatic life and powerful works communicate a strong feminist message which dream weaves the reality they experience in their own lives. In fact, without the feminist art movement of the 1970s and 1980s, Frida Kahlo’s work would have remained an obscure footnote to husband Diego Rivera’s own artistic career. Second wave feminism in America brought Frida to a mass audience and she has captivated us ever since. Her stark presentation of the harsh lives women face has retrospectively made her a striking feminist at a time when a woman’s reality was hardly ever talked about or discussed. Her battle with miscarriage and infertility tells a story we struggle to talk about, even today.

According to her own count, Frida Kahlo would suffer two more miscarriages. Her art reflects a lifelong fascination with procreation, birth and the female body. Lithograph Frida and the Miscarriage is a stark example: Frida’s one dimensional body is divided into light and shade, two tears fall either side of her face as the tears of blood haemorrhage down her darkened leg. A male foetus is attached to her via an umbilical cord as her third arm holds an artist’s palette: artistic productivity her solace in the absence of children. It isn’t easy to look at but, in the words of her husband Diego, it is agony and poetry.

“My painting carries with it the message of pain,” Frida Kahlo once explained. In each and every canvas Frida painted, there is both the message of pain yet also survival. Paintings such as Survivor (1938), Roots (1943) and The Broken Column (1944) communicate strength, even at the point of physical breakdown and despair. It is also worth noting that her paintings display the true reproductive anatomy of women, a shocking and controversial undertaking in the early 20th century. In 1932 painting My Birth Frida gives birth to herself depicting the moment of childbirth in all its glory. My Birth succeeds in blending both imagination and reality, communicating a woman’s inner and external truth. For every person who struggles to look at Frida’s outstretched legs, its power and relevance is affirmed. Her reality is no longer hidden.

In the last year of her life, Frida told a friend: “Painting completed my life. I lost three children…Paintings substituted for all of this.” 60 years later, her work still endures.

Kat Lister is a Contributing Editor at Feminist Times and a freelance writer living in London and can be found tweeting to an empty room @Madame_George. She has contributed to NME, The Telegraph, Grazia, Time Out, Clash magazine and Frankie magazine.

Photo: Chris Weige

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