As we ushered in the new year a few days ago and as we started wishing others health and happiness, I couldn’t help but wonder about the way the December 31st / January 1st hinges two separate years together and the importance that some people put on the value of the new year in its ability to overshadow the failures of the last one. For some reason, this put me in mind of life’s catalysts and how sometimes completely innocuous events can bring about the change of one’s entire destiny and sometimes the destiny of others.
(Honestly, it’s probably the Dexter’s Season 4 finale that brought about this mulling as well (Yes, I know I’m woefully behind on my TV viewing but I’m working on it). I mean, Dexter’s chasing after a bad guy when “suddenly” Dexter’s wife calls on his cell phone. Dexter’s Conscious tells him not to answer but he picks up anyway. So there he is trying to appear normal in a high speed chase (while his wife natters on about something silly (as usual)) when he swerves and clips some other dude’s driver’s side mirror and then there’s this whole downward spiral that snowballs out of control to VERY BAD THINGS. And all of this because he picked up a phone call!)
Life is like that. Sometimes small meaningless events lead to big bad things.
Fortunately, sometimes very bad events can lead to big other things (because “good” or “bad” is subjective depending on your point of view).
This is the case with Frida Kahlo de Rivera. (Are you still here? Because after that digression, I may have lost you.)
Frida was born in 1907 in a suburb of Mexico City. As a young girl, Frida was not gifted in the good health lottery having already suffered polio when she was six. Her health “luck” further betrayed her when she was involved in a bus accident when she was 18. On September 17, 1925, Frida was in a bus that collided with a trolley car and suffered: a broken spinal column, a broken collarbone, broken ribs, a broken pelvis, no less than eleven fractures in her right leg, a crushed and dislocated right foot, and a dislocated shoulder. As if that wasn’t enough, an iron handrail pierced her abdomen and her uterus, completely compromising her reproductive capacity.
While I don’t want to stigmatize against Mexico itself and the medical care that can be found there (at the time), my imagination still brings to mind the life Mexicans seem to lead in spaghetti westerns and as such, I have difficulty fathoming what it must have been like to wake up in a hospital with all of those injuries. I hope she had easy access to tequila or something to get her through the three months she spent painfully immobilized in a body cast.
I also hope that she had a straw.
What she did have was a lot of spare time on her hands and a brain that needed occupying.
On returning home to recuperate further, her parents transformed her convalescence room into a studio, adjusting the easel so she could actually use it without difficulty. She started what would become her signature self-portrait:
Self Portrait in Velvet Dress (1926)
Of her 143 paintings, more than a third of them are self portraits. Some might decry her as being vain, but honestly if you’d been through what she’d been through and had to go through the pain that she continued to suffer as a result of that accident for the rest of your life, you’d probably be a bit obsessive about proving your continued existence by painting yourself over and over again too.
I exist and to prove it, I shall paint myself existing.
Frida herself thought of her self portraits as a means of expressing her own loneliness, as though she was painting herself some company and she knew no one better than her own self: “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.” (Andrea Kettenmann, Frida Kahlo. Frida Kahlo, 1907–1954: pain and passion. Page 27).
Adding to her health difficulties was the tumultuous relationship she had with Diego Rivera. While the marital relationship lasted decades, it wasn’t a healthy one, especially if from the quote above, Frida spent a lot of time alone (whether that was because of the extramarital affairs they both tolerated in the other (Frida’s involving both men and women) or because of their separate, though adjacent living quarters, it’s hard to tell).
The Broken Column (1944)
Diego and I (1949)
Frida passed away in 1954 soon after her 47th birthday. Though an autopsy was never performed, it’s possible that she finally gave in to the pain and did what she could to move beyond it. Part of a leg had been amputated not too long before and a long sickness had left her in a weakened state. She became weary of existing.
The reason we know of Frida now is, honestly, because of the Neomexicanismo movement that started in Mexico three decades after her death. She finally became recognized as an artist in her own right, rather than as Diego’s wife.
I wonder how she would react if she knew that her atrocious accident and lifelong suffering had been the catalyst for her legacy? That her work would be celebrated within her own country as being everything that traditional Mexican artwork should embody and that feminists would raise Frida to the rank of heroine for her uncompromising depiction of the female experience and form?
I hope that she’d smile a bit.
And I hope she’d decide that it had been worth it.