<![CDATA[Frida Kahlo in America - Blog]]>Tue, 17 Oct 2017 13:15:22 -0700Weebly<![CDATA[Viva Frida!]]>Sun, 24 Sep 2017 20:02:58 GMThttp://fridakahlojourney.com/blog/viva-frida7739086
I haven’t written much in the past few months because I’ve been immersed in writing my book, but I’ve pried myself away from the computer a few times to experience Frida exhibitions and festivals. It’s always fun to celebrate this endlessly fascinating woman and artist with others.

Yesterday, the Mexican Heritage Plaza in San Jose, California, threw a fantastic Frida bash, called Viva Frida. It was sold out and I can understand why. This second annual tribute to the Mexican painter and provocateur was an incredible event.
 
When I entered the plaza, VIVA FRIDA in huge letters greeted me, seen above. There were also several movable walls with photographs and reproductions of Frida’s paintings filling the central space. Around the perimeter of the plaza, as if hugging the words and images, there were booths filled with an array of colorful items, such as paintings, clothes, jewelry, pillow covers, wooden boxes, flowered headbands, etc. They were all dedicated to Frida’s iconic images.

A student at Abraham Lincoln High School made the painting of the monkey with a third eye, seen below. The school had a booth, which featured impressive shirts, fingernail decals, furniture, painted coffee tins with cacti in them, paintings, and collages. I spoke with some of the students and a teacher who all exuded a passion for their school, Frida, and art. It’s wonderful to see how Frida is still inspiring a younger generation.
 
Just outside the plaza, there were two more spaces. One was indoors and it was filled with different types of mezcal and tequila. They also served Frida margaritas with flowers floating on top. Just outside this large room, there was a beautiful grassy area with trees and a reflection pool. Here you could sit and relax or stroll through the additional booths surrounding this garden.
 
A mariachi band played throughout the day, one of Frida’s favorite types of music. They helped create a lively environment. It was also nice to see a talented young girl playing violin and singing with the band.

The day ended with a Frida fashion show and a look-alike contest. Both were impressive. I’m including a few examples of the fashion show, the Frida look-alike contestants, and the winner, all seen below. I spoke to the winner whose name is Claudine. Even though she is from France and not Mexico, I knew the moment I saw her that she would win the contest. It was close, however, as Claudine had to battle it out with a Frida contestant dressed in “male” attire. Both captured importance aspects of Frida, but there was something about the way Claudine held herself that radiated Frida’s beauty, charm, and elegance.
 
I think Frida would have been tickled that the woman who won the contest shares the same name as Claudine, the fictional character in Colette’s first four novels. Colette's Claudine starts out as a self-assured French girl and by the end of the series, she’s transformed into a charismatic woman. She sounds a lot like the little Mexican girl who rode her bike as fast as she could through the streets of Coyoacán, becoming the woman who dazzled men and women alike (See photo of Frida by Edward Weston at the end).
 
I was dazzled yesterday by the communal spirit of Frida!

© Celia S. Stahr 2017

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<![CDATA[Art As A Bridge To Love]]>Mon, 06 Feb 2017 01:39:24 GMThttp://fridakahlojourney.com/blog/love-is-everything-for-frida-and-syrian-artist-khaled-akil
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"Requiem for Syria #3," 2015, 39.3 x 47.2" Fine Art Paper Print

​Frida did not create the above photograph, but she would have appreciated its quiet beauty. It is part of a series of photographs by Syrian artist Khaled Akil, which symbolize peace. As I looked at the large photographs with the dark backgrounds foregrounding a man with closed eyes in a succession of elegant dance moves, I felt an inner calm I hadn’t experienced for months. “How ironic,” I thought, that it took a Syrian artist’s work to evoke such equanimity when the Syrian people have been embroiled in a horrific war. 
 
Hearing Akil discuss his series of photographs, via a video, was powerful. He wanted to do something to pay homage to his friend, Karaina, an animal lover who was killed because she couldn’t bear to leave her war-torn country without her twelve beloved dogs. At first, the photos were a way to come to terms with her death, but after working with the Turkish performer Alper Akcay, they turned into a prayer for Karaina and, ultimately, a tribute to her and Syria itself.
 
Akcay is trained in traditional and contemporary dance, particularly Sufi and Bektashi sacred rituals and movements, which include whirling. The “Whirling Dervishes,” as they’re known in the West, spin as a form of physical meditation. The wide skirt, worn while spinning in repetitive circles, symbolizes the shroud of the ego, which is symbolically abandoned with the succession of movements accentuated by hypnotic music. The transformation of self through the loss of ego is a means of achieving union with God.
 
Akcay and Akil’s collaboration consisted of Akcay whirling while Akil photographed him. But, Akil wanted to incorporate a white dove into the whirling meditation to represent Karaina’s love of animals and its Jewish, Christian, and Islamic association with peace. During the photo shoot, Akcay entered a trance-like state; for two or three hours he prayed with the dove as he spun. Akil was so moved that he couldn’t photograph the entire whirling meditation, but this profound experience shaped the images seen in the photographs. And, it shapes the viewing experience as well. I attempted to describe some of the photographs, but no matter how I revised the words, they were inadequate compared to the extraordinary splendor of the images. It’s best to go see the photographs in person on Stanford’s campus, but you can also view them at Akil’s website: www.khaledakil.com.
 
Requiem for Syria is an appropriate title because these photographs, which incorporate drawing, painting, and Arabic calligraphy, are both a prayer and a token of remembrance for Karaina, but also for the people of Syria. The whole process of creating this work of art was an act of love and for the Sufis, love is the power which opens the heart to a feeling of oneness with God. As the 13th century Persian poet Rumi put it: “All loves are a bridge to divine love.”
 
Syria, Akil said, is not the first or last country to experience war. There will be more. Requiem for Syria embodies exactly what we need right now in this moment of history: beauty, peace, reflection, and above all, love.
 
The exhibit, which was organized by Anne Sconberg, will be up through April.
The Markaz: Resource Center at Stanford University
514 Lasuen Mall

© Celia S. Stahr 2017

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<![CDATA[Frida, the Cultural Ambassador]]>Thu, 10 Nov 2016 22:07:17 GMThttp://fridakahlojourney.com/blog/frida-the-cultural-ambassador
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Colorized Photo of Imogen Cunningham's "Portrait of Frida Kahlo," 1931
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Photo taken by author, 2016
Two days after one of the most brutal presidential elections I’ve ever witnessed, I sit here trying to sort out a jumble of emotions. Yesterday, I was paralyzed. I couldn’t even write. Today, I want to write, but I’m not sure what to focus on. When I turn my mind to Frida, what keeps popping up is how much I loved the vibrancy of Mexican culture when I visited in September and what a disconnect there is between my experience and Donald Trump’s characterization of Mexican people as rapists and job stealers. I wish all those who voted for Donald Trump to build a wall could see, feel, and hear the Mexican culture I experienced and talk to the Mexican people I encountered. Trump preyed upon people's fears by resorting to stereotypes in an attempt to strip Mexicans (and other groups) of their humanity. But, whenever we sit down with people and talk, eat food together, listen to music with one another or dance at a party, we connect as fellow human beings, making it much more difficult to demonize each other.
 
I was struck today by President Obama and Donald Trump sitting next to one another after their private meeting. Trump, who has accused the president of not being a U.S. citizen, said this was the first time he’s ever met the president. And, Trump acknowledged what a great conversation they had and how he plans to seek President Obama’s counsel. What? Did I hear what I think he just said? Of course, Trump may be disingenuous, but I wondered if coming face-to-face with the man and not the stereotype made it difficult for Trump to say something mean or sarcastic. It’s tough to dehumanize someone who is nice to you. 
 
Frida wasn’t free from her own stereotypes. Before coming to the United States, she had had some experience of Americans because of the many artists and writers who had visited or lived in Mexico in the 1920s. She’d also experienced some of the tensions between the United States and Mexican governments. But, in 1930, she finally had the opportunity to experience this foreign place first hand. Most writers say that Frida disliked gringos and gringolandia, but that’s too simplistic. There were things she criticized about the United States and gringos, but she made many friends, some of them remaining close over her lifetime. It took connecting with people to help break down some of the stereotypes she’d brought with her. At that time, Frida was not a well-known artist, but now that she has become known throughout the world, she is a cultural ambassador, introducing people to her art and life, which is intimately connected to Mexican art, culture, and history. This is one reason I love writing about Frida.
 
It seems obvious to say that we need to interact with people from all different walks of life to avoid stereotyping and demonizing; yet, at this moment in time when tensions are high concerning the issue of immigration, both in the United States and around the world, it’s worth repeating. As many have expressed on the Internet and through social media, we who believe in building bridges and reaching out to one another, have to continue to do so, now more than ever. 
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Both photos taken by the author, 2016
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<![CDATA[La Casa Azul, Frida's Sanctuary]]>Wed, 12 Oct 2016 17:51:45 GMThttp://fridakahlojourney.com/blog/la-casa-azul-fridas-sanctuary
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I just returned from a trip to Mexico and, as you can see, I spent time at Frida's house. After Frida died in 1954, Diego Rivera had his wife's house turned into a museum. It was one of the best museums I've ever visited. I try not to have expectations, but it was hard for me to not have any expectations before going to Frida's house. To my astonishment, the experience of being in Frida's space was even more powerful than I had imagined.

There's a lot to take in. Many of the rooms are still furnished as they were, more or less, when Frida died. The other rooms have art hanging in them--some Frida's paintings, some art she found inspiring, and some Diego's works of art. Then, there's the garden in the interior courtyard, as seen above. It's a lush setting with the green of the plants and trees in harmony with the deep blue of the house and the yellow and reddish brown accents. The blue connects to an Aztec water deity named Tlaloc. The importance of pre-hispanic art and culture is seen inside and out, such as the pyramid found in the photograph above. There were two cats that hung out near the pyramid. Could they be Frida and Diego? Many animals roamed the garden in Frida's lifetime--doves, parrots, spider monkeys, deer, hairless dogs, etc. 

I spent a long time in the garden where you can sit and enjoy this oasis. The garden was important for Frida. Not only did she spend a lot of time there, but she looked out onto the garden while inside, sometimes while recovering from a surgery. Nature featured prominently in her art, often depicting herself or others in front of a screen of foliage, as seen in the undated portrait she made of Alicia de Morillo Safa and her son Eduardo (above).

It was a relaxed environment. No one tried to hurry you out, which was surprising as there's always a line of people waiting to get in, seen in the top picture. They only allow a certain number of visitors at a time to avoid congestion. As I was waiting in line, I imagined a crowded interior with guards rushing you through as I've experienced at some timed exhibitions, but it wasn't like that at all. I was impressed with how everything was handled at the museum--the people working there were friendly and helpful. The visitors were also great. Everyone seemed respectful of the objects in the house and the garden outside. People weren't on their cell phones speaking loudly so everyone could hear their conversations. In fact, I rarely saw people on cell phones in public. It was a nice change. I think Frida would have appreciated the way everyone seemed to be present in the moment.  

I'll be writing more short blog entries with pictures from my trip. 

​   

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<![CDATA[Feliz Cumpleaños Happy Birthday, Frida! ]]>Thu, 07 Jul 2016 05:12:53 GMThttp://fridakahlojourney.com/blog/feliz-cumpleanos-happy-birthday-frida
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Frida Kahlo’s "The Two Fridas," 1939, 67 11/16 x 67 11/16", Oil on Canvas, Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City. © 2009 Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./ARS.

On July 6, 1907, Frida Kahlo was born at eight-thirty in the morning. Although her full name is Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón, she was known by her German name, Frida, which means "peace." Frida's father was German and she identified with his temperament in many ways. However, Frida grew up during the years of revolutionary chaos and radical change and she saw herself as part of this important shift in Mexican consciousness. She embodied the spirit of Mexicanidad, a new Mexican identity that embraced its indigenous past and present. In this new environment, the mestizo/a, a person of mixed racial and ethnic backgrounds, was celebrated. 

The Two Fridas foregrounds Frida's mixed ethnic heritage, highlighting her mother's indigenous Oaxacan roots, seen in the image on the right, and her father's European background, seen in the image on the left. The Frida on the right is dressed in the style of clothing worn by the women from Tehuantepec. With her dark skin and intact heart, this Frida holds a picture of Diego as a child. The Frida on the left side is dressed in a white, high-collared, Victorian style dress. Her skin is lighter and her heart has been ripped open, but she attempts to stop the bleeding with the hemostat in her hand. Frida makes the two sides distinct, but she also unifies them through the flowing blood and the holding of hands.

​Deep pain is expressed in this self-portrait, but ultimately, Frida embraces all the different aspects of herself in an attempt to find "peace." Carlos Fuentes has a slightly different interpretation of Frida's paintings in general: "The horrible, the painful, can lead us to the truth of self-knowledge." This is one reason why Frida's life and art have inspired so many people the world over. In honor of Frida's birthday, which she celebrated on the 7th of July, I'm publishing Parthenia Hick's incredible poem, Dos Fridas Hablando, and her statement about the power and importance of Frida.

Dos Fridas Hablando
 
You clamp our shared hearts   
to keep us from bleeding out
drops of blood decorate the
bedskirt of your dress
mix with chrysanthemums
and birds
that fly near your hidden feet
 
My left hand holds the portrait of us
as a young boy, a pendant
wrapped in a fine circle of gold
our hearts beat right out of our blouses
like bloody wild monkey fists
 
Our faces are partitioned off
we paint from behind our masks of pain
that runs like starving rats
up our legs and down our backs
Our lips stay full of cherries and wine
blood-swollen from the kiss of skeletons
 
I wear our white lace dress
Like royalty you say
I watch your heart
beat like a stick of dynamite
about to blow up a canvas
 
We split a part down the middle of our heads
and pile our hair up like stacks of rope
 
The sky gorged with graying clouds
pushes on our heads
there is something like ground
the color of musk
under our feet
something solid
that we cannot see
 
We hold each other’s hand
 
This poem is very special to me because I relate to the “splitting” of self, especially when it arises in art. My obsession (not too strong a word) with Frida comes from observing the way she turned her pain, both physical and psychic, into art. I have brought Frida into my own art as the personification of the kind of art that can come only through a woman’s experience and interpretation of the world and the plane on which we live. She showed me that, at least in art, one does not have to follow any rules and transparency has a sacred home. To me, this is profound. For so much of her life, she lived locked inside her back brace, carrying this burden with no choice. The legacy of her pain, however, has released so many women artists from having to carry their own burden of being braced and stitched in restriction. Long live Frida! 
 
Parthenia M. Hicks is the Poet Laureate Emerita of Los Gatos, CA and the recipient of the Dragonfly Press Award for Outstanding Literary Achievement; the Silicon Valley Arts Fellowship for Literature in the genre of Short Story; the Robinson Jeffers Tor House Poetry Prize; the Villa Montalvo Biennial Poetry Prize and several Pushcart nominations. She is a professional editor and the Managing Editor of the "Enlightenment Journal" as well as a jewelry maker, specializing in portraits of writers and artists. parthenia1@mac.com

© Celia S. Stahr 2016​

  
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<![CDATA[Frida Kahlo Straddles the U.S./Mexico Border]]>Wed, 18 May 2016 19:41:11 GMThttp://fridakahlojourney.com/blog/frida-kahlo-straddles-the-usmexico-border
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Frida Kahlo, "Self-Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States," 1932, oil on metal, 12 1/2 x 13 3/4", © 2009 Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./ARS.


In the fall of 1932 while living in Detroit, Frida opened a telegram from one of her sisters and saw: Your Mother is Desperately Ill. The words she had dreaded while living far away from home were now spelled out in bold black letters. She wanted to see her mamacita, but the miles and the border separated them. Frida felt panic rising in her chest; it was difficult to take deep breaths. She needed to see her mother in person—to feel her and talk to her.  She tried the phone, but the line was dead. There was dead silence and this only fueled Frida’s anxiety.
 
Diego suggested Frida take the train to Mexico and the next day she left Detroit. She passed through the border at Laredo, Texas, entering Mexico through Nuevo Laredo. As the train continued south, Frida’s anxiety increased. She finally reached Mexico City where family greeted her. But, by the time she arrived, her mother was on her deathbed. A photograph of Frida taken by her father at this time shows her hollow, grief-stricken face. She stayed in Mexico for a month mourning her mamacita’s death. She didn’t want to return to Detroit, but Diego was still there painting his murals at The Detroit Institute of Arts.
 
After Frida returned to Detroit by train, she painted Self-Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States, seen above. It’s a complex work of art that I discuss in more detail in my book. There’s a lot to take in with this painting that depicts Frida standing on a border marker between Mexico and the United States. Her hollow shell of a face that her father had captured in his photo has been replaced with a stoic visage. Her head is turned to the left and she has a steady gaze that looks off in the same direction. She wears a pink floor-length dress accented by white lace gloves and a beaded necklace as if she’s ready to go to a party. In one hand, she holds the Mexican flag and in the other she grasps a cigarette, a symbol of the liberated woman. She is an independent “New Woman” who stands in between her beloved homeland, revealed by the flag, and her temporary home of Detroit, seen in the FORD factory clearly marked on the right side of the composition. The distinctions between these two countries are made clear in the painting, but Frida is the link between these two sides that share a border. She had just returned from Mexico and felt torn—should she be with her mourning family in Mexico or should she be with Diego in Detroit? In the painting, she has to straddle both sides. That was her life in 1932.
 
The push-pull of straddling the U.S./Mexico border is pertinent today for numerous Mexican and Mexican American families traveling back and forth visiting one another, for Mexicans seeking employment in the United States, etc. Unfortunately, the issue of border control, including building a wall, and expelling “illegal aliens” has taken center stage for the Republican Presidential candidates. In Frida’s painting, she’s a bridge between the two very different cultures she depicts and her perspective is one that is shared by many today who desire a constructive conversation that focuses on finding solutions in order to bridge differences.
Once again, Frida was a trailblazer, taking on the multi-dimensional aspects of border issues in 1932 when few artists were exploring such a topic. Since the 1980s, the U.S./Mexico border has been the focus of many fascinating and important works of art. Hopefully, these artworks and exhibitions will fuel an informative and constructive national dialogue.
 
To aid in this discussion, I want to recommend two venues. First, there is a fascinating exhibition called Border Cantos: Richard Misrach and Guillermo Galindo at The San Jose Museum of Art. It will be there through July 31st http://sjmusart.org/exhibitions-on-view. Second, in conjunction with the exhibition, Montalvo Arts Center is sponsoring a screening of a video entitled Border Disorder. Here’s more information:
 
Border Disorder is going to be shown on June 25th from 7-9 p.m. at Montalvo Arts Center, 15400 Montalvo Road, Saratoga, CA 95070. This screening showcases experimental video art and video documentation by Lucas Artist Fellows and other artists that explores and intervenes in the local and global complexities of the US-Mexico border.  Featured artists include Ana Teresa Fernandez, Chico MacMurtrie Fiamma Montezemolo, and Sergio de la Torre, among others. The screening will be followed by a conversation with Fernandez and de la Torre.  montalvoarts.org


 Note: The information that Frida never saw her mother is incorrect.  She did get to see her on her deathbed after returning to Mexico.

© Celia S. Stahr 2016

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<![CDATA[Frida and International Women's Day]]>Wed, 09 Mar 2016 05:13:13 GMThttp://fridakahlojourney.com/blog/frida-and-international-womens-day1

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Frida Kahlo, "The Broken Column," 1944, Museo Dolores Olmedo
I want to celebrate International Women’s Day! It’s an opportunity to both honor the achievements of women from around the world and to reflect upon what still needs to be accomplished to create gender equality. The World Economic Forum predicted that it would take until 2133 to achieve global gender parity. That’s a long time! In the art world, the gender gap is huge in terms of prices paid at auction and representation in galleries and exhibitions.
 
Looking at the percentages of male vs. female artists represented in galleries around the world, the Edward Cella Gallery in Los Angeles is fairly typical : 73% male and 27% female (See Essay on Hyperallergic). If we turn to the auction house, the gulf is even wider. Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed/White Flower #1, 1932, holds the record for female artists. This painting sold at Sotheby’s 2015 auction for 44.4 million dollars. Sounds impressive, right ? Guess what price tops the largest amount paid for a male artist’s work of art? If you guessed 200 million, you’re off by 100. Yes, Willem de Kooning’s Interchange, 1955, sold for 300 million in a private sale from 2015. In fact, in a list of the seventy-four top prices paid for art, all the artists are male. And, the prices range from 65.1 million—300 million. That means O’Keeffe’s great achievement doesn’t even come close to the prices garnered by her male peers. To make matters worse, most art by women sells at auction for closer to 10 million dollars. Kathryn Tully makes the obvious observation: “The link between price and value is hard to nail down” (Forbes, May 14, 2014).
 
Enter Frida Kahlo. Frida, along with Georigia O’Keeffe, provides some hope for the future of parity within the art world. She and Georgia are the two powerhouses within the male-dominated art arena. Within the last few years, Frida’s art or photographs of her have been featured in numerous exhibitions around the world. She’s broken important barriers since 1939 when the Louvre museum purchased her painting, The Frame. It was the first painting this prestigious institution bought by a 20th Century Mexican artist. In 2000, a United States postage stamp featured a self-portrait Frida made while living in New York. It was the first time a stamp featured a Hispanic woman. In 2006, her painting Roots, 1943, sold at Sotheby’s in New York for 5.6 million dollars. Compared to the prices I listed above, it doesn’t sound like much, but in 2006, it broke a record—the first Latin American artist to exceed 1 million dollars at auction. We don’t know exactly how Frida would fare in today’s market because very few of her paintings are sold at auction due to strict export laws in Mexico. However, based upon the operas, plays, symphonies, movies, books, poems, exhibitions, and objects inspired by Frida, I’d say she just might break out of the gender barrier in terms of auction prices.
 
On International Women’s Day, I have a vision of Frida dressed in a long sky blue and yellow pleated skirt with a white lace hemline topped by a red and yellow square-cut huipil blouse bursting with vibrant geometric patterns. With jewelry adorning her ears and neck and a cigarette in hand, I imagine her leading a long procession of women from around the world with colorful papel picado—cut paper decorations—strung across narrow streets.
 
She has moved so many people with her transformational story and art. Renée M. Schell is one poet who found inspiration in Frida’s painting, The Broken Column. I’m excited to publish it today in honor of Frida’s importance and the significant contributions of all women.

Transfiguration, after The Broken Column, Frida Kahlo
 
Riven with nails, my skin
has the pattern of cut paper.
Traditional,
there forever.
 
Or for as long as I can remember.
Even the faded pink sheet breathes
in little stabs of breath.
Even the landscape behind me
gouged, unsettled.
 
My monkeys protect me
as they can from afar.
They want to rub the amulet
of their black fur around my neck,
 
to visit me
during the night when pain
prods
at my trembling skin
after morphine wisps wear thin,
 
to pluck out
the roofing nails
like chocolates from a box
and rescue me
 
—¡Rescatan me!--
 
Let me gaze down on the cut pink
of juicy sandía,
the ochre-colored calabazas in their wooden crates,
the sugar skulls, the blue piñatas.
I have little to show in return.
 
No heart
no lungs
no liver
no spleen.
 
Only a broken column, white tears.
 
Do it. String me across
the narrow street --
See the pattern of painstakingly
cut circles and tendrils?
 
I am papel picado.


Renée M. Schell’s poetry has appeared in numerous publications, including (After)Life: Poems and Stories of the Dead, Poetry on the Move, and Granny Smith Magazine. She is a freelance editor and translator from the German as well as a poetry editor for Red Wheelbarrow and the Willow Glen Poetry Project.
 
She will read tomorrow night (March 9, 2016) at Flash Fiction Forum. See Flash Fiction Forum



© Celia S. Stahr 2016

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<![CDATA[Lazarus, David Bowie, and Frida Kahlo: Rising Above the Mundane]]>Sun, 17 Jan 2016 22:35:13 GMThttp://fridakahlojourney.com/blog/lazarus-david-bowie-and-frida-kahlo-rising-above-the-mundane
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David Bowie, frame from music video, "Lazarus," 2016.
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Frida Kahlo's "The Broken Column," 1944, Museo Dolores Olmedo.
​Before watching David Bowie’s harrowing video, Lazarus, I never would have compared him to Frida Kahlo, but as I peered into this world that simultaneously repelled me and pulled me in, Frida immediately popped into my mind because she too refuses to sugar-coat taboo subjects. Of course, David Bowie’s untimely death from cancer makes watching the Lazarus video that much harder, but even if he wasn’t dying at the time he made the video, it would still pack a punch. As I reflected on the connection between these two seemingly disparate artists, the similarities amazed me.
 
Both Kahlo and Bowie reference Catholic imagery to intensify the power of their images. The way Bowie embodies the struggle of dying by invoking the image of Lazarus conjures up multiple associations, taking the video images and song lyrics from a mere personal artistic statement to one that resonates on a cultural level due to the well-known Christian association of Lazarus rising from the dead. But, Bowie, like Kahlo, tweaks the Christian associations to present Catholic imagery or dogma through a new lens. Lazarus, in Bowie’s video, is not just a man who has risen from the dead, he is trapped. We hear it in this line: “I’m a dying man who can’t die.” For me, this line provokes feelings of anxiety as I imagine feeling trapped between two worlds or two states of consciousness. After witnessing my own father’s demise and death, I understand something about the struggle that takes place before losing consciousness and before complete surrender to the internal journey of dying.
 
We witness this struggle at the beginning of the video. After focusing on a closet door opening, the camera moves in for a close-up shot of Lazarus, a solitary man lying in a metal hospital bed wearing a white long sleeved shirt with white gauze bandages wrapped around his forehead and eyes. As he sings, his facial expressions and the movements of his head convey anguish. Two small buttons are placed over the eyes, acting as both a stand-in and a cover, as if he’s already died. The first line out of his mouth alludes to this fact: “Look up here, I’m in heaven.” If that’s heaven, contemplating death and the possibility of an afterlife is even more frightening. It doesn’t ultimately matter where he resides; those button eyes are haunting. And, the close-up perspective makes us feel as if we’re in bed with him, increasing the intensity of the viewing experience.  We can’t sit back on the sidelines as observers; we must participate. According to Tibetan Buddhism, we need to prepare for death every day, yet how many of us do? Bowie pushes us to confront what we don’t want to face. Finally, the camera moves out, providing a bird’s-eye perspective and a bit of temporary relief.

Likewise, many of Frida’s paintings are just as haunting. The Broken Column is the image that came to mind when viewing the wrapped Lazarus. In this painting, Frida’s white corset reminds me of the medical gauze over Lazarus’ eyes and the white cloth around her waist is similar to the loose white shirt worn by Lazarus. But more than that, it’s the way both artists throw pain, suffering, and struggle into viewers' faces. Frida’s broken body with its huge gash down the middle is painful to see and the classical column inside with all its fissures merely increases those painful feelings because we realize that her spine is irreparable. Upon further reflection, with only a shattered marble column as a fill-in for a spine, Frida can’t be alive. Maybe the Roman classical column is supposed to look like a cross, as if her body is propped up on the column like Christ on the cross. The nails piercing her body are certainly a reference to Christ’s wounds as he hung on the cross waiting to die. But, unlike images of Christ with his head hung to the side, Frida’s despondent face looks out at us with tears streaming down from her eyes. 
 
​Both Lazarus’s and Frida’s eyes are disturbing. If the eyes are the windows of the soul, then in both we see a wounded, blank, soul. Although both artists were dealing with different issues at the time they made these creations, both were struggling with physical and emotional pain.

The Broken Column was the first painting that came to mind when looking at Bowie’s video, but the lonely metal hospital bed summoned up the image of a child-like Frida in a metal hospital bed seen in Henry Ford Hospital (image below). Frida, with a blank stare, lies in a puddle of blood with a huge tear on her cheek, while Bowie acts out the psychic pain of dying alone. Once again, they take subjects no one really wants to discuss—miscarriage and dying—and they do it with a fearlessness that is admirable. Of course, Frida did this in a time period when it was even more unheard of. She is a trailblazer and her first gut-wrenching paintings were created when she lived in the United States. Both Henry Ford Hospital and My Birth, discussed in a previous blog, were made while she was living in Detroit. For both Kahlo and Bowie, their time spent in the United States was central to their artistic contributions. It begs the question:
Does living outside your country of origin afford a certain level of artistic freedom?
 
I wonder if Bowie was influenced by Kahlo? As a painter himself, he surely knew her art. He even called his songs, “paintings in words.” He compared his songs “loaded with sound” to the “building up of layers of paint,” allowing the viewer to “see something new each time.” Certainly, this is true of Frida’s work. I’m amazed by new discoveries I make all the time. I think Frida’s bold work and persona have influenced countless people, artists and non-artists alike. She is a cultural icon throughout the world and her images remain imbedded in your psyche. Bowie’s face in Lazarus is having the same effect on me.
 
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that these two seemingly different artists have a lot in common. Both were raised by mothers who were devout Catholics, verging on the fanatical; both use Catholic/religious imagery throughout their work; both find new ways of expressing the same subject—suffering; both created fascinating personas; both played with gender roles and sexuality; and both created a powerful personal mythology that keeps fans wondering. There are the never-ending unanswerable questions: Who is David Bowie? Who is Frida Kahlo? 
 
What we do know is that both artists used their creativity to make us face the fragility of the body, the internal struggle this causes, and the ultimate demise of the physical, leading to death. These are scary subjects that most don’t want to contemplate, but both artists were forced to. Frida, with her chronic pain that worsened over time, and Bowie, with his death sentence, must have felt vulnerable due to a loss of control, but through the power of art, they gained some control and hopefully, insight. As viewers/listeners, we hope to gain insight as well.
 
Perhaps both Kahlo and Bowie would agree with Sylvia Plath in her poem Lady Lazarus that: “Dying is an art, like everything else.” Bowie certainly staged his exit with the perfect timing of his musical, Lazarus, now playing in New York and his new CD, Blackstar, released on his birthday--just two days before he died. Likewise, the mythic life of Frida Kahlo ended on a dramatic note. After a funeral procession with some five hundred mourners following a hearse carrying Frida’s coffin, everyone ended up at the crematorium.  Friends, family, and officials crammed into a small hot room to observe Frida’s body being cremated. As her body lay there with a red string of carnations around her head and a rebozo around her shoulders, people read poetry, said their good-byes, and sang songs. During this festive environment, the oven door opened and the heat was so strong that everyone’s backs pressed up against the wall. Frida’s body began to move toward the fire and everyone began crying and throwing themselves on her. When Frida’s reclining body entered the furnace, it suddenly sat up with her hair all ablaze. In that moment, she became Lazarus. Fellow artist David Alfaro Siqueiros said that “when the flames ignited her hair, her face appeared as if smiling in the center of a large sunflower.” I hope David Bowie had the same type of smile on his face when he died. If he didn’t, he probably does now.

Information on Frida's cremation and Siqueiros quote are from Hayden Herrera's Frida, pg. 438.

© Celia S. Stahr 2016
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Frida Kahlo, "Henry Ford Hospital," 1932, Museo Dolores Olmedo.
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David Bowie, "Lazarus" video, 2016.
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<![CDATA[Frida's Complex Visceral Paintings]]>Tue, 24 Nov 2015 17:05:27 GMThttp://fridakahlojourney.com/blog/fridas-complex-visceral-paintings
At first glance, these two paintings by Frida Kahlo don't seem to have anything in common. Upon closer examination, however, they do share some similarities.  

My Birth, 1932, (oil on copper, 12 x 14", Collection of Madonna) seen on the left, was created while Frida was living in Detroit.  As previously mentioned in my last post, it's a shocking image of birth/death that Frida painted in a particularly painful period of her life. Yet, it is not just an outpouring of pain.  Instead, Frida always infused her paintings with symbolic elements, ultimately creating layered images that are complex. 

In My Birth, we see an ominous image of a dead woman giving birth in a bedroom, but it's a room filled with two significant Catholic images: the Virgin of Sorrows painting hanging above the bed and the empty scroll in the foreground at the foot of the bed. The Virgin of Sorrows weeps for the loss of her son and by extension the woman on the bed and her child. The scroll in the foreground refers to retablos, small paintings made on metal that depict a scene showing someone who survived an accident or illness due to the divine intervention of Christ or Mary.  A family member would request a local artisan to make a retablo.  In the scroll, the artist would write out a "thank you" note to Christ or Mary for saving the family's loved one.  In Frida's painting, the scroll is blank.  Perhaps this indicates that there is nothing to be thankful for. It's not clear in My Birth if the child is dead or alive, but the empty scroll indicates that she's dead.     

The Two Fridas, 1939, (oil on canvas, 67 11/16 x 16 11/16", Collection Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City) was created seven years after My Birth.  It was painted in Mexico shortly after Frida returned from Paris where her paintings were included in an exhibition of Mexican art curated by Andre Breton, the leader of Surrealism. Breton thought Frida's paintings were surrealist by nature. He loved them precisely because they captured surreality without attempting to do so. Frida never called herself a Surrealist.  By 1939, she was familiar with this movement, but she didn't attempt to create works of art based upon Sigmund Freud's theories of the unconscious.  Instead, she looked within and to her own culture for inspiration. 

It's easy to understand why Breton loved Frida's paintings. Not only do they have a surreal look, but a psychological depth.  In The Two Fridas, we see a double self-portrait; both figures sit on a bench holding hands with a cloud-filled sky behind them. They look directly out at us with an unwavering stare that we can't turn away from. The Frida on the right wears a style of dress that the women from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec made famous in Mexico after the revolution (1910-20). Such indigenous clothing symbolized a new pride in Mexico's pre-Columbian roots.  The Frida on the left wears a Victorian style wedding dress, one that was popular in Mexico during colonial rule. While this Frida holds onto clamps to try and stop the flow of blood, the other Frida holds a picture of her husband, Diego Rivera. What do you think Frida is conveying about her dual nature? And, can you see any similar themes or ideas in both My Birth and The Two Fridas

© Celia S. Stahr 2015            
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<![CDATA[ Frida Kahlo, My Birth, and the Grieving Process]]>Thu, 12 Nov 2015 21:21:37 GMThttp://fridakahlojourney.com/blog/frida-kahlo-my-birth-and-the-grieving-process
Frida Kahlo's My Birth, 1932, 12 x 14," oil on copper, collection of Madonna.  
If Henry Ford Hospital is a powerful painting, then My Birth is shocking! Can you think of another image of a woman giving birth in the history of Western art?  Of course, Frida's painting depicts more than a birth scene. It's a complicated image that, like Henry Ford Hospital, intertwines life and death. In this stark bedroom, the Virgin of Sorrows--Mater Dolorosa--presides over the birth/death.     

After Frida suffered a miscarriage in July, she received a telegram from home stating that her mother was very ill. In early September, Frida boarded a Detroit train and headed toward Mexico City. She got there just before her mother died of breast cancer.  It must have been devastating. After staying in Mexico for about a month, Frida returned to Diego in Detroit and it's at this time that she created My Birth.  

Once we grasp the full force of Frida's emotional turmoil, we begin to understand that this painting was not created to shock people; rather it was made to visually communicate all the levels of heartbreak surrounding the death of loved ones. As I grapple with my own complex emotions of grief after my father's death, I'm very aware of how challenging it is to find the right words or images to convey what I'm feeling. Frida did it. She found the perfect multileveled image to transmit the convoluted and unbearable feelings of grief.  

Most people don't want to talk about the intensity of the grieving process. This is why I was especially moved and impressed by Joseph Biden's honest discussion of his grief on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert.  While some people may have felt uncomfortable listening to the vice president break down while baring his soul, we live in a time when the "tell-all" memoir and "reality tv" are the norm. However, Frida did not. This helps explain why her painting is still considered shocking.  

The shock value appealed to Madonna who purchased it in the 1990s. As the owner of My Birth, Madonna has only loaned her prized possession to one museum exhibition (as far as I know). Mark Rosenthal, the adjunct curator at the Detroit Institute of Arts, tried to persuade her to loan it for the recent Diego and Frida in Detroit exhibition, but Madonna said: "No." Rosenthal commented in a newspaper article: "You have no idea what we went through.  But I can't describe all that."

It's easy to vilify Madonna.  After all, it would be wonderful if more people could see this iconic painting. However, I can't blame the pop star for wanting to protect her jewel.  If it was damaged in any way, it would be a great loss for her and the world.         

© Celia S. Stahr 2015
        
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