Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Patron Saint #11: Frida Kahlo: Portraits of La Santa Muerte

Autorretrato con collar de espinas (Self Portrait with Necklace of Thorns) - oil on canvas - 1940, Frida Kahlo
(Apart from this image which is posted at its maximum size, all others on this page
 can be clicked to enlarge.)

“I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it's true I'm here, and I'm just as strange as you.”

- Frida Kahlo; quote found here.


I've not been a huge fan of most film and television fare in recent years, so I tend to miss a lot of things. And, when Julie Taymor's Frida (2002) appeared on the tube several months ago, I was a liitle hesitant; not convinced that Selma Hayek (or, anyone, for that matter) could pull off the heavy title role. Happily, I was wrong, and, for the most part, I enjoyed the film. And, it renewed my interest in possibly one of the most celebrated, venerated - and, possibly least understood - artists of the past century, Frida Kahlo (July 6, 1907 - July 13, 1954).

As it was, Frida Kahlo's story came up a few times in the autumn of last year, during research for "Dia(s) de Los Muertos". At first, I thought it was amusing that, while googling "The Day(s) of the Dead," Kahlo's imagery - and photos of Kahlo herself - kept popping up on my computer monitor, but, after exploring some of these links, and doing a little investigation of my own, an intriguing picture began to emerge. Ultimately, Frida Kahlo might not be associated with the Days of the Dead for superficial reasons. As it was, I begin to suspect, in many ways, not only was she aware of La Santa Muerte (or Santisima Muerte) the patron Saint of Death - in spite of the fact that she had not come from, nor lived in the lower class barrios - she, in many ways, identified with her and, possibly, even paid tribute to her, along with the Saint's Mesoamerican forebear, the goddess of death, Mictecacihuatl. Moreover, as documentation of contemporary Santa Muerte worship just happened to originate around the middle of the 20th century - anywhere from the 1940s to the 1960s (Kahlo herself died in 1954) - I suspect that, not only was Frida Kahlo an early contributor (albeit unwittingly) to the religion's more recent form (see here and here), she has become, in a sense, one of the saint's corporeal embodiments...


La Santa Muerte

"You give aid, you give comfort to the unfortunate poor,
you are there as well for the wealthy.
You give hope to the sick, you heal the infirm
as sure as you strengthen the healthy.

Señores with means, señoritas from the barrio
- all gather each month in prayer.
We offer our rosary, we make supplication
that you lead us from our despair."
- Excerpt from "Ode To Santa Meurte", Asa Plinch, found on Most Holy Death, a collaborative effort of Andrew Chestnut and David Metcalfe.

"Santa Muerte is ultimately a dualistic figure, aiding both those devotees labeled “good” and “bad” by mainstream society and religion. Given that she is not an officially recognized Catholic saint, Chesnut suggests that most devotees - especially those raised Catholic - “feel far more comfortable asking the nonjudgmental folk saint to perform decidedly un-Christian miracles than the official saints”. Likewise, individuals who are judged by or excluded from official Catholicism - often based on their “questionable” professions, private lives, or sexualities - are especially inclined to venerate this folk saint who treats everyone equally. For Santa Muerte’s followers, every human being is united by their inevitable death, regardless of their particular religious or political affiliations, criminal backgrounds, or sexualities."
- Excerpt from Rebecca M. Bender's 2014 article: Santa Muerte, the Alluring and Controversial Folk Saint of Death

“Drug traffickers and police, maligned women and any who feel death may be imminent: those who venerate Santa Muerte, the folk saint of death, are an eclectic group of somewhere around 10 million people. Often dressed as a bride and carrying a scythe, the 'bony lady' rivals the popularity of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the beloved icon of the Virgin Mary.”
"I was intrigued by the lucky charms encased within what seemed to be a dire and forboding figure, and so I asked who "he" was, but I was quickly corrected: La Santisima Muerte is a SHE. I was then given a long story of how she keeps men faithful to their wives and will judge and kill men who violate the sanctity of marriage if called upon to do so, because her husband was unfaithful to her, causing her to commit suicide, and to hate and punish all unfaithful men.
The shop owner, Mrs. Cantu, even took me in a corner, away from my husband and taught me how you perform a seven-knot spell for La Santisima Muerte -- it's virtually identical to the hoodoo nine knot spell for a Nation Sack, but you keep the knotted string that has been smeared with semen tied around her statue, for safe-keeping. The statue is actually designed with a groove around the base to accept the wound-up string. After that, she gave me a Santisima Muerte holy medal as a gift and told me with smiling eyes to not let my husband see it."
- Excerpt from Catherine Yronwode's Santisima Muerte page.

"The two most common objects that Santa Muerte holds in her hands are a scythe and a globe. The scythe can symbolize the cutting of negative energies or influences. Also, as a harvesting tool, it can symbolize hope and prosperity. Her scythe reflects her origins as the Grim Reapress ("la Parca" of medieval Spain), and can represent the moment of death, when it is said to cut a silver thread. The scythe has a long handle, indicating that it can reach anywhere. The globe represents Death's dominion over the earth, and can be seen as a kind of a tomb to which we all return. Having the world in her hand also symbolizes vast power.
Other objects that can appear with an image of Santa Muerte include scales, an hourglass, an owl, and an oil lamp. The scales allude to equity, justice, and impartiality, as well as divine will. An hourglass indicates the time of life on earth. It also represents the belief that death is not the end, but rather the beginning of something new, as the hourglass can be turned to start over. The hourglass denotes Santa Muerte's relationship with time as well as with the worlds above and below. It also symbolizes patience. An owl symbolizes her ability to navigate the darkness and her wisdom. The owl is also said to act as a messenger. A lamp symbolizes intelligence and spirit, to light the way through the darkness of ignorance and doubt."
- From the Wiki entry for Santa Muerte.

"La Huesuda is what the people in the rancho used to call the Santa Muerte my Abuela (grandmother) Petra told me this when I would visit her as a child in Zacatecas Mexico. Alas my grandmother died in 2001 at the age of 91 years I thank her for having shared her stories of the sacred lady. Because of my abuela's stories I know that the sacred lady was already revered from older times prior to the modern reverence in 1965.  It is uncertain as to when the reverence for the sacred lady really took hold as my grandmother was born in 1910 and she had heard stories of La Huesuda when she was a little girl."
- From this Santa Muerte page.


La columna rota
(The Broken Column),
1944, Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo was born Magdalena Carmen Frieda y Calderón, one rainy morning in mid-July in the same "Blue House" in Mexico which has become a museum devoted to her life and work. Her father, a photographer, was a German-Hungarian Jew - although his "Jewishness" has recently been challenged - who later became an atheist, changing his surname from Kahl to Kahlo upon relocating to Mexico. Soon after the death of his first wife, he married the woman who would become Frida's mother, Matilde Calderón y González, a native Mexican with Indian heritage, and a devout Roman Catholic, (or, as Kahlo would eventually remark, "fanatical").

Almost from the beginning, Frida Kahlo's life was literally a life of pain; most especially physical. But, as anyone with chronic pain will tell you, overwhelming physical discomfort permeates all aspects of a human's existence: the emotional, the erotic, the outer realm of the psyche, and the subliminal unconscious. Importantly, Kahlo's life-long battle with her physical body began when she was only six years of age, after contracting polio, leaving her with a permanently withered right leg. This may have been enough to daunt many women for a lifetime, but, then, at the age of 18, a true disaster struck: she was involved in a harrowing bus accident in which the lower half of her body was impaled (via the uterus) by an iron handrail. Not only did this impair any hopes of having children, she also suffered "a broken spinal column, a broken collarbone, broken ribs, a broken pelvis, eleven fractures in her right leg, a crushed and dislocated right foot, and a dislocated shoulder." She would spend the remainder of her life in and out of hospitals, undergoing "as many as 35 operations... mainly on her back, her right leg, and her right foot. The medical complications and permanent damage also prevented Kahlo from having a child; though she conceived three times, all of her pregnancies had to be terminated."

Two photos of Frida Kahlo: (left) in the process of embellishing one of her many body casts;
(right) wearing her trademark costume while posing with a feathered friend.

And, no, there isn't a brighter aspect to that part of her story... that is, except for the burning, indomitable spirit of Frida Kahlo herself. Most people would've become victims of such infirmities and retired to a life of enforced isolation; a life dedicated - and, understandably so - to nursing a medical digest full of horrifying wounds. But, not Frida Kahlo. Instead, while encased in a full body cast following her accident, she was inspired towards a more life-affirming direction. She discovered her ability to transmute pain with a paintbrush, and from the time of her accident till the time of her death at age 47, created a body of artwork (another gallery, and another) which astounded, and continues to astound, the art world today.


At the same time, she became the muse, wife, help-mate (and soul-mate) to the celebrated Mexican artist and muralist, Diego Rivera, with whom she's pictured with in the photo (above, left). She was also admired by, and became the acquaintance of the founder of Surrealism, André Breton. Her more famous lovers include Marxist, Leon Trotsky, dancer Josephine Baker, and artist Isamu Noguchi, as well as photographers, Nicholas Muray and Tina Modotti. But, there were a number of rumored affairs as well, up to including, her relationship with artist, Jacqueline Lamba, the second wife of André Breton. In the striking photo above (right) - taken by husband, Diego - she is pictured with artist, Emmy Lou Packard, who lived and worked with Kahlo and Rivera for a short time (photo found here; more here). (There's also a wonderful letter from Kahlo to Packard, circa 1940, found here.) In 1937, Kahlo was included in a Vogue magazine feature, entitled “Señoras of Mexico”.

The framed butterflies which still hang above Frida Kahlo's bed at the "Blue House"
were a gift from Isamu Noguchi, and can be found in the article:
Frida Kahlo, Patti Smith and Noguchi’s Butterflies

Posthumously, she became the subject of numerous books (both "by" and about her) and documentaries (two are listed at the end of this post). Her painting, The Frame, was purchased by the Louvre in 1939, and her home - Casa Azul ("Blue House") in Coyoacán, Mexico City - is now a museum dedicated to her life and work. (For a virtual tour, go here.)
In 2012, an exhibit was curated there, featuring Kahlo's costumes, orthopedic back braces and leather corsets, up to and including her prosthetic limb (wearing a particularly fine, red leather platform boot that any woman would covet). If this seems somewhat ghoulishly invasive, keep in mind, we're discussing a saint and her relics. Adoration knows no shame.

Oh, regarding Vogue magazine: in 2012 - 60 years after her demise - Kahlo made the (supplementary) cover!


Kahlo & Breton; The Surrealist Connection

Lo que el agua me dio (What the Water Gave Me) - oil on canvas - 1938. Frida Kahlo

Kahlo and Breton (?)* 
"My surprise and joy were unbounded when I discovered, on my arrival in Mexico, that her work has blossomed forth, in her latest paintings, into pure surreality, despite the fact it had been conceived without any prior knowledge whatsoever of the idea motivating the activities of my friends and myself. Yet, at this present point of Mexican painting, which since the beginning of the nineteenth century has remained largely free from foreign influence and profoundly attached to its own resources, I was witnessing here, at the other end of the earth, a spontaneous outpouring of our own questioning spirit: what irrational laws do we obey, what suggestive signals allow us to establish the right direction at any moment, which symbols and myths predominate in a particular conjunction of objects or web of happenings, what meaning can be ascribed to the eye's capacity to pass from visual power to visionary power? The painting which Frida Kahlo de Rivera was just completing at that moment - What the Water Yields Me - Illustrated, unbeknown to her, the phrase I once heard from the lips of Nadja: 'I am the thought of bathing in a mirrorless room'."
- André Breton, excerpt from Surrealism and Painting (found here).

"In 'Arcane 17' (1944) (Breton) lent the feminine a new historical gravitas in the guise of the fourteenth-century nymph figure, Melusine, writing that the “time has come to value the ideas of woman at the expense of those of men, whose bankruptcy is coming to pass fairly tumultuously today.” Indeed he felt women would lead society out of spiritual ruination, writing “she’s the only one I can see who could redeem this savage epoch.”
- Alyce Mahon, from The Lost Secret; Frida Kahlo and the Surrealist Imaginary 

Two paintings by Frida Kahlo: (left) Flor de la vida (Flower of Life),1943
(right) El sol y la vida (Sun and Life) 1947. Both are oil paintings on Masonite.

Perhaps, more than any other woman painter, the French surrealist writer, poet, and artist, André Breton*, was enamored with Frida Kahlo. In Europe he was her champion, arranging for her first European exhibit in Paris in 1939.

On her part, Kahlo did not share his fascination, especially with the Surrealists, whom she referred to as: "coocoo lunatic sons of bitches", although she was favorably impressed with Dadaist, Marcel Duchamp. She did not even consider herself a Surrealist, referring to her own work as, not based on her dreams, but drawn from her reality.

That being said, as one can see from the three paintings (above), the Surrealists influenced Kahlo, perhaps, more than she was willing to admit. And, as for Kahlo's influence on Breton, one gets the impression from Alyce Mahon's quote (above) Kahlo both reactivated the feminine side of his nature, and ultimately instilled within him the seeds of his future feminist convictions which had not been in evidence previously.

Regarding Breton's two literary offerings mentioned in the quotes, first we have his iconic surrealist novel "Nadja", published in 1928 (full illustrated text in English .pdf). Interestingly, he later revised the novel - which is about his mysterious interlude with a an equally mysterious woman who is later discovered to be clinically "mad" - in the 1960's. Sadly, the revised edition has, as of yet, no English translation.

Arcane 17, or Arcanum 17 (Green Integer)(1944)on the other hand, featuring the mythological faerie/serpent/mermaid, Melusine (also here), is notable for another reason. It apparently was illustrated by Matta, and its illustrations (examples here and here) are of Tarot cards! (BTW, consider this area a supplement to my post: The Magic of Art & The Art of Magic.)

On a last note, regarding "Arcanum 17", Breton dedicated it to his third and last wife, Surrealist artist, Elisa Bindhoff - whom, in the unfortunate tradition of surrealist wives has had her work virtually "disappeared" - with the words: "Quand le sort t'a portée à ma rencontre, la plus grande ombre était en moi et je puis dire que c'est en moi que cette fenêtre s'est ouverte. (When fate has brought you to meet me, the greatest shadow was in me, and I can say that it is in me that this window has been opened.)"

It is, perhaps, worth noting, that Elisa Breton**, whom Breton met in 1943, was not only South American, but born in 1906, one year before Frida Kahlo.

* Interestingly, Breton studied medicine and psychology before turning to art. Frida Kahlo, on her part, was planning to study medicine before her unfortunate bus accident.

* Regarding the inset photo of Breton and Kahlo, as this photo is both uncredited and undated, I am not even certain the woman in the photo is Kahlo. Is it possibly Breton's third wife, Elisa? Speaking of photos, Breton requested a print of this one of Kahlo from photographer Nickolas Muray.

**Additional note: Elisa Breton joined the ranks of the long-lived surrealist women, passing away in April, 2000, while Breton, himself, passed away 1966. I have just found three examples of Elisa Breton's work here.


Kahlo eventually lost the lower half of her right leg to gangrene... but, I imagine there's a few who would give a right arm to achieve the impact she made within (and after) her short lifetime. In the end, however, we are left wondering - apart from her genius - what motivated her? What drove her to overcome the overwhelming odds against her? Some say it was her love for Diego Rivera. Others claim it was her almost childish need for attention, implying a narcissistic need for self-preservation. Why else would she concentrate on so many self-portraits?

Regarding her self-portraits, perhaps a clue can be found in the one below: "Thinking about Death". Note the odd emblem on her forehead in the area known as the "third eye". It appears to be a motif of a skull and bones. Was she merely "thinking" about death when she painted this portrait, or was she implying she was branded with death? And, if the latter were true... well, in a sense, we are all fated to die, so, what set her apart in this respect?  Keep this idea in mind, as I attempt to answer this last question. Keep in mind, too, that much of what I relate in the following paragraphs was drawn from my own resources, and not from the vast volumes of verbiage that have already been written about her.

Pensando en la muerte (Thinking about Death) - oil on canvas- 1943, Frida Kahlo

First there is this: as someone who travelled physically to the brink of Death, Frida Kahlo effectively died and then returned. Not that I'm implying she had a NDE (near-death-experience) - which, to my knowledge, was never reported - but, like a mythological hero's descent to the Underworld, she brought back a gift: the flame of her own immortality. But, this is not to say it was her conscious reason for beginning to paint, nor was it the motivation behind all those self-portraits. What she meant to do by obsessively pulling personas out of her mirror was slightly more fundamental. And, as anyone who has ever escaped death or was within a hair's breadth from dying might tell you: she was trying to confirm - most especially to herself - that she was still corporeally alive. She didn't badger people to photograph her and then sign the photos "Don't forget me, Frida Kahlo" for egotistical reasons. In reality, she needed to acquire witnesses. She needed proof; she needed a record of her survival beyond the medical ones on file in her doctor's office or hospital repository.

Hear me out... because I've also "been there". I, too, came within a hair's breadth of death in May of 2011. I drove through the wall of a building. No one was injured... including myself. The accident was a freak one due to the "wandering" floor-mat of a 2007 Subaru - which had broken away from the plastic hook which anchored it, before lodging itself under the brake and over the gas pedal. The accident occurred when I attempted to park the car. I braked the car, but the car accelerated. After the crash, I merely climbed out the car - and out of the jagged hole in the building... in shock, but coherent. Later I was told that had I hit the building just several inches to the right of my actual point of impact, I would not have lived to tell the tale. As it was, the air-bag failed to deploy. I was told this occurred because the impact was too great!


The Well-dressed Calavera; the Catrina Connection

"La Calavera Catrina ('Dapper Skeleton', 'Elegant Skull') is a 1910–1913 zinc etching by famous Mexican printmaker, cartoon illustrator and lithographer José Guadalupe Posada. The image depicts a female skeleton dressed only in a hat befitting the upper class outfit of a European of her time. Her chapeau en attende is related to French and European styles of the early 20th century. She is offered as a satirical portrait of those Mexican natives who, Posada felt, were aspiring to adopt European aristocratic traditions in the pre-revolutionary era. She in particular has become an icon of the Mexican Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead."
- From the Wiki entry for Calavera Catrina


It is interesting to note, that both Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera were friends, admirers and supporters of José Guadalupe Posada, whose iconic interpretation of the Catrina is the most iconic symbolic image identified with the Mexican holiday, Dia de Los Meurtos (Day of the Dead). Of Posada and Frida Kahlo we have this: "Thumb-tacked all along the walls of the hotel suite were some very odd engravings printed on the cheapest kind of newsprint. "Jose Guadalupe Posada," Kahlo said, almost reverentially. "Mexican. 1852-1913." She told me that she had put the pictures up herself so she could glance at them now and then and keep her sanity while living in New York City."

Keep this is mind, when we reach the section on Kahlo's and Rivera's relationship, as Posada's Catrina is the central figure in one of Diego Rivera's most acclaimed murals.


Las dos Fridas (The Two Fridas) - oil o canvas - 1939, Frida Kahlo

So, physically, I survived my accident just fine... and, as for the car, it was eventually repaired (and later sold). Then, it was back to business as usual... right?


In terms of my psyche, I  wasn't "fine"... and wouldn't be for another 3 years.  I felt a little like the woman in that campy old flick, "Carnival of Souls" - at least, it was a fear of mine - I was a dead woman walking in spite of the superficial evidence. It's as if a portion of my vitality had "passed" and although I never really admitted this to anyone, I remained haunted - by the ghost of myself - as if some portion of myself, in a parallel or "probable" reality, had not survived the accident and had, actually, died. And, no matter how I tried, I could never quite shake that feeling, nor feel like a real, fully alive human for a very long time. I also had a morbid uneasiness about driving a vehicle and rarely drove very much or very far even when I had a new car (a used Nissan). But then, one day I "came back". I can even remember the actual day the cord was cut between us - myself and the ghost, that is - although I can't remember any event that may have caused this to occur. It just happened. One day I felt myself snap back from the land of the dead and, suddenly, I felt like my old fully-functioning, whole self again.

Oddly enough, during my "dead" period, although I did not paint self-portraits, a mere month after my accident I began this blog, seeking, perhaps, this more contemporary (and public) mode for confirmation of my survival.

Regarding Kahlo's painting above, The Two Fridas - as it was painted during the short period following her divorce from Rivera - the general consensus of opinion is that it represents the division between a pre-Diego Frida and a post-Diego Frida. But, does it? Her actual diary description was that it represented a childhood "imaginary friend".  Only later, did she claim it was an artifact from her marital crises, hence the critic's "spin".

As it stands, generally most of Kahlo's work is interpreted by critics as either relating to her marriage or her inability to have children. And this, I believe, is both an insult to her intelligence, and a mere pandering to a false, feminine stereotype. No, Kahlo had a lot more on her mind than babies and boys!

Incidentally, note the small pair of scissors in the hand of the Frida figure on the left - the Frida from the past -  as she appears to have cut the cord between her and her future Doppelgänger. Which Frida, then, is the "ghost" here? Note the heart of each of them... both are laid bare, but one is open, and the other closed; one is half, the other whole.

El sueño (The Dream) - oil on canvas - 1940, Frida Kahlo

And, while we're on the topic of those of Kahlo's paintings which are not technically portraits, here's a short description of the painting above, "The Dream". In Kahlo's dream, her bed has become a self-driven vehicle floating high in the sky. She is accompanied by a rather marionette-type of skeleton - possibly wired with explosives (?) - holding a bouquet of flowers, while she lies beneath it - mirrored in the same position as her companion, although covered in vines. She sleeps, but her companion, Death, is ever vigilant.

In reality, Frida Kahlo did have a papier mâché skeleton on the canopy above her bed (a photo of it can be found on the page linked to in the paragraph above), which she referred to as "just an amusing reminder of mortality". Maybe it was. And, maybe it wasn't. After all, did she really need a "reminder"? Or, or that matter, do any of us? Once again, we're left with the feeling that there's a strange distance - an unwarranted divide - between the woman and the artist, let alone the artist and the spectator.

Oh, and, by the way, in case you wondered about the epilogue to my own story... well, shortly after my mysterious recovery, I - and my trusty Nissan - drove over 2000 miles to New Mexico without a single hitch.


Psychology and the X-factor; A Challenge

Girl with Death Mask (She Plays Alone) - 1938, Frida Kahlo
"I find myself regarding existence as though from beyond the tomb, from another world; all is strange to me; I am, as it were, outside my own body and individuality; I am depersonalized, detached, cut adrift. Is this madness?"
- Quote from Swiss philosopher, poet and critic, Henri Frédéric Amiel found in the Wiki entry for "Depersonalization". More of Amiel's quotes can be found here.

"Depersonalization is described as feeling disconnected or estranged from one's body, thoughts, or emotions. Individuals experiencing depersonalization may report feeling as if they are in a dream or are watching themselves in a movie. They may feel like an outside observer of their own thoughts or body, and often report feeling a loss of control over their thoughts or actions. In some cases, individuals may be unable to accept their reflection as their own, or they may have out-of-body experiences. While depersonalization is a sense of detachment from one's self, derealization is described as detachment from one's surroundings. Individuals experiencing derealization may report perceiving the world around them as foggy, dreamlike/surreal, or visually distorted."
- Excerpt from the Wiki entry for Depersonalization Disorder.

"I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy as long as I can paint."
- Frida Kahlo, found here (along with links to a few of her diary pages).


In the short online article - Frida Kahlo: Painting through Chronic Pain and PTSD - Dr. Lisa Marrotti mentions Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD) in relation to Frida Kahlo's artwork, but I can't help but feel that this analysis falls short. There is also another "disorder" called "Cotard Delusion", in which a person actually believes they are literally dead and neglect their physical needs. But, that is not the sort of experience I was referring to in the paragraphs above this section, nor do I think for a moment it describes Kahlo's experience. Nor, in fact, does the description of depersonalization (or derealization).  I include all the various terms here as a general frame of reference for what may as well be "the psychology of the unexplained"... which pretty much falls into the same category as the "paranormal" (i.e. we have no understanding of it).

A perfect illustration for this unknowable factor is the painting of Kahlo's (inset above), entitled, Girl with Death Mask (She Plays Alone), Kahlo created in 1938, at the age of 31.

Thought experiment: can psychology really inform us regarding the well-spring from which this image emerged... or might there, in some sense, be something else, intimated by my narrative; a "something else" which varying disciplines within the scientific community grapple with but fail to define?


Autorretrato con mono (Self Portrait with Monkey) - oil on Masonite - 1940, Frida Kahlo
(Note: In 1980, this painting was privately sold to the pop star, Madonna, for $1,000,000.)

But, my own near-death experience pales in comparison to Frida Kahlo's. I could not even imagine how she dealt with it... that is, had it not been for her self-portraits.

Each and every one of these paintings, such as the one above, must have represented a much-needed self-assurance and confirmation; yes, she truly had side-stepped the Grim Reaper, and continued to survive in the flesh, regardless of how that flesh was continuously altered, invaded and tortured on the operating table (in the course of what can only be described as a weird, symbiotic relationship between Kahlo and her physicians, her torturers). Each portrait represented a Phoenix rising from the ashes, a warrior, an avatar reclaiming and reestablishing its viability, vitality, identity and corporeal existence. And I use the word "its" for a reason. There's something gloriously transgender about Kahlo's avatars... "trans" as in mystically transcendental, as well as transcending gender. The portraits are almost unearthly in their power. She conjures up her luminous selves one by one; each one aggressively glaring at the spectator, affirming and reaffirming that yes, Frida Kahlo is most definitely present... not merely as a mortal woman, but, for all eternity... as a god, and, as a goddess: Santa Muerte.

Note that, not only did she not shy away from including her facial hair in her paintings, she emphasized the very thing that many women spend hundreds of dollars eradicating! The painting above could almost be a Renaissance painting of a young man - and a most charming young man at that - the only feminine attribute being the red ribbon braided through Kahlo's hair and then artfully wound around her neck. As Breton once referred to her work: it was like a ribbon around a bomb!


Of Husbands & Lovers & The Erotic Muse

Photograph of Diego Rivera And Frida Kahlo - 1931, Emmy Lou Packard

"Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera were married eighty-two years ago yesterday, on August 21, 1929. She was twenty-two, he was forty-three. She used to call the two of them “pareja extraña del país del punto y la raya,” (strange couple from the land of dot and line). In her diary, she draws them as Nefertiti and her consort, Akhenaten. Akhenaten has a swollen heart, and ribs like claws around his chest. He has testicles that look like a brain, a penis that looks like his lover’s dangling breast. Below is written 'Born to them was a boy strange of face.' Nefertiti carries in her arms the baby Frida couldn’t have.

We find Diego like a virus through the diary pages. “Diego, nothing compares to your hands. The hollow of your armpits is my shelter. I have stolen you and I leave weeping. I’m just kidding. My Diego: Mirror of the night.” Once: “He who sees the color” and beneath that, of herself, "She who wears the color.' Sometimes just, 'DIEGO.' Or 'Diego, beginning. Diego, builder. Diego, my father, my husband, my child.'

“Today Diego kissed me,” she wrote once, then crossed it out."
- Excerpt from The Paris Review blog article, Frida’s Corsets, 2011, Leslie Jamison

“I was born in rain and I will die in rain... They will say I smoked cigarettes and marijuana, cursed hoarse as a crow in all my languages, and loved morphine and Demerol and tequila and pulque, women and men. I will shrug my illusion of shoulders and answer that I am a water woman, not a vessel, not something you can sail or charter. I am instead the tributary, the river, the fluid source, and the sea itself. I am all her rainy implications. And what do you, with your rusted compass, know of love?” 
From an imagined monologue by Frida Kahlo, via Kate Braverman's fictional interpretation: Incantation of Frida K. (2003)


Diego and I (Diego y yo) -
1949, Frida Kahlo
It is impossible to discuss Frida Kahlo's life without mentioning the importance of her husband, Diego Rivera. As we see in the inset portrait (right), in the same way as she once branded her third eye chakra with a death's head, in this painting she has branded the same area with the image of Diego Rivera.

I think it's important to note here, that, for an artist, there are two varieties of muse which they depend upon. First, there is the immutable muse(s) of the psyche (I discuss here), but there is also the erotic muse, and this muse comes in many forms and its identity can change many times during the artist's lifetime. While the erotic muse has no bearing on the way an artist works, its power lies in its role as a primal force; it supplies the power, the fuel, to the creative engine.

Most often, the erotic muse presents itself in the form of a lover - either an actual person, or an imaginary one - and, without this erotic love, the artist's passion to create is often severely impaired. Diego Rivera was one of Kahlo's erotic muses... but, in reality - as we know from her list of lovers -  there were others. But, then, there would have to be. Kahlo was often left alone while Rivera was away, plastering his magnificent murals across the globe; and, he, in turn, was a well-known philanderer, seeking new muses of his own whenever the possibility presented itself (up to and including Kahlo's own sister, which, in terms of many marriages, would've been a deal-breaker). In the end, both husband and wife had voracious appetites; an "appetite" which often seems to vary - both quantitively and qualitatively - with an artist's creative output.
Tree of Life -
sketch - late 1940s
Frida Kahlo (?)

And, make no mistake, Frida's passion was, by no means reserved for Rivera alone. We have, for instance, this excerpt, from a letter Frida Kahlo wrote to her lover, artist José Bartoli:

“My Bartoli…I don’t know how to write love letters. But I wanted to tell you that my whole being opened for you. Since I fell in love with you everything is transformed and is full of beauty…love is like an aroma, like a current, like rain. You know, my sky, you rain on me and I, like the earth, receive you.” 

Along with this, we have the unusual sketch Kaylo gave to Bartoli (inset). Both its style and content seem more refined than what we might expect... so much so that I tend to think it might be Bartoli's. On the other hand, each new engagement with an erotic muse can and will alchemically stimulate and reveal, yet, another side of the artist, thereby allowing new insights and material to emerge.

(Note: Here is a Brain Pickings article regarding Kahlo's letters to Diego Rivera.)

In any case, in spite of their mutual infidelities, and in spite of their one-year-long divorce, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo were devoted to each other for a lifetime. Well, at least, for her lifetime! It is worth noting that, while Kahlo died in 1954, Rivera followed soon afterwards, in 1957; but, not before taking another wife! (Incidentally, his last marriage, inadvertently, was to become a problem regarding his burial. His original wishes were to to be cremated and have his ashes co-mingled with Kahlo's in the pre-Columbian vessel which held hers. This was to be kept in the Blue House in Coyoacán. Unfortunately, his new wife and daughters nixed this plan, and his body now lies in the Rotunda of Famous Men, in Mexico City.)

Central detail of the mural, Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central
(Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central) - 1947, Diego Rivera

One last note in this section, and, this is in regards to José Guadalupe Posada, whom I mentioned earlier in the post. As it happened, he would make an interesting appearance in Diego Rivers's 1947 mural Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central, a detail of which appears above. That is, his ghost has made an appearance; Posada himself had passed away in 1913. Posada's figure is the man in the bowler hat on the right of the Catrina, whom he originally designed. Note he pats her hand, while Diego, on the left - as a youngster in short pants - holds her other hand. Note, too, Kahlo standing behind Rivera, with one hand protectively on his shoulder, while the other holds a small Yin-Yang symbol.

What did Rivera mean by this small, central gathering? He seems to link both himself and Posada with the Catrina (Death), whom you'll note is wearing a boa which is, in fact, a feathered serpent (the symbol for the Aztec god, Quetzalcoatl). But, it is Kahlo who holds the "key" to this conundrum, for hers is the symbol for the homogenous balance of opposites: life/death, male/female, light/darkness, aggression/submission, and the vortex of all cosmic forces.

Autorretrato con trenza (Self Portrait with Braid)  - Oil on masonite - 1941, Frida Kahlo

Of all Frida Kahlo's portraits, the one above is, perhaps, the most powerful; and possibly, the one most neglected by critics and spin doctors. Try as they might, they just can't seem to come to terms with this Mesoamerican avatar, this resolute amazon that glances back at us from the portrait. After all, there is no "pain" in evidence here... no tear-stained love-letters to husband Diego... no allusions to her childless state. And there are few props, apart from a pre-Columbian-styled necklace, a vine (which snakes around her shoulders, once again, like a cord) - I'm reminded of the "silver thread" which is cut by Santa Muerte - and an unusual headdress.

Apparently, she had remarried Diego when she painted this portrait, but, there is no sign of the "blushing bride" anywhere. Kahlo had no delusions. Of course, for this reason, viewers of this image will still try to drag "true love" into the picture. As it was, Frida had shorn off her long hair the previous year - during The Divorce - and some interpret the headdress to represent the cobbling of that hair together with some red fabric or straw to create what resembles an infinity symbol... as in: forever love".

Others see it as an attempt to regain her femininity after the Shorn Hair Incident (which, by the way, resulted in her first fairly straight-forward feminist painting). And, well, yes, it may have been; but only in reference to the ancient, primal-feminine of her ancestors.

It is no secret that she and Diego collected pre-Columbian art and jewelry. So, it would be next to impossible for her not to know the identity of the various Meso-American goddesses, most especially Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec death deity, whose original festivities were celebrated at the end of July, the month of Frida Kahlo's birthday. It is Mictecacihuatl, incidentally, who is most often sited as the precursor to Santa Muerte, and the image of the Catrina during the Mexican Day(s) of the Dead celebrations.

Returning to the headdress in Kahlo's painting, which, apart from displaying a figure-eight (symbol of infinity), one can almost make out a rough square, or reef knot at the bottom. This just happens to be similar to the one on the headdress of the statue to your right (found here)... which, by the way, is either of Mictecacihuatl, or Mictlantecuhtil (her consort).


Three Pre-Columbian Goddesses: Coatlicue, Mictecacihuatl, & Omecíhuatl

"Coatlicue was known as the 'Mother of the Gods.' Her name means 'Skirt of Snakes.' This enormous statue is 3.05 m (10 ft) tall and carved from a single block of stone weighing several tons. Coatlicue's feet have huge claws and her skirt is made up of writhing snakes, held up by a belt with a human skull for a buckle. She wears a necklace of severed human hands and hearts. Her head is made up of two fanged snakes facing each other. At one point in her story, Coatlicue was decapitated (but apparently not killed) and two great jets of blood spurted up which became snake heads. She was the mother of 400 gods and goddesses and so achieved the name 'Mother of the Gods.' In addition, she was the 'Earth Goddess who gives birth to all celestial things', 'Goddess of Fire and Fertility', 'Goddess of Life, Death, and Rebirth', and 'Mother of the Southern
Stars'. She was also the patron of women who died in childbirth, a form of death that, in terms of honor, was equivalent to a warrior dying in battle. Interestingly, Coatlicue was not the supreme deity of the universe. That honor goes to Ometeotl, the original, uncreated god, known as the God of Duality who represented the unification of opposites. The dual male and female forms of Ometeotl were Ometecuhtli and Omecíhuatl, respectively. It was through these two that Ometeotl created the universe and all within it. Duality as a concept (male/female, life/death, beneficial/malignant, day/night, etc) was an central theme in Mexican religious thought and art. Ometeotl was so remote and unknowable that no statues or other representations were ever created of the Dual God.*

'Mictecacihuatl was Goddess of Death, and wife of the Death God Mictlantecuhtil. They lived together in a windowless house in Mictlan, the lowest of nine levels of the Underworld. Her main functions included guarding the bones of the deceased and presiding over the annual festivals of the dead.  Mictecacihuatl, sometimes called Cihuateotl, is often depicted in a seated position, with her clawed hands raised to rake the flesh off the bones of the newly dead, and with her fleshless jaws open to devour the stars when daylight arrived. When a Mexican died, the family began a 40-day ritual that included the sacrifice of a dog called a xoloizcuintli. The person's body was wrapped in simple matting or precious clothes, depending upon social status, and a jade bead was placed in the mouth. The body was then cremated. This began a long journey through the nine levels of the underworld involving many dangers, and during which the body lost much of its flesh. The jade bead (or blue pebble for the poor) represented the heart and was used to divert monsters encountered along the way who would devour the bead instead of the deceased. Finally, the dead person reached a river called Chignahuapan. Here he encountered the xoloizcuintli sacrificed at the funeral. The dog acted as a guide to cross the stream to finally reach Mictlan, "the dark and cold place of no return." It is believed that the Mexican fiesta called the Day of the Dead may have arisen from Mictecacihuatl's festivals, after the ancient Mexica rituals became mixed with Spanish Catholic customs."
- Excerpt (and photos of Coatlicue and Mictecacihuatl) from Mexico City Part 5: Aztec Cosmology, 2012, Jim Cook.

* Although there are no representations of the dual-god Ometeotl, I found this strange, pre-Columbian representation of Ometecuhtli and Omecíhuatl:

Ometecuhtli y Omecíhuatl

So, in contrast to the Christian saint, Our Lady of Guadalupe, whom many often read into the context of Kahlo's work, we find the antithesis: La Santa Muerte, who, together with the ancient, South American goddesses, Coatlicue and Mictecacihuatl, form a sacred female death trinity: a trinity which Kahlo had to have known about, and one of which she was inwardly strengthened by. Not for her the Virgins, the Weeping Women... they may have been symbols implanted in her psyche (by her uber religious mother) at an early age; but, I suspect she outgrew them eventually.

There are, no doubt, many feminist spins I can insert here, but I really don't feel the need to bring feminism into the mix. Others have been there before me - yes, Judy Chicago had her Kahlo offering, and yes, Kahlo had her feminist statements - but, Kahlo's greatest strength was found in her humanism: her ability to relate to both genders, and her ability to resonate with both genders. Her message was in the language of passion, both in her work and in her approach to life.

As for the near-death syndrome I described in my narrative, well, I wonder if at some point she, too, was able to cut the cord between herself and her "ghost". For instance, later in her life she began to forego the self-portraits in favor of still-life paintings - is this a clue? The consensus of opinion seems to be that she no longer found herself attractive as she grew increasingly ill. But, I somehow doubt this. Remember, this was the woman who dutifully painted her every last follicle of her facial hair...


Black-chinned hummingbird
The Hummingbird

"The Aztecs, too, believed that a hummingbird was the reincarnated form of the warriors that lost their life in a battle. They took this form to join their war god Huitzilopochtli, who was also depicted in the form of a hummingbird. They also wore dead hummingbirds on their neck to bring them good luck in war. This talisman also represented vigor and sexual potency."
- via an article found here.


Self Portrait with Necklace of Thorns
On a last note, I just wanted address the presence of the hummingbird in Kahlo's painting, Self Portrait with Necklace of Thorns, painted in 1940, (and featured at the beginning of the post). As much as one tries to bring a bright "happy" note into this image, the fact remains that the hummingbird present in the painting is dead, and, therefore, we can't imagine it symbolizes quite the same thing as the living creature. As is stated in the quote, Aztec warriors wore dead hummingbirds around their necks to bring luck in war, and in honor of the god Huitzilopochtli... which puts a slightly different spin on Kahlo's intentions with this painting.

Incidentally, Huitzilopochtli, the "Hummingbird of the South", was the son of Coatlicue (the great mother-goddess mentioned in the previous section). It is said "she conceived him after having kept in her bosom a ball of hummingbird feathers (i.e. the soul of a warrior) that had fallen from the sky."

(Note: One of the delights of living in New Mexico is the presence of hummingbirds. The one picture above (right) is a tiny critter that's been visiting me - well, specifically my feeder! - all summer. He is one of the 17 species found in New Mexico... and yes, he's as adorable as he looks in the photo. Sadly - for me, at any rate - he will migrate soon... to Mexico!)


"On the day after her death, mourners gathered at the crematorium to witness the cremation of Mexico's greatest and most shocking painter. Soon to be an international icon, Frida Kahlo knew how to give her fans one last unforgettable goodbye. As the cries of her admirers filled the room, the sudden blast of heat from the open incinerator doors caused her body to bolt upright. Her hair, now on fire from the flames, blazed around her head like a halo. Frida's lips seemed to break into a seductive grin just as the doors closed. Her last diary entry read: "I hope the end is joyful - and I hope never to return - Frida."
- Found on the Frida Kahlo website biography page.


And, so, we come to this post's end. It is an exhaustive post, and, if, at the same time, exhausting, I apologize. But, there is not one element of it which, in the end, I was able to set aside or ignore.

"Her hair, now on fire from the flames, blazed around her head like a halo. Frida's lips seemed to break into a seductive grin just as the doors closed."

Oh, yes, she most definitely gave those mourners, her "fans", friends, loved ones - and all of us - an image we can never forget. The goddess - whether in the guise of Santa Muerte, Catrina, Coatlicue, or Mictecacihuatl - had, indeed, risen.

In the end, Frida Kahlo accomplished what few of us can in contemporary times. She was a woman, a figure in art history, a figure of myth, and a figure of legend. I hope, in my own way, I have, at least, contributed to one of these categories. I may be overwhelmingly wrong in my speculation, and I may be accidentally right. The third option, and the one most  plausible, is that, like any artist - including Kahlo - I have merely added another "painting" to that vast gallery created by her admirers.

Viva la Kahlo!


For more information about Frida Kahlo, here are her main websites:
F. Kahlo
Frida 2007
Frida Kahlo (.com)
Frida Kahlo Foundation
Frida Kahlo (.org)
Frida Kahlo Fans

For an article which somewhat supports elements of my own:
“Death Dances Around My Bed:” Frida Kahlo and the Archetype of Death

To view two documentarties online:
The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo - PBS Documentary - (in Spanish)
Frida Kahlo, A Woman in Rebellion


"This is important in studying Aztec religion since it reflects the way in which the Aztecs, like other peoples of the 'pre-modern' world, imbued the natural world with not only religious significance, but also with will power and personality. This is exemplified by the description of the inauguration of a new aqueduct by Ahuizotl which brought "water from Chapultepec to the centre of Tenochtitlan. On that occasion his priests were dressed as the female water-deity Chalchiuhtlicue, 'jade skirt'. Attired as the deity, the priests waited by the channel to welcome the first flow of water. As the water rushed in they reached down to present incense, turquoise, and sacrificed quail to the life-giving element, and spoke to the water itself as the living object of the offering."


  1. A most wonderful in depth post...covering the reality and the myth of Kahlo..a most enigmatic creature......

    My only prior knowledge (apart from general broad awareness of her) came from the Kingsolver novel, The Lacuna.........

    Thank you!

    1. You're welcome! I did the best I could... but, not the best that could be done.
      Never heard of The Lacuna... I'll have to look it up.