FRIDA KAHLO, THE BRUSH OF ANGUISH
The Colors of Life, Part 6
In 1945, after reading Sigmund Freud's Moses and Monotheism, given to her by a friend and patron, Jose Domingo Lavin, Frida painted a large oil, Moses. The result, done over three months, has the pictorial complexity of a mural design and is unlike her other work. At the center of the composition Moses floats on the river in a basket, looking out with a third eye in his forehead, the eye of knowledge. Some of Frida's recurring symbols appear-a snail, rainfall of milk, skeletons - along with great figures from history: Christ, Gandhi, Buddha, Marx, Stalin, Nefertiti, and Napoleon. There are also Egyprian, Greek, and Aztec deities and crowds of common people. "What I wanted to express very clearly and intensely," Frida declared, "was that the reason these people had to invent or imagine heroes and gods is pure fear. Fear of life and fear of death."
Although largely self-taught, and considered by many to be a naive painter, Frida was actually very sophisticated. Intelligent, well-read, and well-informed, she was acquainted with the traditional schools of painting. More important, she recognized the vanguard of Mexican and foreign art not only through her travels but through direct contact with the artists. Direct influences show up in some cases, as in Magnolias (1945), reminiscent of the work of Georgia O'Keeffe, or in Four Inhabitants of Mexico City (1938), recalling de Chirico. Her earliest works showed an acquaintance with art books; in her first self-portrait for Gomez Arias, she described herself as "your Botticelli," and in letters to him she expressed interest in Modigliani and Piero della Francesca. Her use of suffocating background vegetation is similar to that of Henri Rousseau, the small figures in What the Water Gave Me (1938) like something out of Hieronymus Bosch, and the written legends in others like those of the Mexican painter Hermenegildo Bustos.
But Frida was also the product of a bold and brilliant generation that looked back with devotion to its Mexican roots and valued the reality it found there, uncontaminated by foreign influences: She admitted to having a great admiration for her husband's work, as well as that of Jose Guadalupe Posada, Jose Marfa Velasco, and Gerardo Murillo (Dr. Ad), and she found great beauty in the highly developed pre-Conquest indigenous arts.
Four Inhabitants of Mexico City, 1938
Roots (The Pedregal), 1943
What the Water Gave Me, 1938
Self-Portrait with Unbound Hair, 1947
Frida at her easel, 1951
Self-Portrait with Portrait of Dr. Juan Farill
Frida and Diego possessed several hundred Mexican ex-votos. These religious paintings, done by anonymous artists, traditionally are donated to churches as offerings to Jesus Christ, the Virgin, or a favorite saint in acknowledgment of divine intervention in times of severe trouble or illness. Generally painted on small pieces of metal, they carry short verbal descriptions of the events depicted. This format inspired Kahlo to combine text and imagery in many of her works and to paint scenes in commemoration of significant relationships and occasions. In Self-Portrait with Portrait of Dr. Juan Farill (1951), the image of the doctor substitutes for the miracle-working saint, and Frida, the invalid, sits in a wheelchair, painting with her own blood, using her obliging heart as a palette.
Frida was claimed early on by Breton and the Surrealists as one of their own, and for a time she did not seem to mind being caught up and identified with the chic vanguard movement. But later, she declared herself not one of them, and most today would agree. "I never painted dreams," she said. "I painted my own reality."