Gerry-An, Coyoacán 1989

Frida K '89 01

Gerry-An, Frida Kahlo, Avenue Magazine 1990

In December 1989 producer-stylist Frans Ankoné, hair&make-up artist John Kattenberg, model Gerry-An Schets, and I went to Mexico to do a story on Frida Kahlo for Avenue. Frida Kahlo was a Mexican painter and feminist, at that time not half as famous as she is now. Frans Ankoné had been raving about her for ages, which was the reason I became interested as well, started to gather information and, got totally fascinated from that moment on.

Frida Kahlo was born in 1907 in Coyoacán, just outside Mexico City, in ‘La Casa Azul’, the Blue House, the same place where she died 47 years later, after a tumultuous life with numerous affairs and a husband, painter Diego Rivera, who she married twice. Daring and stubborn already as a child, Kahlo was quite precocious for her age and certainly far ahead of her time. In her youth, she challenged the strict customs of her community by wearing men’s attire, proclaiming herself communist, and experimenting with bisexuality.

Kahlo’s life and art were defined by an extreme consciousness of her own body, which started at the age of 6 when she was struck with polio, and culminated on September 17 1925, when a serious accident that marked her destiny took place. Returning from a trip to a nearby town, the bus in which Kahlo was travelling collided head on with a trolley car. Several people died in this accident, and Kahlo got heavily wounded. A metal railing pierced her body. She broke her spine, her pelvis, some ribs, a collar bone, her right leg in eleven places, her right foot was crushed, her left shoulder dislocated. After being discharged from the hospital, she was bedridden for a long time, and it was during this period that she took up painting. Her mother had a mirror installed just above her bed, which made it possible for her to use her own reflection as the main theme in what became the fascination of her life: the self-portrait.
 
In 1953, after successful exhibitions in New York and Paris, the Gallery for Contemporary Art in Mexico City organized a retrospective exhibition of Kahlo’s work, which was her first solo exhibition in Mexico. Now being one of the most respected painters in her country, the Surrealists attempted to convince Kahlo to become a member of their group, but she persistently refused, saying: ‘I never paint dreams. I paint my own reality.’  For Kahlo, art was a form of surpassing her limitations, a way to imaginatively overcome her physical shortcomings.
 
When the doctors decided it was necessary to amputate her right leg from the knee down, due to gangrenous condition of her foot, a newspaper wrote that Kahlo must have said: ‘Feet? Why should I want them as long as I have wings to fly?’

In her attempt to relieve the pain, she became addicted to painkillers like Demerol and other drugs. Her health continued to deteriorate, and on July 13 1954, several days after taking part in a political demonstration in the rain, she died of pulmonary embolism. There are rumors that her death was caused by a drug overdose and alcohol, possibly deliberate. An autopsy, however, was never performed.

According to her own desire, Kahlo’s body was cremated. Before her death she had said, with a touch of her typical black humor: ‘After having spent most of my life lying on my back I don’t want to end up lying in the ground.’

Critics have speculated about why she was so obsessed with self portraits. Some have stated the theory that her concern with self portraiture represented a form of exaggerated narcissism, as a way to overcome death. If at least your image was left, the victory of death would not be complete. But perhaps the best explanation is provided by Frida herself. When asked why she painted so many self-portraits, she simply replied: ‘Because I’m lonely.’

With thanks to James Geary

 

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