Tapas in Sanskrit refers to austere disciplines one undertakes to facilitate spiritual development—growth through suffering. The severe trials or tapas encountered by Frida Kahlo in the course of her life profoundly influenced her personal and artistic evolution. Some would argue, though, that the vast commercialization of Kahlo’s image has blurred the reality of her life and art.
“The essential part of her life has not only been blurred, but erased,” says well-known Ajijic artist, Efren González. “She’s now just a commercial product.”
Kahlo Sin Fronteras (Kahlo Without Borders), a photographic exhibit currently at the MUSA Museo de las Artes Universidad de Guadalajara (Av. Juarez 975), features unique images of Frida Kahlo, her family and friends, her letters, hospital charts, and a window into a 1953 hospital stay. It provides an opportunity to acquire a more grounded view of this global icon.
Born in Mexico City on July 6, 1907, Frida Kahlo contracted polio at age six, resulting in a permanent limp and disfigured left leg. In 1925, at age 18, a horrific bus accident broke her spinal column, collar bone, pelvis, and right leg and foot. Additionally, a metal handrail impaled Kahlo’s abdomen and uterus. These injuries derailed Kahlo´s medical school ambitions and left her in lifelong chronic pain. Following her release from the hospital, she spent three months at home, bedridden in a full body cast . . . and began to paint.
The most cursory perusal of Kahlo’s artwork reveals a deep and obvious correlation between her personal trials and her art’s subject matter. Kahlo underwent 32 surgeries during her life, some botched. She endured long bedridden spans and countless corsets of leather, steel, or plaster. Her personal life also provided its share of tumult. In 1929, at age 22, Kahlo married renowned Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera, 20 years her senior. The marriage was frequently rocky with a series of infidelities on both sides, including Rivera’s affair with Kahlo’s younger sister, Cristina. The couple divorced in 1939, only to remarry a year later. These agonies are frequently and graphically depicted in the trajectory of Kahlo’s artwork.
“It takes a lot of skill and courage,” says Cristiana Marinescu, artist and co-owner of Cristi Fer Art and Workshops in Ajijic. “Skill in the sense of her painting ability and the courage to open up her emotions. Not everybody can do that.”
In 1930, Kahlo and Rivera spent six months in San Francisco. They also visited Detroit and New York City as Rivera completed various art commissions. On this and future visits, the striking Mexicana turned heads with her natural charisma and traditional dress and often stole the thunder from the more famous Rivera. Over time, her profile and confidence grew. She smoked, drank, swore, and once boldly proclaimed her artistic superiority to her husband . . . and continued to paint.
“[She showed] the willingness to break expectations,” says Efren González. “Diego was doing what people expected. Diego was doing the business part. Diego was satisfying a clientele. She wasn’t. She was doing what she wanted to do. Regardless of what anybody thought.”
Throughout these years and beyond, Kahlo’s health issues persisted with miscarriages, an appendectomy, spinal graphs, and the amputation of several gangrenous toes.
By the late 1970s, she was attracting increased attention as art historians and political activists took note of her work. By the 1990s, she had become a high-profile figure in the art world and beyond. Her perceived independence, strength of character, nonconformity, striking beauty, and artistic talent created a global icon, and many have cashed in. But does the commercial image, the icon status, truly reflect the person who struggled so desperately in her life?
“I don’t think any person deserves to be an icon,” says Cristiana Marinescu. “They are commercializing an idea that really doesn’t have much to do with Frida Kahlo or her art. I think it comes from society’s need to project. ‘Oh, she was strong, oh, she was bisexual, oh, she was talented, oh, she was political, oh, she did drugs,’ “All these things that they (the people who turned her into an icon) wanted to do but were afraid to do themselves.”
In 1953, due to a gangrene infection, doctors amputated Kahlo’s right leg just below the knee. A particularly arresting image at the exhibit shows Kahlo’s prosthetic leg lying in a dirty bathtub, alongside which is a photo of a paint-splattered hospital smock. The juxtaposition of these two images drives home the reality of Frida Kahlo’s struggles and strength, and serve as strong reminders of the actual woman behind the commercial product
Frida Kahlo passed away on July 13, 1954.
Kahlo Sin Fronteras continues at the MUSA Museo de las Artes Universidad de Guadalajara until August 6, 2023.
For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com