I don’t think I ever really got Frida. I’ve studied her a few times; I can appreciate that she did something different, even that that something might be important, but for the longest time my attitude towards Frida herself was one of ambivalence.
Frida made this pretty easy really. Her paintings aren’t exactly supposed to endear her to the viewer. They are and she was unapologetic and confronting. In her elaborate traditional outfits, in her occasional dalliances with drag, in her stubborn refusal to do anything about those two horizontal lines of fuzz on her face, she was never exactly trying to conform to stereotypes of gender or beauty.
Maybe that’s my problem. Maybe, when it comes to women, I’m a traditionalist. Maybe I’m just not brave enough to be attracted to a girl with one eyebrow.
I think part of the problem is that self-portraiture, despite being Frida’s preferred medium, doesn’t do justice to the woman behind the art. Frida, I suspect, was at her best when animated. This (and not careful trimming of body hair) may have been the secret which kept her, when not in surgery, in the arms of a succession of high-profile lovers.
Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna does a great job bringing Frida back to life, and of presenting her as the furious, inexorable thing that she probably was. With Kingsolver’s help, I am learning to look behind the moustache.
In The Lacuna all of Mexico is a dynamic, colourful mess, a raucous outdoor market, and at the centre of the market is Frida, more dynamic, more colourful, more raucous. When she first appears it is to stand out from the market around her…
“She was so tiny, from the back she also looked like a servant girl. But when she turned, her skirts and silver earrings whirled and her face was very startling, an Azteca queen with ferocious black eyes”
By the next page a discussion is already under way about whether or not she is a harlot. The image evokes one of Rivera’s paintings in the Palacio Nacional, of ancient Tenochtitlan, and of a Fridaesque woman, tattooed and decorated, a holy harlot again standing out from the bustling market around her.
The same image appears much later in The Lacuna, in the pages of one of the fictional fictions of the novel (read my other post about the books within the book?)…
“Picture the lady walking by, a real looker, gold bangles on her arm and a tattoo on her ankle. She’s headed out for some shopping, with a basket strapped to her back. For today’s menu she may choose iguana roasted on the spit, or perhaps armadillo.”
Always the same Frida, the painted lady, standing out in the crowd. Always the paradox too, the holy harlot, the fury that submitted herself to the abusive love of Rivera. You don’t get that contradiction in paintings of Frida. Her paintings are steeped in pain and struggle. Rivera’s paintings of her (actually come to think of it the only one I can think of is a sketch I saw in the Rivera House in Guanajuato) lack any complexity. They make her pretty and still. Photos of Frida always look composed by her; there is no spontaneity, just her and her costumes. Something more is needed, like The Lacuna, to make sense of the woman that seemed able to bed anyone she wanted.
Paradoxes then. Paradoxes are hot, and they may be the key to redeeming Frida. A beautiful woman with a moustache, a sexpot with a gimpy leg, a butt-hot harlot in a full-body plaster cast.