I popped into the Frida Kahlo exhibition currently at the San Francisco MOMA. Mainly, to see her piercing paintings–and boy, do they pierce–but also, at least in part, as research for my book.
A friend of ours, Erika Lessey Chen, had suggested Kahlo to me a year ago as a possible life-story to look into. I had told Erika that I’m interested in people whose success (triumph) somehow turned into failure (disaster), or whose failure somehow turned into success, à la Kipling’s impostors.
Does Kahlo fit my story-line? Mostly, I’m looking at characters such as Hannibal’s enemy and nemesis Scipio to illustrate how disaster at the right moment in a life can liberate a person–set free his or her imagination and creativity, and thus initiate a much bigger triumph in the future. People such as J.K. Rowling and Steve Jobs.
But disaster can have other effects, of course. There is the strength that comes from overcoming it. I’ve mentioned Joe Biden and Demosthenes in that context. Among the main characters in my book, the person who would personify that is Fabius, the old Roman senator who was the only one not to despair after Hannibal’s crushing victories.
And Kahlo? As I walked through the exhibition and looked at her absolutely harrowing self-portraits, I realized that she had done something else again with her own disasters: She had made the disasters themselves the success.
Here she was on a hospital bed in Detroit, her body writhing and bleeding, with a uterus and a fetus torn out of her. She painted it after yet another miscarriage. The people in the exhibition became very quiet in front of that one.
There she was bound in a steel corset with a broken spinal column, her entire body pierced with nails. In this painting, she is all pain and frustrated sexual desire.
Over there she is sitting in a double-self-portrait, after her marriage to Diego Rivera had failed. She is holding hands with herself, and simultaneously tries and fails to stop the bleeding of her heart. (All these paintings seem to be copyrighted, so I don’t want to show them here.)
What were her disasters? The first was polio, which she caught at age six, and which left her right leg atrophied. The second was a bus accident when she was eighteen. She broke her spine, her pelvis, and lots of other bones, and an iron handrail pierced her uterus, leaving her infertile. The third, arguably, was falling in love with Diego Rivera, whom she adored but who was never faithful to her.
In short: pain, infertility, loneliness. And to deal with it, she painted. And the painting made her into the most “successful” Mexican artist ever.