Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Frida: The Woman Who Was the Moon

I’ve long had an interest in art, so, many years ago I decided to go to art school. But as I wasn’t anywhere near well enough at the time, I had to change my plans. As an alternative, I chose to complete a Bachelor of Arts by correspondence. Art History (along with Literature) was my major; and I went on to do Honours, writing a dissertation about the Pre-Raphaelites.

Yet in the years since I completed my studies I have found myself feeling less and less interested in art as a whole (particularly 20th century modern art, with its emphasis on form and abstract ideas), and more and more interested in the specific kinds of art that speak directly to me. I still love the aesthetic and narrative themes of the Pre-Raphaelites, but have also become interested in ‘mythic art’, certain kinds of folk and ‘outsider’ art, and anything to do with nature, landscape, animals or shamanic/spiritual themes. I love things that have meaning, earthiness, strangeness, and a beauty—which is far from mere prettiness—that attracts me. 

One artist of the 20th century who fits that description is the unparalleled Frida Kahlo, and on the very last day of winter I was lucky enough to go to see an exhibition of work by Kahlo and Diego Rivera at the Art Gallery of NSW. Seeing her work up close was a real treat—though looking right into her eyes was difficult. In all her paintings her face, for all its beauty, has a look of great sadness. Yet I know that there was a strong defiance behind that sadness, a defiance that enabled her to keep living despite her suffering, and to keep expressing her truth.

Photo by Nickolas Murray, 1939
I think that the reason Frida Kahlo is so fascinating—so much so that ‘Fridamania’ is a thing!—is not just because of the nature of her art, which is clearly aesthetically, technically and psychologically exceptional, but because of the evident difficulty of her life. We all know the story of the accident which left her lying in bed with her torso in a plaster cast for months, and of how that accident haunted her for the rest of her days, resulting in much pain, and probably leading to her inability to have children. This accident, in some ways, defined Kahlo—yet it did not defeat her. It was what made her become an artist, after all. She said: ‘I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.’ (1)

Self-Portrait with Necklace, 1933
I love what Rebecca Solnit has written: ‘Stories like yours and worse than yours are all around, and your suffering won’t mark you out as special, though your response to it might.’ (2)

Kahlo’s response to her suffering is what marks her out as extraordinary, and what makes her a particular inspiration for me. She defied her pain and disability and lived fully, exuberantly and passionately, despite her body’s limitations. She also painted her truth, her innermost authenticity, however much she is thought to have cleverly invented her image for the public gaze. As she once declared: ‘They thought I was a surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.’ (3)

Diego on My Mind (Self-portrait as Tehuana), 1943
In an interview with Sharon Blackie, Jay Griffiths said:

… what I find compelling about her is that she, in her life and in her painting, uttered, or outered, the inner experience of many women. She made visible things which are common but invisible. She was forced to let life scrawl some terrible graffiti over her body, in her accident, and then she chose to express, in her own brushstrokes and handwriting, her wit, joy, pain and defiance. Her sense of rebellion is the fire at the heart of art … (4)

Few of us are as ingenious as Kahlo, or as artistically productive. She was utterly unique, utterly herself. Yet she still gifts us with a valuable lesson: That how we respond to our lives, particularly to the bad things that may happen to us, is what is most important. 

I myself am guilty of letting despair take hold of me for many years. I was sick and I had no response to that at all. But now I see the world, and my life, differently, and I can respond in a positive way. Though CFS is part of what defines me (though it is not the only thing), I will not let it defeat me. Like Kahlo, I want to find ways to express the truth of my life. I do not want to turn away from what is difficult or painful. I do not want to turn away from my past, for my past is what has brought me to my present, and what feeds into my future. I feel a kind of pride in myself for surviving, and now I want to learn how to thrive, in spite of my limitations.

Going to the Frida Kahlo exhibition also gave me a good excuse to read (for the third time) Jay Griffiths’ A Love Letter from a Stray Moon (2011). Interestingly, this slim novella began life as an autobiographical piece of writing, which, Griffiths said:

made me feel far too vulnerable and exposed. I needed a mask so that I could still be true to myself and yet also have the protection of fiction. A friend gave me a book of Kahlo’s work with a brief biography, and, like many women, I was so struck by similarities between her experience and my own life on the inside. I saw then that I could, with relief and fluency and feathers, let the book fly free for being masked. (5)

I think it is true that women often see similarities between Kahlo’s experiences and their own lives—inner or outer—and that is why she is so loved. She shows us something of ourselves, in a roundabout way, and encourages us to be stronger and more courageous in living fully and (sometimes) flamboyantly. I see those same similarities in Griffiths’ book, which is intensely intimate as well as grandly mythic in its scope. In it Kahlo is changed completely by her accident:

All of my afterlife referred always to that now, that moment then … I was flung away from all I knew and all I had been. The ferocious wrench, the shattering of me. I was flung into the darkness of outer space, injured, lonely, and part of me died—I became the strange and limping moon you see every night. Before, I had been part of earth, as young as life itself and I had known dance and freedom. After, I was unearthed, old as death, and caged in days. (6)

Part of her died. Part of her became old. She became the lonely, barren moon. And yet …

Some time after the accident, as I was still in bed, sick and feverish, with paintbrushes in my hand, I suddenly saw in their delicate, feathered tips the tangent of my flight. My soul could fly with each brushstroke and my paintings could make visible all the universes which my soul held within it. (7)

This is Frida herself, written through the medium of fiction. A Love Letter from a Stray Moon is a beautiful book. Challenging, but full of passion too. As John Berger says on the cover, ‘It’s like a dress that Frida Kahlo invented for herself and wore’.

In writing this I have also remembered a message that was given to me as part of the creative workshop I did earlier in the year, and which I wrote of back in May. The message was this: 

Remember your past to guide your future.

I know that I am who I am now because of the things I went through in my past, and so I intend to honour my past by becoming the best person I can be now and into the future. My past cannot be changed. What is done is done. Yet the way I see it has changed, and therefore I have been able to rewrite the story of my life. I hope to continue to write myself into being, to give birth to myself, as Kahlo did. 

As she said, ‘At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can’. (8)

I know this to be true.

Frida photographed by her father, Guillermo Kahlo, 1932 
1. http://www.elephantjournal.com/2015/12/20-frida-kahlo-quotes-to-touch-the-core-of-your-being/
2. Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby, Granta: London, 2013, p. 241
3. Andrea Kettenmann, Frida Kahlo, Taschen: Köln, 2008, p. 48
4. ‘An Interview with Jay Griffiths’, EarthLines, Issue 1, May 2012, p. 28
5. ibid.
6. Jay Griffiths, A Love Letter from a Stray Moon, Text Publishing: Melbourne, 2011, pp. 13–14
7. ibid, pp. 14–15
8. http://www.elephantjournal.com/2015/12/20-frida-kahlo-quotes-to-touch-the-core-of-your-being/


  1. Intelligent, insightful,and just beautifully written. Thanks Therese. Frida Kahlo had so much to teach us. Her life story is amazing. And your thoughts on it are lovely.

    1. Thank you. I may well write more about Frida in the future, as I am yet to read the bio by Hayden Herrera, so I am sure I have much more to learn from her.


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