Frida Kahlo at The Dali? Does this cause you to wonder? Does the Mexican artist who has become the best known female artist in the world, lodging in the home of the Spanish surrealist master, cause you pause? Do you raise your eyebrows? Or touch lightly your mustache? No wonder.
But more than a casual reflection on these remarkable artists yields profound similarities: their connection to dream, their yearning to embrace the cosmos, their fixations on an intensely loved companion. And there is more: Think about how they constructed their identities as part of their artwork, looked the part and lived it for the public. We think we know them from a glance—especially in this community, Dali—but there is much more to know, or to try to know.
We are drawn to the spirit Kahlo expresses—handicapped, alone, yet with soaring heart. She had polio at six, the year she breathed on her bedroom window and drew a door, then journeyed out through it into another world in which she met a girl just like she, only agile and carefree. She limped from the polio and children called her peg leg, Frida Kahlo, pega de palo. Yet she became the leader of an impish group of pranksters and eggheads called Los Cachuchas. It was the pranks of this gang that led her to Diego Rivera. She writes that she knew she would marry him, and years later she did.
Out of her isolation she found herself. “Since my subjects have always been my sensations, my moods and the profound reactions that life has produced within me, I have frequently objectified all this in figures of myself that were as sincere and as real as I could make them for the expression of what I felt for myself and before myself.” She made suffering her principal biographical element. Suffering of the body—there were dozens of operations over her short life stemming from the bus accident—and suffering of the heart over the tumultuous and extraordinary relation to Diego Rivera. She suffered two accidents in her life, she wrote: the bus and Diego.
In her painting she also found a way to draw on the Mexican heritage that she had embraced with her indigenous jewelry and huiples, the beads and gold together with the embroidery and petticoated skirts. She drew on Aztec symbol of sun and moon and appropriated the retablas of Mexican popular art. These devotional paintings, often painted on tin sheets and in styles of varying sophistication, relayed the marvelous intervention of a saint or the divinity in rescuing a loved one from adversity—fire, a terrible fall, the grip of the devil. While her first paintings reference European styles, by bringing her sophistication to a folkloric form she created something all her own.
One of the paintings in the exhibition at The Dali is of Luther Burbank. Burbank fit both her politics and her cosmology. Burbank had invented productive plant hybrids that helped increase the food supply in the late 19th century. At his death he asked to be buried beneath a cedar tree on his California farm. Kahlo shows him as a hybrid of plant and human, a corpse in the ground and a flowering tree. Kahlo used a line drawing of Burbank she found in an engineering magazine, much as Dali used a Scientific American magazine cover to inspire his painting of Lincoln. In a painting from the 1940s Kahlo painted herself as a flower, male and female combined, self sufficient and capable of procreating on her own. That painting, Flower of Life shares with Dali’s GalaciDalici the ambition to make in a single painting a view of the entire cosmos.
Kahlo writes that her art comes out of experience rather than from dream. Yet for a person who spent so much of her life in bed, the worlds of dream and waking surely intermingled. Her drawing Fantasia shows her merged with the land of Mexico, her breasts the volcanos surrounding Mexico City. Dali, too, relied on dreams to provide him startling imagery. Yet whatever the sources of an artist’s work it is always filtered by recollections, thoughts, and the habits of the body.
I wrote that Kahlo and Dali were shaped by the singularity of their love. Kahlo was fixed adoringly on Rivera as Dali was on Gala. They raised that fixity to religious proportions. Neither found bliss in this relation. In the ideal, they found they must contend with imperfection and dwell at peace with themselves. Yet this love is perhaps the lodestone that helped them navigate through an imperfect world, one of suffering and confusion together with joy and clarity. In the way Kahlo and Dali use themselves as a measure and meter of the world, they remain thoroughly contemporary and of great use to all of us today.
– Dr. Hank Hine, Executive Director of the Salvador Dalí Museum
The exhibition Frida Kahlo at the Dali opens December 17, 2016 and will be on view through April 17, 2017.