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World Celebrates Frida Kahlo's Centenary
A tribute to the woman behind the art, the cult and the icon
Sianturi Dinah Roma (DinahRS)     Print Article 
Published 2007-07-12 10:48 (KST)   
I have a very low threshold for pain. The visible scars I have on my body were wounds I obtained when I was young. Though they are few, I could still remember how I cringed and felt faint at the sight blood. Torn flesh has always convinced me of the humans' fragility and vulnerability.

Hence any one who can endure great physical suffering has always won my admiration. Yet for someone to have risen above a life plagued by pain and transformed it into art can only be worthy of reverence.

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And reverence has so far marked the remembrance of the great painter Frida Kahlo's life (July 6, 1907-July 13, 1954) who was born in Coyoacan, Mexico. Her life of physical suffering began at the young age of six when she was afflicted with polio that made her left leg slightly shorter. At the age of 18, the bus she was riding crashed into a trolley. Several passengers were reported dead.

Kahlo survived. But the accident changed her life forever. Her serious injuries included a broken spinal column, collarbone, ribs, leg, pelvis and fractured ankle. A metal rod pierced her back, injured her ovary and exited through her vagina.

The months following the accident kept her in bed as her entire body had to be kept in a cast. It has been suggested that it is during these times of melancholic boredom that had spawned one of the 20th century's greatest female painter.

Of Kahlo's 143 paintings, one third are self-portraits. Painting became for her a concrete way of seeing herself whole again and reliving and, perhaps, understanding the tragedy that had come her way. In her own words: "I paint myself because I am often so alone and because I am the subject I know best."

Kahlo's paintings have been the subject of many debates and controversies, particularly, when it concerns her rise as an iconic figure. The debate's salient aspect argues that Kahlo's followers have upheld her life of suffering above her art. The fascination for her pain has de-politicized it.

This reading, some critics say, shortchanges the complexities of Kahlo's artwork. According to Stephanie Mencimer in her article "The Trouble with Frida Kahlo," that assesses the cult of Kahlo claims that at times "women stop being the artist and become the subject of art."

Much of what we know of the "Fridamania" that marked the recent re-discovery of the artist reveals a facet of the art world that capitalizes on a female artist's controversial life to gain entry into what is commonly considered a male populated domain. Kahlo's great physical and emotional suffering has earned her the reverence of a saint that attracted no less than the popular artist Madonna.

It is no wonder that the release of the award-winning movie Frida (2002), written by Frida's best known biographer Heydan Herrerra and which won nominations for Salma Hayek, further spurred the presence of Kahlo in art museums and in souvenir items in all imaginable forms.

In the end, Mencimer could only propose a way of reading Frida's artwork. It calls for a more comprehensive look into Kahlo as an artist, political figure and a woman and wife to Mexico's greatest muralist, Diego Rivera, to whom she was married to for 25 years. This reading should include the artist's flaws as well, of which the often cited was her adoration for Joseph Stalin.

Yet, despite Mencimer's and the other critics' call for the so called 'holistic' way of interpreting Kahlo, it seems almost impossible (and a sacrilege, if I may say) not to see her works through the lens of her life altogether.

And here, we can ask: In what moments could Frida have painted separate from her body? In what occasions could her body not been the fulcrum of her experiences?

The more serious studies on Frida Kahlo's life and works suggest the inevitability of how her body's long relation with pain illumines her paintings. In the book Religious Imagination and the Body: A Feminist Analysis (1994), Paula M. Cooey focuses on the many Aztec, Zapotec, popular Catholic images and Marxist iconography found in Frida's paintings to conclude that the artist resists any single definition. She is complex, volatile and ambivalent in her politics and art, always full of tension.

On the other hand, Kahlo's renditions of her meaningful experiences in which the body figures as the site for struggle transform into an allegory with wider political and religious resonance. Cooey, in this regard, seemingly implies that Kahlo would have been the best candidate to declare "the political is personal." For Kahlo, however, there seemed to be no divide as every work is at once an embodiment of the two.

As Mexico marks Kahlo's centenary, her life becomes doubly significant for many women all over the world. As many fall for the lure of cosmetic surgeries that cut up and re-sculpts the body, Kahlo remains a steadfast icon against such intrusions. Her unibrow and mustache that she stylized in her paintings are now symbols of a positive self-image that simply says: "Take me as I am." Her flare in dressing that would forever immortalize the Tehuana Indian dresses have become a fashion statement for women artists around the world.

Through this worldwide commemoration, it is not surprising that Frida Kahlo will find a rebirth in many of the women artists who have found a hero or, perhaps, a saint in her. And with the present obsession for the body, the cult of Frida Kahlo is all but understandable.

Such rationale can be found in the words of Hayden Herrera in an interview with Amy Stechler on the artist's legacy:

"She gave other painters permission to be personal and autobiographical and to deal with the body in a very open way and also to be; to use fantasy in a way that sort of digs into the self."
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Sianturi Dinah Roma

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