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'Frida Kahlo at Home' a fine entry-level introduction to the artist

Biographies of Frida Kahlo in various forms have proliferated since the early 1980s, when she became a rock star of the art world about three decades after her death in 1954. After so much examination, nothing new seems left to reveal.

So Frida Kahlo at Home by Suzanne Barbezat holds no surprises. It does offer a good gloss of the facts if you're not interested in an exhaustive tome, and it's complemented by many illustrations of Kahlo's art and photographs.

The book is a straightforward discussion of Kahlo's life with some emphasis placed on her various domiciles over the years: hotels and other people's houses when they traveled for husband Diego Rivera's mural commissions, the house they shared in Mexico City. Most important to her was La Casa Azul, her family home outside of the city where she was born and died. It was her True North, the place to which she returned through the years in joy and sorrow.

As a college student, Kahlo began listing her birth year as 1910 to coincide with the year the Mexican Revolution began, but the real year was 1907. And, according to birth records, she wasn't literally born at her house but that of a nearby relative. Minor discrepancies.

Her father, Guillermo, a German immigrant, was a commercial photographer who specialized in architecture. He and her mother, Matilde, a Mexican, had four daughters — Kahlo was the third — plus she had two half sisters from her father's first marriage.

Kahlo described her childhood with ambivalence. Matilde seemed to be kind but demanding, and her religious fervor was off-putting, so much so that Frida's oldest sister ran off with a man while still a teenager. Kahlo contracted polio when she was 6 and spent months at home convalescing, which isolated her from her peers and perhaps strengthened her fierce independence. At 15, Kahlo began attending a prestigious school in Mexico City with the goal of becoming a doctor. Her interests in socialism and Mexican culture were kindled there and burned bright for the rest of her life.

The horrific collision of a trolley car with a bus in which she rode on Sept. 17, 1925, changed everything. Medical studies were out of the question. For the rest of her life, pain would be a constant companion. And though she was never an introvert, the months of recovery deepened her introspection. She began to paint while on her back in bed, and the surmise has often been that her talent sprang fully formed during that period. In fact, she loved to draw and had worked for a printer, reproducing art for him. And she was well aware of Western art history, which she referenced frequently in her work.

The other fateful event in Kahlo's life was her meeting with Diego Rivera, which led to marriage in 1929. Rivera was 42 at the time, Kahlo 21. He was considered a great Mexican artist and had an international reputation, leading the muralist movement that celebrated his country's history, usually through the prism of its underclass people. He and Kahlo were both members of the Communist Party. Rivera had been married twice and was an unrepentant roue. His constant philandering continued, and she, too, had numerous affairs over the years. They even divorced in 1939 but remarried the next year. His success with women was puzzling given his girth — he had a huge pot belly — and his bulging eyes could suggest a frog. But he was charismatic, charming and apparently irresistible.

For several years, the couple traveled back and forth to the United States, where Rivera received commissions for murals. Kahlo sometimes assisted with them and she also continued to paint her own works, developing a style that contained elements of naive painting and other influences, especially the Renaissance.

She painted herself but other subjects, too, and incorporated symbolic objects. That construction led to comparisons with the Surrealist movement, which often used seeming mashups of unrelated objects that had connections through a person's subconscious, especially while dreaming. (That's a way oversimplified definition, I know.) Kahlo didn't buy the affiliation, saying what she painted had nothing to do with dreams; especially in her self-portraits, everything was sometimes too real. She also seems to have found the movement's leaders' dogmatism irritating.

She did, however, take advantage of the associations, staying with the Bretons in Paris — Andre Breton was the most important Surrealist — and meeting important artists such as Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró and Max Ernst. Marcel Duchamp arranged for a gallery exhibition.

She reunited with Rivera in 1933 in New York, where he was working on a mural at Rockefeller Center that was canceled after he refused to remove a portrait of Lenin in it.

When they returned to Mexico City, they moved into a house Rivera had had built, which was designed with two connected houses and studios, one for each. But Frida moved out in 1934 to an apartment, after she discovered Rivera and her younger sister, Christina, were having an affair. After the discovery, Kahlo had an affair, too, with the sculptor Isamu Noguchi.

Thus began a pattern of betrayal and forgiveness. Each couldn't live without the other. Rivera, a traditional macho Mexican man, had never met such an independent woman nor an artist he so admired. Kahlo had never met an artist she considered as great nor a man who could be as tender as he was cruel.

The next decade was especially productive for Kahlo, a time when her style and subject matter matured. The imagery continued to be unflinching but the finesse of its presentation mitigated the harshness. She also became known for her distinctive style, wrapping her braids with flowers and dressing in colorful native dresses that concealed her right leg, shortened by the bout with polio.

Though her currency as an artist grew, her visceral subject matter, no matter how adroitly rendered, made the art a tough sell to most collectors.

Yet as her confidence grew aesthetically, her health worsened. She had had several dozen surgeries to correct complications from the trolley accident, which weakened her and did little correctively.

By 1940 she was spending most of her time at La Casa Azul. At some point, it was painted the bright blue which gives it its current name, and Kahlo and Rivera filled it with a trove of pre-Columbian statuary they had collected for years. Though enlarged by her husband, who had purchased the house from her now-dead parents, its heart was the original, traditional design in which all the rooms opened onto a central courtyard. Kahlo painted the rooms in bright colors. (She could give Monet a run for his money in that regard.) Though Kahlo could have afforded to modernize the house, she retained most original elements such as the wood-burning stove and oven.

Her body began an inexorable decline in 1944, with more treatments and surgeries that couldn't halt her failing health. Still, she had the strength to create some of her most powerful paintings during the next five years, including The Broken Column. Six more operations followed in 1950, leading to a lengthy hospitalization from infections. When she was able to return home, she could no longer walk and required round-the-clock nurses even though she had a loving staff who had been with her for decades.

Kahlo no longer had the dexterity to paint her precise portraits, so she turned to still lifes, mostly arrangements of fruit, using broader, coarser strokes. They were in the tradition of vanitas paintings popular in Northern Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, in which human mortality was represented by symbolic elements including fruits, which eventually decay. Kahlo's fruits have the same sensuous quality.

In 1953, the same year a gallery in Mexico City had a solo show of her work, her right leg, which had become gangrenous, was amputated. Her death on July 13, 1954, at her beloved Casa Azul was officially ruled as caused by a pulmonary embolism, but there were suggestions that she overdosed on pain medication.

During Kahlo's lifetime, she produced more than 200 works of art, most of them paintings. Almost one-third were self-portraits, and they became the nexus to her popularity. In her popularization, though, her life is often simplified and overshadows her art. Frida Kahlo at Home has its share of airbrushing. It's a good entry-level introduction to the artist, but she's worth a deeper look.

Frida Kahlo at Home

By Suzanne Barbezat

Frances Lincoln, 178 pages, $35

'Frida Kahlo at Home' a fine entry-level introduction to the artist 01/11/17 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 10, 2017 6:27pm]
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