By Kathy Brewis in Times
She crafted her own image with exquisite care, creating herself on canvas over and over again, always the paradoxically triumphant victim. The legend she built around herself is so powerful it inspires and intrigues half a century after her death. Because at its heart remains a mystery.
Her intense, troubled marriage to her fellow Mexican painter Diego Rivera is well documented. So are her lovers, male and female, the childhood polio that left her with a thinner right leg and the terrible accident that broke her spine and pelvis. She painted her abortions, her back operations, her physical suffering. Others have focused on her mental pain and defiant spirit – in books, exhibitions and films.
Yet, despite all of this, Frida Kahlo is oddly elusive. The woman who made dozens of self-portraits in the 1940s and early ’50s was not lying when she called herself “the great concealer”. She painted her own narrative in bold swathes of colour, perhaps hoping that nobody would dare read between the brush strokes.
“Kahlo is still an enigma,” says her biographer Hayden Herrera, “because she held back a great deal, and part of her creative energy went into inventing her persona. Everyone who knew her talked about her alegria [cheerfulness]. It was important for her to appear strong, perhaps in order to fortify herself. I suspect that she was much less happy than she pretended.”
“She was vulnerable,” says Salomon Grimberg, the author of two new books on Kahlo – one focusing on her still lifes, including some that came to light during his research, and the other centring on a previously unpublished interview she gave to a psychologist friend. “We’re all vulnerable. We create a self-image to feel right about ourselves, and then spend the rest of our lives trying to protect it.” The difference is that Kahlo’s self-images have huge commercial value: her 1943 painting Roots sold for $5.6m at auction two years ago.
In Mexico, Kahlo is known as the “heroine of pain”. “I am alone,” she confessed in capital letters to her diary. But publicly, emphatically, she denied this universal truth. “She couldn’t tolerate being on her own,” says Grimberg. Her house was covered in mirrors – on the canopy of her bed, on tables, on her wardrobe doors, even in the garden. Did her reflection provide comfort? She often drew herself by looking in the mirror; in one drawing she appears to be left-handed, because it’s a mirror image.
“Here I am sending you my portrait so you will remember me,” she wrote on her first known self-portrait, a pencil sketch from 1920. “As long as she was in the mind of others, she existed,” says Grimberg. “If she got the attention of other people, she mattered.” Grimberg is, unusually, both a psychiatrist and an art historian. “I was always interested in why people make art,” he says. “Art is no different from the symptoms that psychiatric patients have, except you can visualise it.” He has been writing about Kahlo for 20 years. He lives in Dallas, Texas, and completed his medical training in the States, but he grew up in Mexico – and a member of his family was on the medical team that amputated Kahlo’s right leg below the knee in 1953. “I grew up listening to stories about Kahlo,” he says.
In the 1960s he worked at the Galeria de Arte Mexicano in Mexico City. “Even then, a Kahlo still life was $4,000 – you could buy a small house in Mexico for that then. Her Self-Portrait with Loose Hair came up for sale for a little less than $10,000 and I tried to persuade my father to buy it, but he said, ‘What an ugly woman! Why would I want that in my house?’ And when he heard the price he said, ‘Are you crazy?’ ”