Thursday, February 12, 2015

Jan Book Club - Frida, A Biography of Frida Kahlo

Frida, A Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera
For January's book club, we read Frida, A Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera.  This is a very well written book on the life of Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo.

Herrera not only tells about Frida's life - a good overview of her life as the daughter of Wilhelm Kahlo, the "on and off wife" of the famous muralist, Diego Rivera, and a review of many of Frida's best works - but she also gives us numerous details of Frida's life  - she includes actual correspondences from and to Frida, details and symbolism behind Frida's art work, and how Frida lived and coped with a life of chronic pain. Herrera also gives a glimpse of Mexico before and after the Revolution.

One of six children, Frida was the third daughter of Matilde and Guillermo (Wilhelm) Kahlo, born on July 6, 1907 in Mexico City. Her father, the son of Hungarian Jews living in Germany, emigrated to Mexico at 19 yrs old without any great prospects. He changed his name from Wilhelm to Guillermo and never returned to Germany, his birthplace. He married Matilde Calderon, a Mexican woman he worked with at La Perla, a jewelry store. Matilde persuaded Guillermo to take up photography, her own father's profession.

Kahlo did not spend much time with his children, although he was attentive to Frida, his favorite child, of whom he said, "Frida is the most intelligent of my daughters. She is the most like me." He stimulated Frida's intellectual adventurousness, lending her books from his library and encouraging her to share his curiosity about and passion for all manifestations of nature (stones, flowers, birds, animals, insects, shells, etc). He taught her to use a camera, to develop, retouch and color photographs, and shared his interest in Mexican archaeology and art with her. Frida's artist father encouraged her career.

Frida suffered from a bout of polio as a child, which left her with a withered right foot. Her father made sure Frida took up all kinds of sports, which were considered highly unusual for respectable young girls in Mexico at the time, to strengthen her withered limb. When she was a teenage, Frida was severely injured in a school bus accident, which left her in chronic pain for the rest of her life. This accident also prevented Frida from having children (although she had numerous miscarriages).

Due to the sustained injuries, Frida spent much of her life in and out of hospitals, and being immobilized in her bed for months at a time. During her recovery from the accident, while confined to bed, Frida took up painting. She is most well-known for her numerous self-portraits (which many artists today are afraid to even try). These document how she was feeling and what was going on in her life at the time of the self-portrait. Because of the degenerative back problems leaving her in chronic pain, due to the accident, Frida painted herself because "I am all alone most of the time." Frida's style is both realistic and symbolic.  As Herrera explained the symbolism, I would go back and examine the artwork again to see what I missed the first, second, and sometimes third time, to understand what Frida was portraying.

Frida married the famous Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera on Aug 21, 1929.  Diego was many years older than Frida. Frida said, "At 17 (20) I fell in love with Diego, and my parents did not like this because Diego was a Communist and because they said that he looked like a fat, fat, fat, Brueghel. They said that it was like marriage between an elephant and a dove."  The couple had a tumultuous marriage, but loved each other deeply. They married, divorced, and re-married. Both had numerous affairs. Diego actually built a separate house for each of them that were linked together.

The couple traveled as Rivera was commissioned to paint murals. They rubbed shoulders with movie stars, Communists, art dealers, and Leon Trotsky. Diego encouraged Frida's painting and also encouraged her to exhibit her work. He arranged her first major sale in 1938. "A painter in her own right" became Frida's suffix  for her first show in New York City in November 1938. Although, being Diego's wife added to the sensation. At her opening, Frida looked spectacular in her Mexican costume (which became her normal attire after marrying Diego). About half her paintings sold, which was impressive, considering these were Depression years.  Frida also traveled to Paris for an exhibit arranged by Andre Breton, a famous Surrealist poet, as she was accepted as a surrealist painter by fellow Surrealist artists. Georgia O'Keeffe considered her to be the best female artist of the 20th century. She finally had her first one-person exhibit in her native land of Mexico, a year before her death. To Frida, devastated by illness, it was a triumph. Her huge four-poster bed was included as part of the show, so Frida could attend the inauguration. She was brought in on a stretcher and placed in her bed in the middle of the gallery. Like a lavishly gowned saint, Frida dressed in native costume and jewelry, held court. Frida passed away on July 13, 1954 at the age of 47.

Frida was known as a long-suffering wife of a womanizing man (the most revolutionary artist of his time), a painter, an entertainer, a hostess, bi-sexual, severely physically challenged, a Mexican patriot. She painted many self portraits, as well as other subjects besides herself; wrote letters; gave speeches; traveled, and always suffered. She was dearly beloved and respected in her time (as well as today) for her colorful lifestyle, outrageous sense of humor, and for the truth and drama of her art.

Herrera did a remarkable job bringing Frida Kahlo to life in these pages. A wonderful book to read and learn about this extraordinary woman and great painter.

February's book is  The Art Spirit by Robert Henri.

Keep creating!

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