Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Frida Kahlo, the Love Affair All Over Again

When I was in my early 20s, I came across Hayden Herrera's biography of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), and immediately became obsessed with Kahlo. Obsessed to the point of drawing badly derivative pieces of myself splayed out nude on a white background, with umbilical cords or wires or ropes or cualquier sabe solamente el Díos extending from my body--from stigmata? I can't recall--out into the foreground (or negative space, what have you). In one drawing I do recall, the cords/wires/ropes were tethered to books, and I actually created little books (cut the covers and pages, sewed them together, penned in tiny texts, etc.) which I planned to attach to the (unrealized) oil paintings that, like Kahlo's, were going to be my modest but ultimately epoch-shattering contributions to the visual arts. Self-Portrait as the Two FridasLast summer while cleaning up my main desk drawer I even came across one of the booklets. Its cover was cobalt blue (in homage to none other than Yves Klein, who will merit a mention here at some point down the pike, and Miles Davis), its miniscule pages filled with doggerel. Others I'd planned to fill with the great epic poem I was going to write, which would bear the combined essences, while being utterly original, of Aimé Césaire, St.-John Perse and none other than Pablo Neruda, whose lines like redwoods have rooted in my consciousness forever: " Ah vastedad de pinos, rumor de olas quebrándose...."

But back to Kahlo--I shook off my thrall eventually, but not after pig-earing and breaking the spine of that Herrera volume and hunting down anything I could find about her in every bookstore and library within a 5-mile radius of Boston. At the time, my friend Kevin K. and I imagined, maybe even vowed that we would live lives like those of the artists we admired (Kahlo! Basquiat! Klein! Warhol! García Márquez! Genet! etc.), and for me, Kahlo's rebelliousness, her bisexuality (or polysexuality), her endless physical and emotional suffering, her Catholic and mixed heritages, her leftist political allegiances, and her passionate and undying love (for a difficult but amazing man) were things I totally identified with. She nearly died for love--more than once! She hosted and slept with Trosky and Noguchi! She seduced Breton's wife (or maybe that was just a rumor) and countless other women! She had her loyal acolytes come to her house in Coayacán, where she liberated their minds and aesthetics, while sometimes running around in the nude. She was an artist who was fêted in other countries (the United States, France!) yet didn't have an exhibit of her work in her home country until she could no longer get out of bed--and so, being the diva she was, she had her bed brought by ambulance to the gallery! I also loved those images, which she ginned up in her head but which drew upon a wealth of traditions, stunning even the Surrealists. For me her artwork was the main thing, and those images remain indelible.

But as I said, the thrall broke, and I found new artists to worship--Anselm Kiefer and Joseph Beuys, Wilfredo Lam, Dana C. Chandler Jr., Meret Oppenheim, David Hammons, nearly all the Russian Constructivists, and almost anyone who happened to be exhibiting at MIT's List Visual Arts Center, which for me became one of the cutting edge places to see (new) art, especially from beyond the U.S.'s shores, and then babble about it with people like Kevin and the (more sophisticated, it seemed) Dark Room writers, some of whom were watching Tarkovsky films at the Harvard Film archives and hobnobbing with the likes of Richard Leacock.

The thrall broke, and soon it seemed everyone was latching onto Frida Kahlo. Including Madonna. Supposedly a movie was in the works...a Hollywood movie, no less!...which of course is basically a death knell...and then it appeared in 2002, starring Salma Hayek, which led me to stifle a scream, because at the very least, she is Mexican (but was it just me, or were all the tan and dark-skinned Mexicans who populate Mexico's capital city and its suburbs somehow overlooked [erased?] during the filming of that biopic?), and she produced it. The movie was colorful and entertaining and included some charming mimicry by Hayek and Alfred Molina, but it and the industry that had developed around her led me to cross Frida Kahlo off my list, at least for the foreseeable future.

But tonight, like a good bourgeois spectator, I was watching TV, and after surfing between "America's Next Top Model," which I'd managed to avoid so far, and "Survivor: Palau," which I'd also managed to ignore until Ryan C. urged me to check out Ibrehem ("the lips," etc.), I decided I'd stay glued to the couch and watch the PBS special on Kahlo, "The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo," which I'd also read about in Anita Gates's preview in the increasing irrelevant New York Times. And lo and behold...Kahlo cast her spell over me all over again. By the end of the hour and a half I didn't want the narrative to end. I wanted more images, anecdotes--more Frida! I restrained myself from pointing out to my partner C. that one of my former professors, the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes, was one of the talking heads, or from giving a potted history of who Carlos Monsiváis or Elena Poniatowska was, even from rushing upstairs and fishing out my copy of Herrera's biography--I was satisfied simply to sit and listen, watch, start my mental tape and enjoy being in Kahlo's company again. I understood why I'd fallen in awe before, and why people will continue to do so; she was and remains an extraordinary figure, an utter original.

"VIVA LA VIDA"--Frida Kahlo

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