I have been a little obsessed with Frida Kahlo.
After Joseph died, I had a memory of one of her paintings. Naked on the bed giving birth, her miscarriage, the sheets bloody. I looked for it on the internet. It turns out I made up that painting, spliced from her other paintings and a scene from the movie. But I found others that spoke to me. “The Little Deer.” “My Birth.” Paintings that had nothing to do with miscarriage or loss. They were all just so full of pain. So beautiful and brutal. (Most of Frida’s paintings I mention can be seen here.)
“The Two Fridas” captured my attention the most strongly. I thought immediately that I would do my own version of it, my own double self-portrait, hearts connected, bleeding. My before-Joseph self and my after-Joseph self.
I downloaded a picture of the painting and looked at it off and on for weeks. I printed it out and put it on the art table. I looked at the painting, I imagined what mine would look like, and I avoided it. I’d never pull it off. I’m not a painter. All my self-portraits are happy accidents. Not a good combination.
I have a problem with perfectionism in my art. (I’m aware this is not a unique attribute for an artist. My mother is an artist. I grew up with her and know this perpetual dissatisfaction well.) I think this is why charcoal is my favorite medium—it’s sketchy, it’s messy, it doesn’t have to be perfect, and if there is a mistake, it’s easy to smudge away with a finger. Mostly, though, my perfectionism gets in the way. I can picture how I want to do the painting/drawing/sculpture/collage, but I can’t get there. Might as well not even start.
And, the last time I did a painting was in 2005. The one before that was 2001. And those are the only two paintings I’ve done in my life that I felt were worth anything, that turned out just right.
Better to leave Frida to Frida.
In March we went to visit A’s family in Atlanta. We’d all planned to go to the High Museum of Art to see the Frida and Diego exhibit that was up. But A was sick, and her dad was sick. We deliberated. It was cold and rainy outside. A’s dad had a fire going in the fireplace. It would be easy to stay home.
But my heart whispered go see Frida. So A’s mom and I got in the car and drove across town to the High.
The exhibit was intense. (How could it not be?) I cruised through most of the sections by Diego Rivera, and drank in Frida Kahlo’s art. Some paintings I’d seen pictures of before now reached into my throat and grabbed my heart—“The Broken Column,” “A Few Small Nips,” “Henry Ford Hospital.” And then the ones I hadn’t seen before: I stood in front of “Without Hope” and gagged—so full of grief; I contemplated “The Bus”—the still moment before disaster strikes. They had a photograph of her in a body cast where she’d painted her miscarried baby on the plaster over her womb, and next to the photo was a case with the cast in it.
I studied the photographs, too, searching her face for traces of her injury and loss. I searched her face for traces of myself. I once fancied myself a Frida look-alike—I have a photograph from my senior prom in profile, when I had little roses pinned in my hair, where I do look a little like Frida. But this time I didn’t see my own face. Bits of my mother, maybe, my grandmother. I’ve started plucking my eyebrows since high school.
I am not her, I thought.
I thought of the Dar Williams lyric, “I can find an apartment where a struggling artist died, and pretend because I pay the rent I know that pain inside.”
But I am like Frida, I thought, in some little way.
I learned that most of Frida’s paintings were given or sold to close friends. She didn’t exhibit much in her lifetime. Diego Rivera pushed art collectors into buying her paintings. Con razón, I thought. With reason. Her art is too painful. Raw. She didn’t seem to paint for an audience. She painted because she had to. That need to do art is apparent in every painting. Saving her own life with each brush stroke.
In the gift shop, my mother-in-law bought me a book of Frida Kahlo. Now I can look at her paintings whenever I want.
When we got home from Atlanta, I sat down and sketched “The Two Fridas” in light pencil. Before-Joseph on the right, pregnant. After-Joseph on the left, bleeding. I looked at my sketch and cried and cried, losing him all over again. Losing my happy, pregnant self again and again with each glance.
I tucked the sketch behind my print-out of Frida’s painting and avoided it some more.
I rented the movie Frida and watched it on a Monday night. There were a dozen scenes I didn’t remember from when I first watched it, years ago. I held my breath when the bus crashed. I cried when Frida miscarried.
I thought about Death as a woman while Chavela Vargas sang “La Llorona.” Negro, pero cariñoso. Dark, but loving. I hope the Death who has my baby is loving. I hope Death is covering my baby with her shawl, like the song says. Que más quieres? Chavela Vargas barks at the end of the song. What more do I want? I want my baby, alive. Quieres más? Do I want more? Yes, yes, I want more, I want, I want, I want my baby.
On a Wednesday, I started painting. I painted Frida’s stormy sky and empty plain. I took a photo of it and emailed it to my mother, full of adrenaline, excited. The creation of something new. Then I sat down and cried. When A saw it, she cried, too. You’re not supposed to be painting stormy skies and empty plains, she said. You’re supposed to be cradling our baby.
Thursday, I made the dresses. I painted the shape of my baby in my belly. Then I added arms, heads, painted hair and faces. (They don’t look quite like me but it’s not Frida, and that’s good.)
Friday I glued down the last painted-collage pieces and got out the red paint. Darker red for my blood, brighter, newer red for my baby. But it’s all the same blood, really, circulating through the before me and the after me and our baby. My heart may be bleeding, but it’s still beating, pumping my blood and Joseph’s cells round and round to every living tissue of my body.
So here I am, a double self-portrait, homage á Frida. My before-Joseph self and my after-Joseph self. It’s called “Before and After.”
There are other artists always on my mind.
The evening after I wrote the poem “The Things I’m Made Of,” A and I went to the museum to see an exhibit by Diana al-Hadid. Is there a word for “serendipity” that carries a more somber connotation? I came home and revised the poem to add one word, the material al-Hadid used in her sculptures: gypsum.
Oswaldo Guayasamin is another whose images are never far from me. In particular, “Las manos,” his hands. (I couldn’t find it on the official website, but here is a good photo of the series—although, in real life they are enormous and take up a whole wall in his museum in Quito.) I went to the Museo Guayasamin 11 years ago when I studied abroad in Ecuador, and fell in love with his expressiveness. One of my favorite of his paintings is his Pieta, which also hangs in the museum and takes up a whole wall.
I’ve been thinking a lot of Pietas, and the Virgin Mary, even though I’m not Catholic. But that will have to be the subject of another post.
© Burning Eye