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