Creative Courage Beyond Pain
It is health and not disease what Frida Kahlo discovered along her unstoppable journey as a rebellious artist.
We have often heard that Frida Kahlo was a multi-layered being, similar and different to herself in her pictorial work, in her personality, and even more so in her personal life; however, because of that same honest character found in her work, and the challenging life she led, Frida has gradually become an icon who, like Che Guevara, accepts all sorts of partial, deviant and opportunistic interpretations.
Appreciating her work through her turbulent life and the physical pain she endured can lead to simplifications and to imprecise and sentimentalist reductions, like those purported by the film Frida (Julie Taymor, 2002), featuring Salma Hayek as the painter and Alfred Molina as her legendary husband, Diego Rivera. This is the same as saying that the only significant event in the life of Vincent Van Gogh was the loss of an ear, leaving his painting in an insignificant background.
Indeed, Frida was exposed to a pain that would have been impossible for most to endure: her tragic accident when she was only 18, followed by 32 operations in the following years, culminating in the amputation of her leg shortly before her death. But we must consider this objectively for a moment: if physical pain was a requirement for artistic creation, hospitals and concentration camps would be outstanding art galleries; psychiatric wards would be full of misunderstood geniuses, and disease would become synonymous with creation. And this is clearly not the case.
What sets Frida apart is not her turbulent life, but an infallible creative force. From the harnesses she had to wear while she was bedridden and which allowed her to paint while lying down, to the fact that she decorated her orthopedic corsets with pictorial motifs, brandishing a character that is not only rebellious, but also exceptional. She revealed an authentic, powerful need to find health and strength in art. In other words, it is not the disease that produces “great art”, but the artist’s internal strength to find, in pain, the space in which necessity to create becomes stronger than torment.
While Frida lived with Diego Rivera in the United States, he wrote: “Frida began to work on a series of unprecedented masterpieces in the history of art, paintings that exalted the true feminine quality, reality, cruelty and grief. Never before had a woman placed a similar type of tormented poetry on canvas as Frida did during this period in Detroit.”
During the historical moment in which Frida lived, women played a subordinate role in relation to their male counterparts; but, in order to truly honor Frida Kahlo’s work and creative power, we would have to consider her more than just a woman capable of impressing “truth, reality, cruelty and grief” in her work. We must see her simply as an artist, one that belongs to a genre that transcends the masculine and the feminine: the genre of rebels who refuse to be boxed in a category that might limit them, and who continue to encourage our admiration and imagination. They inspire all those who are fortunate enough to appreciate their work. This is the only way we can overcome, as a society, the perception of artists as a human subspecies condemned to seek tortuous lives where they may find strength. It is the power of life and art which transforms those individuals who rebel against their conditions, not the other way around.
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