Recounting the legend (and the pain) of being Frida Kahlo

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In the international art world, one artist who is nothing short of mythical is Frida Kahlo. The anecdotes surrounding her, the mercurial relationship she had with her partner, Deigo Riviera, her incessant battle with various ailments (she caught polio at age six), her obsession to paint even when her hands didn’t permit (she painted with her mouth) and her commitment to Communism are all very well documented today. In fact, she has the distinction of being preserved forever in celluloid by the wonderful Salma Hayek.

Her legend will now blast-off into the outer reaches of the art galaxy, with her record-breaking sale at Sotheby’s on Monday night. A small portrait with Deigo on her forehead like a third-eye (the painting essays the many infidelities of master mural maker), it went for a staggering $34.9million.

Diego y yo by Kahlo that sold at a record high of $ 34.9 Million at Sotheby’s

I discovered Frida Kahlo rather late in life, maybe a bit before her biopic had made her a global art superstar. I have to make a disclosure here: I did not quite fancy her work at the time. It appeared not very well hewed to me, even appearing “simplistic” to my rather inadequate understanding of her concerns. At the risk of sounding shallow, I also found her facial hair, which she proudly displayed through herself-portraits, a little odd – a viewpoint that gave me a kick on my sheen when I got to know that she was a fashion icon as well.

Later, of course, I understood she desired to be as natural and herself as possible. Her deep interest in the politics of her time and her propensity to explore the vicissitudes of her life, did not leave her the time to engage with superficial ideas. That probably made her a feminist icon, in the first place.

Self portrait with thorn necklace and hummingbird

The buzz around her in the Noughties, at least in the society that I was a part of, had reached fever pitch. Everyone worth their salt as art lovers, had to have a Frida Kahlo poster in their homes. Her paintings had become an irreplaceable part of the global culture. But for me, it was a photograph of her with a pistol in hand that made me curious about her. She looked drop-dead gorgeous in the photograph, in a cool, near brash way. She seemed delicate and menacing in the same breath. Her eyes appeared to pierce the very soul of the viewer. It got me interested in knowing who this person really was. Only much later I got to know that this wasn’t a real photo, but a montage made by photographer Robert Toren. The picture went viral in 2012.

The image of Frida Kahlo with gun is a collage created by Robert Toren. He added Kahlo’s head to a 1983 photograph Toren took of Sacramento rock musician Donnette Thayer. The resulting montage went viral July 2012

The terrible tragedies she encountered (she got impaled in her pelvis in an accident), bones that could not hold her up always, and the extreme emotional upheavals that she went through drove her to passionately tell her personal story through a series of, often, melancholic pictures. It made me think that pain was probably her real muse, as much as the historical events of her time. She seemed absolutely fearless in documenting the personal. It really hit home, when I read one of her famous quotes which simply stated: “At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can.”

Come to think of it, she is as much an endurance artist as she is a painter of tropical scenes and various facets of trauma. This view was sealed in my brain when I read that she arrived at her solo exhibition in an ambulance! Her failing health, which relegated her to a wheelchair in her last years, could not stop her legend from growing, which turned into “Fridamania” in the 1970s. She was pure fire.

Frida and her partner Diego Rivera

She got her own show in 1953 at the Galería Arte Contemporaneo, Mexico. Her doctor had advised complete bed rest and everyone expected her to not be present at an event that would become a milestone in her career. But Frida was made of sterner stuff. She got on an ambulance and arrived, and then ensured her bed was moved into the exhibition space. She made her grand entrance on a stretcher for the opening of her show.

Unfortunately, just after a few months since the opening her right leg had to be amputated due to the onset of gangrene. She passed on at age 47 at the peak of her power, achieving much more than many artists have done in a far longer life. While it may sound like a cliché, there will never be another Frida.

Santanu Borah writes a weekly column for Abir Pothi every Thursday.