A few years ago whilst visiting a friend in Lisbon, we were lucky enough to see an exhibition of Frida Kahlo’s work at the city’s Centro Cultural de Belem. At the time my husband was really excited because he’d bought a load of Taschen artist profile books and had just been reading up about Frida. He knew her paintings from the pages of a book and not from actually standing in front of them.
Last summer whilst visiting a big museum in the North East, I saw a book which contained photos of Frida, Diego and their friends, gulped at the price, returned home and put it on my Amazon wish list. For Christmas I picked up a second hand copy for my husband and when I finally got round to looking at it, I realised very quickly that the photographs would mean a lot more to me if I knew more about Frida. I went to the bookshelf with all our art books and pulled down Andrea Kettenmann’s book, Frida Kahlo, Pain and Passion. I was not ignorant of her life story as a result of having seen Salma Hayek’s fabulous biopic ‘Frida’ but the Taschen book helped to flesh out some of her story.
Frida Kahlo was born in 1907 but repeatedly lied about her age in order to claim she was born three years later to coincide with the birth of the Mexican Revolution. She was a good student who went to study medicine only to have her academic career stopped by a very serious accident. A tram collided with the bus in which she was travelling, damaging her spine, pelvis, collar bone, ribs and several leg bones. It was whilst enduring a long and painful convalescence that she started to paint. One thing you don’t realise looking at photographs of her paintings is just how small most of them are and this is due to the fact that they were painted as she lay in bed, using a special easel and a mirror suspended over the bed so she could see herself.
Along with the pain of her accident and her inability to have children as a result, Frida’s relationship with Diega Rivera, the much older and already famous mural painter, was her main inspiration for her art. She was also a member of the Mexican communist party and some of her paintings delivered powerful political messages. More typically her paintings are of herself, her husband or their friends. On one hand it might seem rather narcissistic to paint so many self-portraits, but Frida was never particularly kind to herself, often exaggerating her famous ‘mono-brow’ and painting in a rather unattractive moustache. Most of her paintings require interpretation and some knowledge of her life in order to interpret their message and the author explains the significance of the many paintings which are reproduced in the book. With many paintings you can simply look and think “Yes, nice painting” and just move on to the next one. With Frida Kahlo’s work, you get very little from a simple view and you do need to understand the background and though behind her work.
Taschen art books almost always contain excellent reproductions of the artist’s work and this volume is no exception. In total the book offers colour pictures of more than 70 of her works which probably add up to around half of the total body of her work. There are also many photographs and sketches and some examples of Diego’s murals. The author clearly explains the different phases of Frida’s artistic life and the evolution of her work from rather naive and simplistic portraits in her early days, through the shocking blood-spattered work of her painful years of miscarriages and medically enforced abortions, through her surreal almost Dali-esque phase and back to the rather more heavy handed, simplistic pictures of her final painful years.
Frida and Diego’s lives are every bit as interesting as her paintings. They knew a lot of famous people both in the world of the arts and of politics, perhaps most famously giving refuge to Trotsky and his wife after he left Russia. Both had voracious sexual appetites with Diego having lots of affairs including one with Frida’s sister, whilst Frida herself ‘shopped around’ quite extensively with both men and women. The couple were married, divorced and remarried again within a year of the divorce being finalised. They couldn’t live together but they couldn’t live or work apart either. When Frida’s painful but colourful life ended, she was only 47 years old but this superb little book gives us an excellent and inexpensive insight into not just her work but also her life, her loves, her extraordinary style and, perhaps most memorably, her incredible courage.
Reading Frida Kahlo, Pain and Passion set me up to look again at her photographs with more knowledge and to see her paintings with greater clarity. I am left wanting more and determined to track down a more in-depth biography than this slim volume of just 96 pages can provide but I recommend it highly as a beginners guide to the life and work of a remarkable woman.
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