Apart from a similar sounding name, a similarity of approaches connects Frida Kahlo, the Mexican painter (1907-1954), with many people in this region. These are literal, decorative, personal and colourful. No wonder a number of local artists have been inspired by her work.
It is not always that you can link the personality of an artist with their art. But, in the case of Kahlo, her life cycle is crucial in order to comprehend her paintings: a woman, perhaps lonely at heart and in pain, seeking happiness in marriage, lovers, political struggle and travels. Thus, her work is a cartography of grief.
The pain was not just psychological or emotional, it was physical too. A major exhibition ‘Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up’ at the Victoria & Albert Museum London (from June 16 to November 4, 2018, sponsored by Grosvenor Britain & Ireland) not only presents her paintings but objects relating to her medical conditions as well as sources of her aesthetics. The show includes artworks, photographs of the artist and her family, corsets that she had to wear due to her illness after her accident and her various dresses. The exhibition is a comprehensive body to inform how an artist is not alone in her studio; she is dealing with her demons too — past, relationships, feelings, body and its unavoidable problems.
If one surmises her work in a single word, it would be ‘body’. The physicality of a soul seems to form the main content, rather the context, of Kahlo’s art. The passion of the person is depicted in the way she paints her self-portraits. These ageless portraits offer a shift in terms of props: face of her husband (Diego Rivera) on her forehead, pet monkeys surrounding her, her coiffure, braids and collars. But the features of the painter remain unchanged, corresponding to the iconic image of Frida Kahlo stuck in our mind.
That image is constructed with a contradiction, or a complementary element — a beautiful woman yet a tormented soul. A Mexican who wears her traditional attire, yet is not locked in the illusion of identity because she aims for something higher, the Revolution. A wife in love and in awe with her husband, but had relationships and lovers, like Leon Trotsky and Nickolas Muray (“You deserve a lover who makes you feel safe, who can consume this world whole if he walks hand in hand with you; …You deserve a lover who takes away the lies and brings you hope, coffee, and poetry.” Kahlo). A person who had to suffer insurmountable ache, yet was able to ponder upon the issues of race, politics and gender.
The works collected at the V&A Museum provide a comprehensive backdrop to understand the mind of a painter — “…personal artefacts and clothing…Locked away for 50 years after her death, this collection has never before been exhibited outside of Mexico”. There are several plaster corsets (which the artist had to put on because her spine was too weak) that are scribbled, drawn and painted on. There are her letters and even her prosthetic leg with leather boot that she wore due to her medical condition. There also are a number of photographs of Frida posing as a model in enchanting dresses from 1939 by Nickolas Muray along with her costumes displayed in the galleries.
In her canvases, she constructs, a world composed of reality and myth, of observation and imagination, of usual and extraordinary. In that scenario, even a simple still life ‘The Bride Frightened at Seeing Life Opened’ (1943) with a doll put next to carved papaya and watermelon has other sexual and social connotations. Or works addressing the history and political situation of her homeland are rendered in a personal, rather naïve manner. For example, ‘The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Myself, Diego and Senor Xolotl’ (1949) in which she combines her immediate reality with Mexican mythology and history. The condition of being from Mexico in ‘Self-Portrait on the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States’ (1932) is portrayed by a female in the middle of two worlds, two world views, separating a society of industry, technology, progress and future from another culture composed of heritage, stories, gods, temples and vegetation. This painting, is much relevant in the wake of Trump’s decision to erect a wall blocking the US border from Mexico!
In most of her portraits, when you see the face of an eternal youth, you are also aware of her sombre state, a result of her life stitched with suffering. That suffering, the misery, led to something unique in the world of art. Defying and deviating from the path of her celebratory companion, her husband, Diego Rivera, Kahlo opted for a language that was different from the mainstream revolutionary art of Social Realism. In contrast to the intimidating pictorial practice of Rivera, and other Mexican muralists David Siqueiros and Jose Orozco, she preferred a diction that was intimate.
Her work at the V&A displayed along with votive pictures from Mexico helps in comprehending the construction of her imagery. Her painting is closely connected to narratives in these images. At the same instance, it is not alien to the visual vocabulary from the subcontinent, because tears dropping from Frida’s eyes in her canvases can be compared to weeping faces painted on the back of rickshaws and trucks. Streaks of blood from her wounds link her surfaces to popular illustrations on Urdu magazine covers. In fact, the imagery of Kahlo does not come across as strange or sophisticated as Surrealism (“Some critics have tried to classify me as a Surrealist; but I do not consider myself to be a Surrealist”). In Pakistan it is not unusual to encounter these ‘overtly descriptive’ images on posters, carpets, film advertisements and paintings on vehicles.
This visual relationship is perhaps parallel to what Octavio Paz explores in his book In Light of India, mentioning common elements between India and Mexico. On reading about bread, (“Indians eat a kind of tortillas, called ‘chapaties,’ that are very similar to ours…..The chapati, like the tortilla, serves as a spoon: an edible spoon!”), ways of presenting oneself, artefacts, and interaction between people, one realises there are many similarities between Ancient India and Discovered India (the Latin America, which in the opinion of Mexican historian Edmundo O’Gorman, was invented!).
Being at her exhibition was like seeing oneself in a mirror far from home or not too disconnected with the art and artefacts displayed in South Asian Collections situated near the Kahlo show. Leaving those impressively curated rooms, with her visuals still resonating in my head, I came across Tipu’s Tiger, (a wooden object made in 1780 or 1790, Mysore) a striped tiger mauling a European soldier. It seemed Frida Kahlo’s exhibition was continuing beyond her reserved space.