Episode 40: Frida Kahlo, Dos Mujeres (Salvadora y Herminia) (1928)
VOICE 1: I see, uh, two women, of slightly different ethnicity. Uh, different mestizo, one is a bit more Indian, the one in the back, but they both, uh, appear to be maids. There appears that there’s hard work behind them. In their, in their facial expression.
VOICE 2: Like the, the thing that I noticed at first was probably their gaze and their eyes and their facial expression.
VOICE 3: I feel, I feel like there’s kind of a stoic, like, sense about them.
VOICE 4: And the two figures seem… related, it looks like a mother and a daughter maybe. And the mother is kind of, sort of more faded into the background, almost sort of merging with the… the leafy green background and the daughter is sort of, um, brighter blue dress sort of makes her pop out into the front of the frame. But the, they both have sort of a strong, sort of straight forward gaze that makes it interesting to look at.
VOICE 5: Their proximity to each other doesn’t seem to affect them, they both seem as if they’re alone.
VOICE 6: Um, and then behind the two of them is this… leafy, green like, bright foliage that completely encompasses the background and there’s really nothing else in the painting.
VOICE 7: I don’t know that much about Frida Kahlo, I think I did maybe a middle school paper on her. [laughs]
VOICE 7: But there’s always a lot of dignity to her paintings and that’s how I sort of… feel like, “Oh, that makes sense, this is a Frida Kahlo painting.”
VOICE 8: My impression of her is that she painted a lot more about her own pain, she’s always in her own paintings, or, with Diego in her mind. That’s the other, iconic painting that I think about. And uh, this seems to be, to me, uh, more of, uh, a bit of a tribute to people that she was with, or… that, that appear to have helped her.
VOICE 9: It’s kind of bold and in your face. If you’re in the room with a Frida Kahlo painting, you’re gonna notice it, you may not like it, but you’re going to notice that it’s there.
TAMAR: Here, walk around to the back with me.
VOICE 10: Okay.
Um, so at first it really just looks like a normal canvas with like, normal kind of like, scratches or marks that kind of just show that it’s, you know, not this new painting, like it has some history to it. But, if you really get close, you see it actually does say “Frida Kahlo” on it. Um, which is something you see, honestly never. [laughs] You don’t ever see the back of a painting.
VOICE 11: “En recuerdo de una noche muy agradable con la authora del cuadro.” Just reading what it said… “In memory of a very pleasant evening with the author of the picture.”
VOICE 10: Not everyone can create like these masterpieces of like different portraiture, but everyone has a signature and everyone can relate to having a signature. So, seeing that, I dunno, it develops a connection or, you know, some type of relationship, from, uh, the artist and the viewer.
In the era we currently live in, I am loath to throw shade at the free press, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to miss the opportunity to draw your attention to a headline from 1933 that I think we can all agree is rather spectacularly problematic. It’s courtesy of the writer Florence Davies of The Detroit News, who, when tasked with writing on the famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, a recent Detroit transplant, found herself drawn not to him, but to his then-unknown wife, Frida Kahlo. Davies wrote a feature on Kahlo as part of a series entitled “Visiting Homes of Interesting People.” The spectacularly problematic headline? “Wife of master mural painter gleefully dabbles in works of art.”
So I, like you, have some thoughts. Dabbling? Gleeful? Wife? Our Frida? The Frida? But, see, the more I unpacked these knee-jerk reactions, the more I realized that I, from the comfort of my historical vantage point, was being a little unfair. It’s actually pretty cruel to castigate poor Florence because of how we think about Frida Kahlo today: this cult symbol for feminist art that utterly eclipses the fame of her husband. We know now how much more significant her art was to her own experiencing of the world, and her ravaged body within that world, than could possibly be described by “dabbling.” We cringe at the idea that this soulful woman, whose life was continually marked by trauma, ever did anything “gleefully,” the least of which her art. I guess what I’m saying is that old Flo never meant for this headline to become such a punchline, or how naïve she would seem to think that Frida Kahlo, the Frida Kahlo, portrayed in all her earthy hotness by peak Salma Hayek, could ever be described in such insipid, reductionist, small-scale terms: just a dabbler, just a gleeful woman, just a wife subservient to her master muralist.
But realistically, how else was Florence Davies supposed to approach her assignment? We currently live in the post 1970s era of Fridamania, that’s its actual name. The thing about the Frida Kahlo is that to imagine that the cult of Frida of today speaks for the actual living, breathing Frida is to worship at the same altar of celebrity that once shot a relatively modest Renaissance portrait like the Mona Lisa into the stratosphere with no historical context, which, let’s be honest, does all of history – and the human beings that comprise it – a real disservice. And Kahlo herself exists in a particularly complicated, contradictory space where she herself is only stratospheric, this larger-than-life, mythical, heroic figure to women, artists, and activists alike, because of her own acknowledgement of her vulnerable, corporeal humanness. And we, in turn, love her contradictions. We love her gumption in face of her fragility. We love a woman adorned with both flowers and a unibrow. We deify her because we’ve seen her groan under the societal weight of being a celebrity’s wife, of having to force herself out of her husband’s shadow. We love that she made lemonade, that is, her entire career, in the face of a bus handrail that was driven through her pelvis. These kinds of things only happen to human beings, subject to the same insecurities and physical and emotional anguish as the rest of us. And this is, of course, why we all feel so close to her, and why this intimacy is on so grand scale. But of course when we iconize, we can’t help but sacrifice nuance. We allow one side of the contradiction to inevitably overshadow the other. We lose the human life lived and, instead, simply fetishize its pain.
Of course, in many ways Kahlo welcomed this, she laid her body bare, she fetishized its carnality herself, painting with her guts from the moment she decided to pick up a paintbrush. Though she had, in fact, dabbled in sketching and illustration as a child – a childhood marked by nine months bedridden from polio, a pronounced limp, long skirts to cover an underdeveloped right leg, and years of sports and overachieving to regain her strength – it was only after that near-fatal bus accident in 1925, when she was 18, when she first considered becoming a professional artist instead of the medical student she had originally planned to be. Her trauma, in other words, was baked into her work, a seminal part of her art.
She spent the long, agonizing months of recuperation from a shattered spine and pelvis in a full body cast, experimenting with painting the excruciating veracity of her pain, her tedium, and her fractured spirit in an expressive series both of self-portraits and, as we see here, portraits of others: it was during this vulnerable time, that Kahlo was tended to by these dos mujeres, these two maids, Salvadora and Herminia, who worked in her mother’s household.
And we could easily stop the narrative here. We could just see this painting of these two women merely as an extension of Kahlo’s pain. It’s true that when it comes to Kahlo’s art, it can be difficult to tell the difference between the self-portraits and the portraits of others. And this particular characteristic of her work – this portraiture that actually feels like self-portraiture – calls to mind another artist that we explored in episode 16, the Dutch Post-Impressionist and proto-Expressionist Vincent Van Gogh, and affectionate portrait of the postman Joseph Roulin. Roulin, if you’ll recall, was also a caretaker who found himself immortalized by an artist’s paintbrush, tending to Van Gogh both on the specific night when he infamously mutilated his own ear, and along with the rest of his family, over a longer, less dramatic period of loneliness and vulnerability. In fact, the similarity between these two portraits is actually pretty uncanny, how both Van Gogh and Kahlo paint their personal perspectives of who these people are by what they meant to them during these intense periods of psychological and physical pain. And this only reinforces both the reputations of Van Gogh and Kahlo as artists whose work was born from psychological and physical pain, as though they’re simply professional sufferers for their art, as though they never experimented or sketched or smiled or gleefully dabbled in anything. And I think that seeing both artists, and especially Kahlo, in this light is as reductive as that problematic headline. She was a worker, a revolutionary, a flirtatious imp who possessed a delightfully wicked tongue and a bawdy sense of humor. If we allow, and then expect, Frida Kahlo’s reputation and her art to become inextricable, her pain and her art to become inextricable, then we do her a disservice. We allow one side of the contradiction to overshadow the other, we ignore all the captivating complexities of her story along the way. A story that, honestly, would probably make us like her even more.
So let’s actually take a closer look at her story. Frida Kahlo was born in Mexico in 1907 to a German father and a mestiza mother, that is, a mix of European and indigenous backgrounds. She was, like I said, a child who contained multitudes: first sickly and bedridden, then an athletic tomboy, and then, as a teenager, a confident student at the renowned National Preparatory School in Mexico City. It was there that she first met Diego Rivera, 21 years her senior, who was a visiting instructor – according to his recollection, she delighted in giving him hell, approaching him with “strange fire in her eyes,” requesting to watch him while he worked and then subsequently stealing his lunch. They met again in 1928, when she was 21, three years after the bus accident, and the year that she painted this double portrait. And it was then that they began the fiery, tumultuous, affair-riddled, I can’t live with or without you relationship that Kahlo’s parents described, when they married in 1929, as “the union between an elephant and a dove.” The analogy, which we can see articulated in the marriage portrait that Kahlo painted in 1931, “Frieda and Diego Rivera,” was a nod not just to their mismatched physicality, the portly Rivera and the small, delicate Kahlo, but, as it would turn out, to the space each of them took up in the art world, at least while they were still alive. And when we look at this painting, we shouldn’t forget that despite Kahlo’s strange, puckish fire, it was still her perspective as this heady young newlywed: Diego as solid as an oak tree, holding the palette and the paintbrushes; Frida with her tiny feet, still a child almost, holding him, the elated wife of the master mural painter.
The two moved to the U.S. in 1930, following Rivera’s career from city to city as he was commissioned to paint public murals. And it was during this time away from Mexico that Kahlo began a period of soul-searching, an examination her inherent Mexicanness and specifically her relationship to Mexicanidad, or a romanticized, nationalized vision of indigenous Mexico, that would so influence the paintings that made her famous. This is also when we begin to see the indigenous peasant clothing, the flowers in her hair, the gorgeous, chunky jewelry that would come to define her personal style. Mexicanidad had developed in the wake of the Mexican Revolution, which had ended in 1920 and had therefore been an ongoing and impressionable part of Kahlo’s life – she even apparently began fudging her actual birth year, 1907, when talking to the press, instead saying she had been born in 1910, the year the revolution started. Before the revolution, references to indigenous Mexican culture had been sneered at by the Eurocentric elite, while the post-Revolution Mexicanidad movement intended to reclaim it, to reject the post-colonial view that there was any sense of cultural inferiority inherent in the more primitivist, pre-Columbian style that we begin to see all over Kahlo’s work. And she very much played into this movement: despite her prep school education and training in more Western Renaissance art, she actively embraced the Mexicanidad style, choosing to present herself as a self-taught amateur, and though married to a master, an outsider folk artist.
And it’s hard to imagine that this wasn’t a complicated shift for her, this feeling of being caught in between two worlds. We can see the allusion to her own complicated heritage in her famous canvas from 1939, “The Two Fridas”: the Frida of her upbringing with a European father in a Victorian dress, clasping hands with the indigenous Mexican Frida, holding a small portrait of Rivera. The painting’s imagery is openly inconclusive: the hearts of each woman are connected by blood vessels, while the Victorian Frida holds forceps, cutting a vein that bleeds freely on her white dress. Art historians delight in projecting any and every element of Kahlo’s struggle onto her work, and so we can’t necessarily determine what is happening here, whether she is wrestling with her own upbringing or with being the Frida that Rivera, from whom she was freshly divorced, wanted her to be, or her own medical issues, or, in her words, a relationship with a childhood friend. What really matters here is the deeply human ambivalence and the questioning of identity as she moved her canvases more fully into the world of complex Aztec mythology, of the symbolism of monkeys, blood, hearts, skeletons – mixing fantasy with reality to create a heightened magical realism.
We see this also in her “Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird” from 1940. The hummingbird was a Mexican good luck charm, and, read what you will into the piercing thorns being pulled at by the spider monkey, who actually was her pet in real life, and a gift from Rivera. This painting is a signature example of the Frida Kahlo style: a colorful, flattened picture plane depicting the ambiguous symbolism — both pre-Columbian and Christian — of love, pain, life, and death that focuses squarely on the dignity inherent in the indigenous Mexican.
Which brings us back to the painting at hand, and to the specific and unambiguously heroic double portrait of these maids.
This tight focus on figures, both in her self-portraits and her portraits of others, was present in Kahlo’s work from the early 1920s onward. We might expect, given her husband, that she would have been drawn to large-scale Mexican mural scene that she was immersed in, but Kahlo painted on a smaller scale, drawing inspiration from small Mexican votive paintings of saints, paintings that brought the figure front and center and eschewed perspectival realism or a detailed background. She took this focus even further, choosing to make the figures less physically attractive than they really were – again, who would today’s Frida be without her light mustache and unibrow – and instead creating a more heightened sense of reality, figures distilled down to their essentials. And this is what we see in these two maids: indigenous Mexican women with high cheekbones and full lips, presented in a three-quarter view against a background of lush, tropical foliage. Kahlo presents them as nobly as any portrait of a European colonizer, powerfully heroizing their gaze – whatever they’re seeing in the distance they’re seeing with authority and dignity. And though Kahlo dismissed the scale of Mexican muralism, she welcomed its socialist spirit, especially when it came to idea of work. The professions of these maids are mentioned in the title, but not in the image itself. Infrared technology now has shown us that Kahlo originally had aprons on these women, but painted them out. And though you can argue that there’s something revolutionary about including and reinforcing the uniform, as Van Gogh does in his portrait of the Postman, Kahlo chose to remove it, to liberate these women from their subservience while still emphasizing of the dignity of work, the nobility of the working class. I mean, it’s not a coincidence that Kahlo painted this canvas the same year she joined the Communist party. But more intimately, you can sense not just the affection that Kahlo had for these women, but her admiration for them as well – for their individuality, for their poise, for their worthiness as a subject matter.
There’s a wonderful added element of self-reference in this painting as well, and not just in Kahlo’s implicit sense of self-portraiture, but actually outside the frame. Because this painting also carries the distinction of being the first one that Frida Kahlo ever sold. And given everything we’ve been talking about, especially this emphasis on the inherent pride in one’s work, I think it’s a poignant detail to include, especially when we prop it up against the cult of Fridamania. It’s easy to ascribe a larger-than-life career and output to a larger-than-life artist, when in reality, Kahlo only produced somewhere between 150-200 canvases in her career, sold far, far fewer, and we don’t actually have the ability to see most of them. In fact, only thirteen of her canvases are available in public museums outside Mexico – really soak it in the next time you find yourself standing in front of one, because it’s a less common experience than you might imagine. But what’s more, when we think of poor, broken, bed-ridden Frida painting her pain through her maids, there isn’t an obvious place in that narrative for the excitement of selling that painting. And here, we get to experience it. Because such an added special element to this canvas is the back of the canvas. As we would expect, on the front, she signs the painting Frida Kahlo, 1928, the year it was painted. But on the back, it’s signed Frida Kahlo, July 1929, the day it was sold for 300 pesos. It’s also inscribed “in memory of a very pleasant evening with the author of the picture” by Frances Toor, the publisher of the magazine Mexican Folkways, and signed by the painting’s purchaser, Jackson Cole Phillips, Diego Rivera, Frida’s younger sister, Cristina, and other friends of the couple who had been invited to the celebration. In other words, this incredibly valuable painting by an enormously famous cult figure, one of only a handful on display outside of Mexico, has a provenance that is just so wonderfully human, where a nascent artist selling her first painting is a big enough deal to have friends over for a very pleasant evening. It’s a perfect reminder that even the most pained narratives have moments of personal levity, of professional nobility, of glee.
Kahlo’s professional recognition grew throughout the 1930s as she began to get attention outside of her marriage – which wasn’t the only attention, both from men and women, that she was getting outside of her marriage, but I’m sure you can just watch the movie or google that particular piece of her life. Her biggest professional coup came in 1938 when she attracted the eye of the Surrealist André Breton, who viscerally described her work as “a ribbon around a bomb,” claimed her as a Surrealist, and arranged for his American dealer friend to give her a solo exhibition in Manhattan. And though of course grateful for this opportunity, it should be said that Kahlo flatly rejected being adopted into the Surrealist movement. Like fellow “Surrealist” Rene Magritte, she didn’t necessarily see herself as depicting a surreal sense of reality in her work, but rather her own actual experience, symbol-ridden and enigmatic as it was. Surrealism meant to articulate the unconscious, the irrational dreamscape, and yet, as Kahlo famously said, “I never paint dreams or nightmares, I paint my own reality.”
And Kahlo’s reality grew more and more grim, even as her professional fortunes rose. She suffered a traumatizing series of miscarriages as her health continued to deteriorate, underwent a series of failed surgeries to repair her spine, and lost toes and eventually her leg to gangrene. And through it all, she painted, she worked, she exorcised her grief. We see canvases of a body in decay, isolated from the world of the healthy, like in “The Broken Column” from 1944: the same tight focus is on the singular figure, the self-portrait of a broken body against a broken landscape, pierced, pierced Christ-like with nails, and held together with her plaster corset. And yet she’s still sensual, still human, clutching a flowing skirt and looking at us from a face that is both tear-stained and resolute.
And I want to focus on these opposing forces – the mechanized and the sensual, the grief-stricken and the determined, because they return her to this contradictory space we met her in: this woman of fragility and of strength, this cult icon of humanness. Even her death a decade later, in July of 1954 at the age of 47, embraced juxtaposition. She wanted out of her body but still celebrated her life’s soulful journey. She wanted to live in the beauty of her world and still escape her reality. Her actual death remains controversial: the official cause was a pulmonary embolism, although her nurses and others close to her believed it to have been an overdose of painkillers that may or may not have been intentional. But what we do know for certain was that Frida was ready to end a life defined by her pain. “I joyfully await the exit,” she wrote in her final letters, “and I hope never to return.”
Which brings us back to her legacy, and the fact that we do exactly the opposite: we worship a life, an output that was defined by pain. And, of course, as I said, it’s not like she didn’t play a role in creating this legacy. Her life was obviously defined by physical and emotional pain in very real ways, and her art, even at its most ambiguous, very much reflects this. And so it makes sense that fame she accumulated after her death – a cult frenzy far beyond a solo show in New York; a record auction price at Christie’s far beyond those 300 pesos – is owed to the fact that her candid depiction of trauma is extraordinarily relatable, that marginalized groups from women to Latinas to LGBT activists need deeply human champions to lionize, and, I think even more, that the second-wave 1960s and 70s feminist artists — the ones who brought her into the mainstream — needed her embattled body to tell their own stories. The idea that a woman could simultaneously reclaim her body and offer it up, making powerful and unsettling art out of her own tormented flesh, is a trope we see influencing the art of post-modern women artists from Yoko Ono, whose Cut Piece we discussed in episode 28, to Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll from 1975, to Ana Mendieta’s Silhouette Series throughout the 1970s – the list goes on and on, and will continue to into the future. And it’s hard to imagine, in this dimension, that all roads don’t lead right back to Frida.
So let’s reframe her fame. I propose that if we’re going to indulge in Fridamania, it shouldn’t be out of some fetishization of trauma, the Van Gogh’s ear of a freak Mexican bus accident, but because of her enormous influence on the art world, for having the confidence to use her broken body in such a revolutionary way, for turning this pain into something so visually powerful. For her bravery as an artist. It seems like anyone who actually knew her, really knew her, also knew that this was what she wanted her legacy to be. She says so herself, if you actually read below the headline in Florence Davies’ article:
“’I didn’t study with Diego,’ Kahlo explains. ‘Of course, he does pretty well for a little boy, but it is I who am the big artist.’ “
And the article continues, “Then the twinkles in both black eyes fairly explode into a rippling laugh. But Senora Rivera’s painting is by no means a joke. However much she may laugh when you ask her about it, the fact remains that she has acquired a very skillful and beautiful style, which is as far removed from the heroic figures of Rivera as could well be imagined.”
And with this observation, Florence recovers, almost. She understands that the even unknown Frida Kahlo is a serious artist: skillful, beautiful, experimental, even gleeful. Flo’s only real misstep, and one than we should completely sympathize with, is in the comparison to Rivera, to larger-than-life greatness. Because if the life of an interesting person like Kahlo has taught us anything, it’s that heroic figures can paint, and be painted, on a smaller scale too.
Special thanks to Debbie Blicher, Nick Roberts, and the intrepid museum-goers at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. For more information and past episodes, go to theLonelyPalette.com, or you can follow us on Twitter @lonelypalette, or follow us on Instagram @thelonelypalette, or like us on facebook, and if you want more people to discover the show, if only so you can say you listened before it was cool, please a rating and review on Apple podcasts. And if you want to really help support the show and get more episodes sooner, consider becoming a patron on Patreon at www.patreon.com/lonelypalette.
The Lonely Palette is a proud founding member of Hub & Spoke, a collective of Boston-centric, idea-driven podcasts. And we’ve got some exciting news from Hub & Spoke land because we’ve just welcomed a new addition, The Constant, which is written and hosted by Chicago playwright Mark Chrisler. The Constant is a science and history podcast about humanity’s propensity to get things wrong, like how about when we thought we were supposed to drink radium? Good times, right? Anyway, we are so excited to have Mark and his show onboard – give it a listen at constantpodcast.com, or hubspokeaudio.org.
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