Friday, July 22, 2011

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)

"I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy as long as I can paint."
A century ago, in the Blue House, on the outskirts of Mexico City, Frida Kahlo came into the world, destined to live a life of suffering, but also to be remembered as one of the greatest woman artists of all time. A great artist certainly, but perhaps not a particularly good painter? She was self taught, and in my opinion is one of those powerful artists - Goya is another - who may not be technically brilliant, but who succeed as a result of the frankness and originality by which they communicate their view of the world and its woes.

Her father was German; her mother was Amerindian. She liked to say that she was as old as the Mexican Revolution, and would write about the gunfire that echoed around the family home in her childhood. There is a theory that Frida was born with spina bifida: an American surgeon, Leo Eloesser did X rays in 1930, and concluded that this explained the decreased sensitivity in the lower part of her body. Aged six, Frida contracted polio, wearing colourful skirts to conceal her weaker right leg, and requiring a built-up shoe. In 1925, she was badly injured when the bus she was riding in crashed with a tram, breaking her spine, collarbone, pelvis, leg, foot, shoulder and being pierced in the womb by an iron handrail. She had up to 35 operations during her recovery, spent months confined to a plaster corset, and for the rest of her life, she had periods of extreme pain. She was also left unable to have a child. Not many people can boast - or lament - that they have a congenital impairment, an impairment acquired through disease, and an impairment as a result of a traumatic injury.
Originally interested in medicine, Kahlo began to paint to overcome boredom, when immobilised and convalescing. Later, she wrote to Diego Rivera, the leading contemporary Mexican artist, to ask him for advice. He not only encouraged her work, he also began a relationship with her which lead to marriage in 1929, against the wishes of her family. Their relationship was tempestuous - both had affairs, Kahlo with women as well as men, Rivera with Kahlo's sister Cristina, among others. They often lived separately. A macho woman with a feminine man, Kahlo always said that he loved her moustache and she loved his breasts. They divorced in 1939. They remarried a year later. Both communists, Kahlo and Rivera befriended Trotsky when he was exiled to Mexico - it is said that Kahlo had an affair with him too. But first and last, Kahlo was passionately in love with Rivera: "Diego: the beginning, builder, my child, my boyfriend, painter, my lover, my husband, my friend, my mother, me, the universe."
Kahlo's paintings often express her physical anguish, most famously in the 1944 image of "The broken column", featuring her in an arid landscape with a broken pillar for her spine, and nails stuck into her naked body. When Kahlo exhibited in New York in 1938, André Breton, who had organized the show, described her work as "a ribbon around a bomb", hailing her as a surrealist. In response, Kahlo said: "They thought I was a surrealist but I wasn't. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality."
More than a third of her works are self portraits. She wrote: "I paint self portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best". According to her biographer Hayden Herrera, she was lonely, and she craved attention. At MOMA in June , I saw two great examples of the self portraits: Frida with her monkey on her shoulders, the monkey who was the substitute for the children she was unable to conceive with Diego Rivera; Frida in a man's suit, sitting on a yellow chair, scissors in her hand, close cropped and surrounded by strands of her black hair. Kahlo never hides her problems or her defects, from her heavy eyebrows and hairy upper lip to her physical impairments.
Throughout her life, Kahlo suffered neuropathic pain, becoming reliant on painkillers. In her last years, Kahlo was often sick: she suffered from leg ulcers, and was reliant on a wheelchair after 1951. After several unsuccessful operations, she had to have her right leg amputated below the knee in 1953. The last entry in her diary reads: "I hope the exit is joyful... and I hope never to come back". She died on 13 July 1954, from pneumonia. It is possible that she had taken an overdose of morphine.
Frida Kahlo's only Mexican exhibition came the year before she died. In the decades after her death, she was known mainly as the eccentric wife of Diego Rivera. With the growth in interest in Mexican art in the 1980s, she became increasingly famous in the English-speaking world, particularly after a major retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1982. She is the artist who gave painters permission to be personal: we could almost certainly blame her for Tracey Emin. In 2001, Kahlo became the first Hispanic woman to be the subject of a US postage stamp, and the biopic with Salma Hayek in 2002, based on the biography by Hayden Herrera, ensured worldwide fame. Now, her images are ubiquitous and she is an inspiration, in particular to Hispanics, to disabled people and to women, and to all who identify with her passion and her struggle. She has been described as the poster child for sorrow and for resiliency. As the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes has written:
"She is a figure that represents the conquest of adversity, that represents how - against hell and high water - a person is able to make their life and reinvent themselves and make that life be personally fulfilling... Frida Kahlo in that sense is a symbol of hope, of power, of empowerment, for a variety of sectors of our population who are undergoing adverse conditions."

Further reading
Budrys V. Neurological deficits in the life and works of Frida Kahlo, European Neurology 2005, 55, 1
Herrera H. Frida: the biography of Frida Kahlo, New York, Harper Collins, 1983

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

At school, our English curriculum comprised the classics - Joseph Conrad, Tom Stoppard, King Lear, Chaucer - but with a healthy sideline in eccentricity - Ivor Gurney, Edward Thomas - to keep our fevered teenage imaginations interested. None more so, of course, than Emily Dickinson, the white-clad, ghostlike, hermit of Amherst, with her elliptical fragments of dash-punctuated verse. Eagerly we took her to our puzzled hearts, perhaps because there is something adolescent about much of her work - intense, self-indulgent, romantic.

I can still remember my favourite:

Exultation is the going

Of an inland soul to sea,

Past the houses - past the headlands -

Into deep Eternity.

Bred as we, among the mountains,

Can the sailor understand

The divine intoxication

Of the first league out from land?

Born to a typical New England bourgeois family, Emily was a sickly teenager, but did well at Amherst Academy, where she was particularly interested in geology. At 16, she went to Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, the first women's college in America. Despite her recognized brilliance, she did not fit in, partly because she rejected the dominant Christian revivalist ethos. After periods of ill-health, she was removed from the college at the age of 17.

Emily spent the rest of her days in the family home, The Homestead, in the bedroom overlooking the graveyard. Although at first she would walk her dog Carlo, named after the dog in Jane Eyre, a book she particularly loved, she increasingly began to withdraw from society. For nearly thirty years she looked after her mother, herself an invalid. Her father created a conservatory for her, so she could experience nature without leaving the house: she was a great gardener and amateur botanist. In the last fifteen years of her life she became reclusive, and was protected and supported in her isolation by her father, by her sister Lavinia, and by her sister-in-law Susan "most beloved friend, influence, muse, and adviser" to whom many of the poems were addressed.

Solitary, but demanding of love and attention, Emily was a very active and demanding correspondent, sending her work out to friends for feedback. Her relationships with men were few, intense and conducted mainly through correspondence. Later in life, she had an intimate friendship with a local widower, Judge Otis Lord, reading Shakespeare together, flirting and even sitting on his lap, but when he asked her to marry him, she turned him down.

A recent account of the Dickinson family by Lyndall Gordon maintains that the secret of Emily's seclusion and spinsterdom might lie in epilepsy, a condition which is known to have affected other members of the extended family:

“Nature – sometimes sears a sapling

Sometimes - scalps a tree”

In 1851, aged 20, Emily had privately consulted Dr James Jackson of Boston. Gordon suggests that they spoke candidly about her condition, and that he advised a mode of existence that would mitigate her suffering, and offer her comfort and even fulfillment. Emily was prescribed a solution of glycerine-and-water, one of the nineteenth century nostrums for epilepsy, although at a concentration which suggests to Gordon that it was only ever intended as a placebo. Another doctor advised that it was better to avoid exposure to sunlight, which could exacerbate seizures:

“The Brain within its Groove

Runs evenly”

Until a “Splinter swerve”

The whole affair was kept secret, because epilepsy was at that time so highly stigmatized. The disease was associated with syphilis, masturbation, hysteria, even insanity, and it would have been shaming to the poet and her family had her disability been known. Because seizures might strike at any time with only a few minutes warning, it was better to hide from strangers. To avoid discovery or embarrassment, it was preferable to avoid close contact and never to marry - “by birth a Batchelor”. Becoming a reclusive writer was the ideal solution. Aged 43, she even remained in her bedroom during her father's funeral.

It was perhaps disability, then, which freed Emily Dickinson from the demands made on other late nineteenth century women - marriage, children, social obligations - and which enabled her to express and explore her unique voice. Certainly, many of the poems seem compatible with this suggestion:

"I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,

And Mourners to and fro

Kept treading - treading - till it seemed

That Sense was breaking through."

But retrospective diagnosis is always perilous, and we can never know for sure, as with many historical figures, whether we are justified in claiming them as disabled people.

The locked cherrywood chest against the wall of her bedroom began to fill up with poems, on scraps of paper, loose leaves, but also in 40 handmade booklets which were only discovered after her death, containing over 800 short poems. Poems about flowers, mysterious and passionate love poems, religious poems like demented hymns, and above all poem after poem about death:

"Because I could not stop for Death -

He kindly stopped for me -

The Carriage held but just Ourselves-

And immortality"

Among her influences - Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the Brontes, George Eliot - was the Book of Revelation. Independent in religion as in other areas of life, Emily was inclined to Ralph Waldo Emerson's transcendentalism, rather than conforming to local Protestant orthodoxy:

"Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –

I keep it, staying at Home"

Emily had made several efforts to get her work published, for example exchanging many letters with the critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson and with Samuel Bowles, the editor of The Springfield Republican, a local newspaper, but always with disappointing results. Higginson described the work to a friend as "remarkable, though odd... too delicate - not strong enough to publish." Her frank, obscure and passionate poetry was barely understood or appreciated by contemporaries, and only a dozen examples were published in her lifetime, and in toned-down versions.

After her death at age 55, probably from kidney disease, 1800 poems were discovered by her sister Lavinia. This extraordinary poetic legacy was fought over by her relatives, and particularly by her brother Austin's mistress, Mabel Loomis Todd, who was one of the few to recognise her genius. Todd co-edited a selected volume published in 1890, though with editorial changes to suit contemporary tastes. It took some years, together with much effort to restore the original versions of the work for the 1955 complete edition. By this time, Emily Dickinson had become recognized as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of all American poets.

Further reading

Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems, edited by TH Johnson, Faber and Faber 1975.

Lyndall Gordon, Lives like loaded guns: Emily Dickinson and her family’s feuds, Virago 2010.