WHAT WOULD it be like to explore the innermost thoughts and creations of a bisexual woman--a painter who made an artistic statement on her identity and intense suffering? On the basis of extensive research, Hayden Herrera brings to life Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) in a full- length biography. Frida was born in Mexico of a Hungarian-Jewish father and an Indian-Spanish mother. She chose to identify with Indianist Mexico, and she did so, among other ways, by wearing her hair braided and walking the streets of New York or Mexico City in a Tehuana dress, the folk costume typical of Tehuantepec in provincial, southern Mexico.
Diego Rivera--her lover, intellectual companion, and husband--shared Frida's cultural nationalism as well as her communist sympathies. The stormy relationship between two painters is central to the biography. While they undoubtedly nourished each other's artistic development, mutual jealousy concerning infidelities corroded the marriage. Rivera did not mind Kahlo's trysts with other women; it was the other men in her life (like Trotsky) that wounded his ego. Likewise, the womanizing Diego often made Frida despondent. Letters and revelations of intimacies abound in the biography, almost to a surfeit. Herrera is adept at drawing correlations between Kahlo's private life and the evolution of her art. It is no accident that the overwhelming majority of her paintings--including the best of them--are self-portraits. On center stage, she could be caustic, earthy, nonconformist, provocative, indiscreetly seductive, full of joy.
Unable to bear children because of a grotesque accident that crippled her at the age of 19, Frida became obsessed in her art with fecundity and wounds. If she could not give Rivera a baby, at least she could infantilize herself and her husband in paintings. Dualities are juxtaposed and fused: sun and moon, male and female, life and death, Frida and Nature. The third eye of Oriental wisdom painted on Rivera's forehead and his head painted on her forehead give a mystic dimension to her cosmology. The symbol of Yin and Yang, held by Frida in one portrait by Diego, provides another clue to the Oriental inspiration for her idea of harmony between the opposite forces of the universe.
Rivera had already painted some of his most beatiful murals when he met Kahlo in 1928; she would achieve her most brilliant period of art during 1937-1949. The contrast in their world views was already notable during 1931-1934, when Rivera was accepting mural commissions in New York and Detroit from Nelson Rockefeller and Henry Ford to exalt the role of science and technology, machines and industry, in the march toward progress and, for Rivera, toward the proletarian paradise. During the same hard years of the Depression, Kahlo painted a tribute to the naturalist, Luther Burbank, and expressed her sense of alienation in New York City. In Self-Portrait Between Mexico and the United States (1932), Frida stands between two worlds-- a romantic, primitivist utopia symbolized by pre-Columbian artifacts and sensuous flowers, and modern industrial society, whose smokestacks spew forth the Stars and Stripes while the cords of electrical machines insidiously take root in the earth.
During her apogee, Frida painted herself in the company of monkey and dogs, luxuriant vegetation, and Freudian/cosmic symbols. There can be discerned, at turns, a certain affinity to Gauguin, Henri Rousseau, Klee, Picasso, Blake, Dal,i, and Mexican popular art such as ex-votos. As an art teacher during the 1940s, she preached revolutionary realism and took her students to the streets and pulquer,ias (saloons) to paint real subjects and problems, yet she continued to concentrate on the revelation of the self in her own paintings, largely avoiding the radical social ideology which defined much of Rivera's art. Frida's cosmology was incongruent with the class struggle; she learned to live with the contradiction.
The historical backdrop of the biography is especially fascinating since Frida Kahlo came to know celebrities on a personal basis. Although her father was a photographer of only modest means (and her first teacher of art), she was privileged to attend the National Preparatory School of Mexico City, the best in the nation--a veritable training ground for the political and cultural elite of that Mexican generation. Frida's first novio, or sweetheart, was the gentle and brilliant Alejandro G,omez Arias, who was to play such an important part in student movements of the 1920s. Their adolescent romance is recorded for posterity in the published correspondence. I suspect that Alejandro initiated her in politics as well as in love. The National Preparatory School was a hotbed of activists in those years (1921-1924) when the minister of education, Jos,e Vasconcelos, led a cultural renaissance and educational reform with considerable populist zeal and even more federal funding. It is legendary that Lombardo Toledano, the fiery, leftist director of the school, expelled Frida, then 14, for unrecorded reasons, and that Vasconcelos ordered her reinstatement with the retort: "If you can't manage a little girl like that, you are not fit to be director of such an institution." Frida could watch Diego Rivera paint the first murals on the school's walls, commissioned by Vasconcelos, seven years before they met and wed. In those years, too, she became the arm-in-arm comrade of Tina Modotti, later to win renown as photographer and political firebrand.
By 1929, while Vasconcelos was campaigning hard for the presidency through a popular opposition party, Rivera was expelled from the Mexican Communist Party which he had led. He then married Frida and took her to New York. She witnessed Rivera's showdown with Rockefeller Center over a politically controversial mural which was intentionally destroyed, only to be repainted in Mexico City. The message did not escape Frida: the paintbrush could provoke class conflict.
Those who delight in dropping names from the cultural world of the Left in the '30s and '40s will revel in Frida.. Leon and Natalia Trotsky, eluding the clutches of the Stalinists, find refuge in the Mexico City home of Rivera. There they convene the famous Dewey Commission to vindicate Trotsky and to indict Stalin. Off to Paris in early 1939 . . . intellectual circles there struck Kahlo as snobblish; high-brow culture, classical music bored her, although the high-brows were the best clients of Rivera's group. (Edward G. Robinson was Frida's first monied patron.)
At the International Exhibition of Surrealism in Mexico City during 1940, in which Frida participated, Andr,e Breton, guru of the leftist surrealists, baptized her as one of their own. 1940 was a heart-rending yet productive year for Kahlo. Soon after she and Diego were divorced, she cropped her hair and recorded the retaliatory act in a self-portrait, in which she dons a mannish, loose-fitting suit, standard shirt buttoned to the neck, no make-up, legs open, several locks strewn over the floor. The lyrics and musical notes of a popular song are inscribed on the painting: "Look, if I loved you, it was because of your hair. Now that it's shorn, I don't want you." They were remarried about a year later. Frida again let her hair grow out. In 1949, she produced one of her most harmonious paintings, esthetically and philosophically--"The Love Embrace of the Universe." The infantile, naked Diego, with visionary Third Eye on his forehead and phallic orange maguey flower in hand, lies in the loving lap of long-haired, face-made-up, tearful Frida dressed in frilled Tehuana dress, her wounded chest bleeding red drops. She, in turn, is in the lap of greenish Mother Earth, who symbolizes Mexico in the fashion of a pre-Columbian mountain idol, her creviced chest nurturinhe radicg nature with her milk drops. This microcosm, in turn, is embraced by an enigmatic (sexless? androgynous?) pre-Columbian mask, whose massive brown hand peacefully touches its other, white hand, white moon and sun give life to cacti typical of Mexico. Yin and Yang seem to be protecting this Mexicanist, mestizo paradise. Gala and Salvador Dal,i would have loved it. For Frida, it was a catharsis of identity and a reaffirmation of her hold over Diego at a time when he was having a celebrated love affair with Mar,ia Felix, the Mexican film actress.
Kahlo and Rivera degenerated during the early 1950s. They repudiated their friendship and political support of the assassinated Trotsky, which freed them to paint obsequious portraits of Stalin, who, a dozen years earlier, had been portrayed by Diego as the Evil Executioner. They swear allegiance to the Moscow line and paint accordingly in this last, crass phase. Frida suffers the long-term consequences of a disease diagnosed as syphilis and the permanent damage done by her adolescent accident. Gangrene sets in, a foot is amputated. The slow death agony is narrated compulsively, the stuff of a naturalist novel, which Herrera's biography at times seems to simulate.
Hayden Herrera, with a pen as incisive and lively as her subject, and a woman's insights into another woman's feelings, analyzes in detail numerous paintings reproduced in the book: it is her forte. Unlike Bertram Wolfe's The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera, this biography delves extensively into art on artistic terms, without dwelling on the tempestuous politics and ideologies of the subjects. The two biographics complement each other, somewhat in the way Diego and Frida had done in flesh and paint. Herrera places Kahlo in her rightful position of prominence as a stunning, confessional portraitist. When she suggests that Frida may have been the better painter of the two, she may be referring to the delicate nuances of Frida's paintbrush, perhaps her cosmic vision; certainly the biographer did not consider the scope of Diego's themes nor the social impact of his work. Through the magnifying glass of pathos, Frida projected a close-up of the life juices on her canvas--blood, tears, thirsty roots, spermatazoa, abortion. Her obsession turned into a visor.