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Saturday, February 09, 2008

Frida Kahlo: Are we prisoners to our passion?

In 2007, on a plane home from Europe to Sydney, I saw Frida, a film portraying the life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907 - 1954). Frida was married to a famous Mexican artist and relentless womanizer, Diego Rivera. Their relationship together, as is depicted in the film, was as notorious for its passion as it was for its affairs (both illicit and open). I remember being traumatized by the fact that this woman seemed to have suffered so much, both in terms of her health (she contracted polio at a young age, was in a bus accident that almost prevented her from being able to walk and left her with spinal injuries, and later in her life she had to have her leg amputated due to gangrene), but mostly in terms of her love life.
This was a woman who didn't know how to be anything but passionate... even at the expense of her own health, dignity, and happiness. I always thought that passion was a great quality. I unquestioningly put it in a basket marked "things that lead to a life of fulfillment". Here was a person who's life posed a tangeable challenge to the (over)simplicity of my hypothesis. Here was someone who had given everything of herself to every situation, someone who had laid out her soul, who had made herself vulnerable, someone who engaged in and was irrepressibly engaged by life. However, looking at her art, and reading her letters, it's easy to see this was someone who often found herself submerged in deep and all-pervasive physical and emotional pain.
After watching the film I was left with an overwhelming feeling of having misunderstood something very fundamental about love. I remember thinking that somehow Frida maybe understood something about love that I didn't. Most important of all, I remember feeling that I wasn't sure whether I wanted to understand or not. I felt that understanding would not necessarily lead to my being happy, as was the case in Frida's life, but I was also aware that not seeking to understand left me feeling shortchanged, as if I was stopping short of experiencing fully and completely what life, love, people, relationships are all about. There was something incredibly seductive about Frida's carelessness, her recklessness, her unrepentant, uncompromising search for the zenith of human emotion. At the same time, just as her recklessness seemed seductive, so did it seem perilous and fraught with risk... Je voulais aller jusqu'au bout, mais j'étais à la fois conscient que d'y arriver ne serait pas nécessairement aussi épanouissant que peut-être j'attendais. Au contraire, je pensais que le fait de comprendre ne répondrait pas nécessairement à toutes mes questions.
I was recently browsing in a book shop on St Laurent in Montréal and I came across Frida by Frida a book that gathers together and publishes a selection of letters, texts and notes written by Frida throughout her lifetime. The truth is, Frida's story still haunted me and I jumped at this chance to get inside her brain. I want to share one letter she wrote with you all. It will appear long on this already long and unusually verbose post, but it's revealing in its frankness and its poignancy, and I think it really gets at what I've tried to explain above. So if you're thinking, "What the hell is the point of this post. I don't understand a f&%king thing this guy's saying!": read on.
To set the scene, it's 1935. Frida is 28. In the last two years she has suffered a miscarriage; had an abortion; has undergone foot surgery; dealt with the death of her mother; and suffered from appendicitis. To add insult ot injury, in October 1934 Kahlo separated from her husband Diego Rivera after she found out he was having an affair, this time with, of all people, her little sister Christina Kahlo.

On the 23 July 1935, nine months after separating from him, she writes the following to Rivera:
(extract taken from pg 158 of
Frida by Frida by Raquel Tibol [translated by Gregory Dechant])

"... a certain letter that I saw by chance in a certain jacket of a certain gentleman, and which came from a certain miss of distant and goddamned Germany, and who I imagine must be the lady Willi Valentiner was kind enough to send here to amuse herself with "scientific", "artistic" and "archaeological" intentions... made me very angry and to tell you the truth jealous.

Why must I be so stubborn and dense as not to understand that the letters, the skirt-chasing, the 'English' professors, the gypsy models, the 'good will' assistants, the disciples interested in the 'art of painting', and the 'plenipotentiary envoys from distant parts', only signify amusements and that at bottom you and I love each other very much, and even if we go through countless affairs, splintered doors, insults and international claims, we shall always love each other. I think what it is, is that I'm a little stupid and just a bit of a dissembler, because all these things have happened and happened again for the seven years we've lived together and all of the rages I've gone into have only led me to understand better that I love you more than my own skin, and though you don't love me in the same way, in any case you love me somewhat, no? Or if that's not true, I'll always have the hope that it may be, and that's enough for me... [my emphasis]

Love me just a little. I adore you


I am intrigued by what it takes to write a letter like this one, a letter which so openly admits to the fallacy of monogamous love, a letter which challenges the supposed link between love, the type so intense it almost manifests itself in physical pain, and fidelity. Are we capable of loving someone more than our own skin, whilst at the same time acting in a way that seems to betray that very feeling?

True to her word, Frida walks through a number of "splintered doors" throughout the remainder of her life. A month after sending the above letter, Frida falls in love with Ignacio Aguirre and writes him a letter exclaiming, "how marvelous it is to be able to love you". The following year she has an affair with Japanese sculptor, Isamu Noguchi. The year after that it's Leon Trotsky. Then American photographer Nickolas Muray. Then Heinz Berggruen. Finally, in 1940, she remarries Rivera, the man she loves more than her own skin. Barely a year after her death in 1954, Rivera marries his art dealer Emma Hurtado.


laura said...

Un petit ajout; la passion est indomptable et effectivement épanouie l'individu. Cependant, comme tu l'as mentionné James, cette force intérieur peut provoquer également la souffrance. Frida vivait affligée par la passion. L'individu passionné vit avec un regroupement d'émotions vives qui dominent l'état psychologique, où l'humain Subit, il est passif...contrairement à l'individu qui vit des émotions qu'il a lui-même déclenché.

I wouldn't even know how to begin imaginating to explain or to put a word on the feeling Frida was having, when she asks for love in return. When she was given love, feeling love for him... and never got responses as strong as her feelings for him.

''Love me just a little, I adore you. ''

Love, passion, got her blind. She lost her senses, but was able to live this way.

James Pender said...

Je suis d'accord qu'elle était aveuglée par l'amour, par la passion. Mais peut-être elle n'a pas vraiment choisi de vivre comme ca. Peut-être c'était plûtot qu'elle pouvait pas (ou au moins elle savait pas comment) vivre autrement?

laura said...

Effectivement, elle n'a peut-être pas eu le choix... elle ne pouvait peut-être pas ou n'était pas capable de faire, de vivre autrement.

Le fait qu'elle a vécu et a été capable de vivre de cette façon, ne démontre t-il pas que sa passion a été plus forte qu'elle et a submergée sa lucidité ? et donc, elle ne pouvait se raisonner, ou ne savait pas comment se libérée de cette passion si fervente?

James Pender said...

Then again, maybe Frida just drank too much... and was too selfish to curb her own behaviour in even the most minute way.