Remedios Varo. Part 4 – A new life in Mexico

Remedios Varo at work in her studio

Varo arrived in Mexico at the end of 1941 having had to flee the oppression of Vichy France and the Nazis.  She had been accepted by the Mexican government and granted the status of a political exile for one year but which could be renewed. She was allowed to find work with the exception of bars, cabarets and restaurants providing she did not displace any Mexican workers.    It is estimated that Mexico accepted more than fifteen thousand refugees into its country.  The majority of them could be termed the “intelligentsia”, who brought with them a much-needed stimulus to both the economic and cultural development of the country.  Many of these exiles believed that one day in the near future they would be able to return to France and Spain and so many of these exiles kept together rather than try to assimilate with Mexicans and their culture.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera

These exiled artist from Europe were not loved by everybody and the most popular Mexican artist of the time, Diego Rivera and his partner Freda Kahlo. who held the position of being the reigning leaders of Mexican artistic culture rejected what they deemed as the foreign colonializing influences of the newly arrived European artists.  Kahlo who had been in Paris in 1939 for her own exhibition at the Pierre Colle gallery and who had been a guest of André Breton was surprisingly scathing about the Surrealist painters.  In a letter from Kahlo to Nikolas Murray, a Hungarian-born American photographer and her long-time lover, in the March of that year, she wrote:

“…They make me vomit.  They are so damn ‘intellectual’ and rotten that I can’t stand them anymore……I’d rather sit on the floor in the market at Toluca and sell tortillas, than to have anything to do with those ‘artistic’ bitches of Paris…”

Leonora Carrington

One of Remedios’ closest friends when she arrived in Mexico was the English Surrealist painter Leonora Carrington, who like Remedios had to flee from the Vichy and Nazi controlled France and find refuge in Mexico.  Leonora and Remedios, who had first met in France in the late 1930’s, got together nearly every day and the two women formed an intense connection and would talk about their dreams for the future.  

In her early days in Mexico, Remedios did few paintings and spent most of her time writing.  She and Leonora Carrington would write fairy tales, collaborated on a play, invented Surrealistic potions and recipes, and influenced each other’s work. The two women, together with another of their friends, the photographer Kati Horna became known as “the three witches”

Women’s Tailor by Remedios Varo (1957)

Once in Mexico, Varo took on a variety of jobs, hand painting furniture and restoring pre-Columbian artifacts. In 1942, she worked with Marc Chagall, a fellow refugee from Air-Bel in Marseilles, designing costumes for Leon Massine’s ballet, Aleko.  Remedios completed a painting in 1957 entitled Women’s Tailor which shows the wild imagination she had when it came to costume designs.  The setting is a showroom in an haute-couture fashion house and we see the dress designer proudly parading his models wearing his dresses in front of a potential client.  She had always loved designing and making clothes and would often design clothes for many of the exiled Surrealist costume parties.

Insomnia by Remedios Varo (c.1947)

Remedios Varo’s main source of income in the late 1940’s was the work she did for Casa Bayer (the Bayer pharmaceutical company).  She was tasked with illustrating their promotional literature.  One example of this was her work, Insomnia, which was incorporated into a pamphlet advertising Bayer’s sleeping pills, which included the words warning of the trauma of insomnia:

“…Sensing that someone has been observing them, they open tired eyelids, searching the nocturnal shadows !   Undefined anxiety fills the solitude of the dark, dry rooms, devoid of warmth…” 

Rheumatism Lumbago Sciatica by Remedios Varo (1947)

Another pamphlet Remedios illustrated was one focusing on back pain which Bayer pharmaceuticals could alleviate.  The horrors of the ailment were summed up by Bayer in their leaflet:

“…As if sharp nails are being driven into flesh…..into the joints, into the bones, into the nerves…..!!!  These are the sensations that one can suffer, Rheumatism….lumbago….sciatica….! !…”

Rheumatic Pain by Remedios Varo (1948)

Remedios Varo’s illustration for the 1947 Bayer pamphlet entitled Rheumatism, lumbago, sciatica, added greater force to the words.  In the work we see a man depicted running through a boulder-strewn field with pointed objects piercing his feet and body.   In the background there is a castle with conical towers and crenelated walls which harks back to the Spanish castles of Varo’s childhood. 

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944)

It is also believed that Varo drew inspiration for this depiction of spikes and nails entering the man’s body from Freda Kahlo’s 1944 work Broken Column which she painted as a reminder of how her body had been broken and put together again after she was involved in traffic accident whilst riding on an old wooden bus, which collided with a streetcar. Several people were killed, and Kahlo suffered nearly fatal injuries—an iron handrail impaled her through her pelvis, fracturing the bone. She also fractured several ribs, her legs, and her collarbone which was to leave her in pain for the rest of her life.

Allegory of Winter by Remedios Varo (1948)

She also illustrated the Bayer calendar with depictions of the coming of Winter and the coming of Spring. 

Signature of “Uranga” on Bayer painting

It is interesting to note that all the commercial illustrations she did for Bayer and other companies were signed “Uranga”, her mother’s maiden name.  Varo was determined to clearly separate her commercial work from her own art which she was happy to sign in her own name.

Although Remedios was beginning to enjoy life in Mexico, her second husband Benjamin Péret was homesick for France and wanted to return there with Varo but his financial situation would not allow him to purchase a passage on a ship to France.  He wrote to his old friend André Breton, who had been exiled in America and the Caribbean until 1946, when he had managed to return to Paris.  Péret’s letters to Breton were sad and pleading.   In March 1947 he wrote:

“…It’s true I have not written for a long time, but what’s the use of writing to give always discouraging news:  abominable material circumstances, no hope of prompt return…”

In October 1947 he wrote again to Breton telling of his poor financial situation:

“…I still can’t make any arrangements for return, for lack of money.  As soon as this is possible, I’ll let you know…”

Breton and other friends of Péret finally rallied around and staged an exhibition for him at the Paris Galerie Rive Gauche.  Artists, such as Picasso, Miro, Tanguy, Dominguez and Breton contributed works, the sale of which was enough to pay for a single one-way passage and by late 1947 Péret was ensconced once again in his beloved Paris.  Remedios Varo refused to accompany her husband for she had made her home in Mexico and did not or could not return to her homeland which held so many bad memories for her.  Her relationship with Péret had been going downhill for some time.  Varo’s close friend, Kati Horna, a Hungarian photographer, explained why Remedios’ relationship with Péret had run its course:

“…Péret was so intellectual, so distracted, that although he was a kind and generous man, he did not participate actively.  He was always lost in thought, his head in the clouds, thinking weighty thoughts…”

Portrait of Jean Nicole by Remedios Varo

Varo had already started a new relationship before her husband had taken his leave of Mexico.  The new love of her life was a French pilot and adventurer, Jean Nicholl, a fellow refugee whom Péret and Varo had sheltered

Remedios Varo with Jean Nicole in the jungle, Venezuela – 1949

To get over the break with her husband, Remedios travelled with her new friend/lover Jean Nicolle to Venezuela at the end of 1947.  Her brother Rodrigo was living in Venezuela, working as an epidemiologist and had brought with him his family and his mother.  It is quite possible Remedios’ mother was horrified when she met her daughter and her new flamboyant lover who was fourteen years younger than her, and who were now living together.  Her mother’s Catholic sensibility must have taken a big hit, knowing her daughter’s first marriage had ended in divorce, her second partner had left her and gone back to Paris and now she was living with a third man!       Her answer was a plea for her daughter to attend mass with her.  Remedios did accompany her mother to church – but just the once.   Remedios’ stay in Venezuela came to an end at the start of 1949.

Walter Gruen (1952)

Around the time of their return from Venezuela, Remedios and Jean Nicolle’s relationship began to peter out and soon they became separated and eventually their romantic interlude came to an end.  A new man came in to Remedios’ life, an Austrian political refugee Walter Gruen whom she had first met in the early 1940’s.  However, they did not become closer until Péret had left for Paris in 1947, her relationship with Jean Nicolle had been downgraded to just a friendship and Gruen’s first wife, Clari had died in a tragic drowning accident.

Sala Margolin

Gruen had once been a medical student in Austria until Hitler came to power which put and end to his studies.  He decided that his life was in danger and managed to escape Europe and settle in Mexico.  He arrived with no possessions and very little money.  Initially he worked in a tyre shop and persuaded the owner that he could make extra money by selling phonograph records as well as tyres and Gruen and the owner set up a record shop at the front of the store.  Soon Gruen’s finances improved, so much so, he bought the tyre shop owner out and by the early 1950’s Gruen had transformed the tyre store into one of Mexico’s most prestigious music stores.  Gruen named his store Sala Margolín after the tyre store owner who had given him his first chance in Mexico.  Remedios moved in with Gruen in 1951 and lived in an apartment block on calle Alvaro Obregón close to Sala Margolín in a middle-class neighbourhood. 

Remedios Varo on her terrace.

They occupied two apartments on either side of a landing, one of which had a high-ceiling third floor studio which had a door leading out to a small terrace, where Remedios would spend hours on end painting.  Walter and Remedios married in 1952.  Remedios was adamant that despite Gruen having a lucrative business she would contribute equally to their living expenses.  Gruen gave Remedios his unwavering support which allowed her to free herself from her commercial work and devote herself entirely to her own artistic vision.

This was the start of Remedios Varo’s great painting years.

……… be concluded

Most of the information for this blog, apart from the usual sources, comes from Janet A. Kaplan’s excellent book entitled Remedios Varo, Unexpected Journeys.  This is a must-read book if you want a fuller version of the life and times of Remedios Varo.

Frida Kahlo – Part 4

My blog today is the fourth and final part of Frida Kahlo’s life story.  Over the last three blogs I have looked at her ancestry, her birth, her school days and her first marriage to Diego Rivera.  Today I am going to talk about the latter stages of her life and her continued sufferings both mental and physical.

It is November 1931, and after having spent the summer back in Mexico, Frida and Diego Rivera sailed to New York for his retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art that December.  From New York the couple moved on to Philadelphia and Detroit where, in the spring of 1932, Rivera was commissioned to paint a mural at the Detroit Art Institute.  Early that September, Frida received the sad news that her mother was dying of breast cancer.   She and her friend Lucienne Bloch returned to the Frida’s family home in Mexico.  Her mother, Matilde, died following gall-bladder surgery on September 15th.  Art historians have always asserted that Frida, despite her many attempts, had never been able to form a close bond with her mother.  However this contention was brought into question in 2007 when an exhibition was held at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, entitled Mamacita Linda: Letters between Frida Kahlo and her Mother, which featured a collection of letters sent between Frida and her family and friends.   Some of the letters were between mother and daughter in the years before her mother’s death and these show remarkable tenderness and affection between the two women which may prompt scholars to re-evaluate the way they look at the mother’s impact on her daughter’s life and work.  The contents of the letters between the two women are very moving especially at the time when the health of Frida’s mother was beginning to fail.  The collection contained the last letter her mother ever wrote to Frida in which she tells her how happy she was to talk to her on the telephone.

My Nurse and I by Frida Kahlo (1937)

The first painting by Frida Kahlo I am featuring today is entitled My Nurse and I which she completed in 1937 and can be now found in the Dolores Olmedo Patiño Museum in Mexico City.  The year 1937 was the one in which Frida suffered one of her many miscarriages or abortions and these traumatic incidents in her life sparked off a series of paintings in which her yearning for a child became merged with reminiscences of her own childhood.

Señor de las Limas

It is a small work of art, just 12” x 14”, which harks back to her birth and her early relationship with her mother.  The depiction and posture of the adult and baby in this painting by Frida Kahlo could have derived from Señor de las Limas, the greenstone sculpture which was found around Vera Cruz in Mexico and dates back 3000 years.

Matilde, Frida’s mother, was unable to breastfeed Frida because her sister Cristina was born just eleven months after her.   For this reason, she had to be fed by a native Indian wet-nurse, whom the family hired for that sole purpose.  Unfortunately her term of employment had to be ended abruptly as she had alcohol-related problems and was fired for drinking on the job!   In this painting, we see the wet nurse holding the baby Frida, who is dressed in European-style garb, but with an adult head and long black hair.  In the original painting Frida painted her baby-image with short hair but later changed it.  In the picture we see the wet nurse suckling the baby and the ducts and glands of the lactating breast are repeated in the white coloured leaf behind the two figures.  The landscape is lush with vegetation and the sky is raining milk upon them. This aspect is more than likely derived from the wet nurse’s description of rain as “milk from the Virgin”.  Milk also drips from both breasts emphasizing both fertility and nourishment. The relationship between the wet nurse and the baby appears detached and aloof.  The wet nurse does not embrace nor cuddle Frida and it almost looks as if she is holding her up to us as if the baby is a sacrificial offering. The painting highlights the fact that there seems to have been no maternal-type love between wet nurse and baby and simply reduced it to the practical process of feeding.

The baby in the painting has an adult head because it was the adult Frida who had the memory of this time.   As Frida has no memory of what her wet nurse looked like, she covered her face with a Teotihuacan funerary mask.   Of this aspect of the painting Frida said:

“…I came out looking like such a little girl and she so strong and so saturated with providence that it made me long to sleep…”

At the bottom of the painting there is an unfurled blank scroll which makes one believe that at some time during painting the work Frida was going to add a message explaining the meaning behind it.  Frida considered this to be one of her most powerful works and wrote about this painting saying:

“…I am in my nurse’s arms, with the face of a grown up woman and the body of a little girl, while milk falls from her nipples as if from the heavens…”

In December 1933, Frida and Diego return to Mexico. Upon their return they moved into the double studio-houses in San Angel.  Frida lived in one, Rivera in the other.   In early 1934, after being pregnant for 3 months, Frida’s third pregnancy and health was again in trouble.  She underwent an appendectomy, an abortion, and an operation on her foot in which three toes were removed.   Her marriage to Rivera was not running smoothly and he was involved in a number of extra-marital affairs.  Frida was aware of many of these and in many of her self-portraits around this time they show her, not as a smiling happy young woman, but as a person who has had her heart broken on many occasions.  However it all came to a head when Frida found out that her husband was having an affair with her younger sister Christina.  Although Cristina was married, her husband had abandoned her and their two children. Cristina had worked as one of Diego’s models and had become his favourite muse.  Soon she began appearing in his murals.  When she found out about this affair, Frida was devastated and she left Rivera.  The separation lasted until the end of 1935 when the couple were reconciled albeit they led separate lives.

Self-Portrait dedicated to Leon Trotsky
by Frida Kahlo (1937)

Frida was also far from faithful in her marriage, and had a number of affairs with both men and women.  Although Rivera was willing to accept Frida’s homosexual affairs he would not tolerate any sexual liaisons she had with men.  The most famous of her male lovers was Leon Trotsky, the Russian revolutionary, who fled to Mexico, with his wife Natalia, to escape the clutches of Stalin. Rivera had secured asylum for them and Frida had loaned them her home in Coyoacán.  She had a brief love affair with him in the summer of 1937 but it all ended when Rivera became suspicious of her relationship with the Russian.  On November 7th 1937, which was both his birthday and the anniversary of the Russian Revolution, she gave Trotsky a self-portrait for him to keep as a reminder of their short affair.  The painting was entitled Self-Portrait dedicated to Leon Trotsky and was one of her most seductive self-portraits.  In the painting we see Frida beautifully dressed in the clothes of a colonial aristocrat holding a letter addressed to Trotsky and on it are the words:

“…To Leon Trotsky, with all my love, I dedicate this painting on 7th November 1937. Frida Kahlo in Saint Angel, Mexico…

The painting came back into her possession in 1939 when Trotsky and his wife left the area.  In August 1940 Frida was devastated to hear that Trotsky had been assassinated in Mexico City.

Frida travelled to New York in 1938 where she had the first solo exhibition of her paintings at the Julien Levy Gallery.  The following year she went to Paris where her paintings were being shown at the Colle Gallery.  After this she returns to Mexico and goes back to live in her family home in Coyoacán.  Frida and Rivera agreed to separate and divorce proceedings began.  The divorce was finalised in November 1939.   Frida’s health was slowly but surely deteriorating all the time and in 1940 she travelled to San Francisco where she received medical attention and a second opinion from Doctor Eloesser, who was to become a great friend of hers and remained such right up to her death.  The doctor was also a close friend of Diego Rivera, who also happened to be in San Francisco at the time and it was due to the persuasive powers of Doctor Eloesser that Frida reconciled with Rivera and the pair re-marry on December 8th 1940.  That day also happened to be Rivera’s fifty-fourth birthday.  At the end of the year Frida returned to Mexico whilst her husband remained in San Francisco.  The reason for this was that because he had had vociferously and publicly criticised Trotsky he had come under suspicion with regards the Russian’s assassination.  In February 1941, no longer under suspicion, Diego returned to Mexico.   He went back to live in the Kahlo family home in Coyoacán with Frida, using the San Angel house as his studio.  More tragedy strikes Frida when that April, her father died. It was thought that he had suffered a heart attack while others said it was an epileptic seizure.   Frida was distraught and became depressed which exacerbated her failing health.

In 1950, Kahlo was hospitalized due to recurring spinal problems. She underwent a total of seven operations on her spine during that year.   After her discharge from the hospital in 1951, she was confined to her bed for much of the time and full-time nurses were hired to care for her and give her injections of pain killers.

Feet, What do I Need Them For if I Have Wings to Fly

In August 1953, the gangrene on Frida’s right foot worsened and doctors were forced to amputate her right leg below the knee.  She was fitted with a wooden leg but her addiction to pain killers and alcohol left her balance unstable making it hazardous for her to walk with the prosthetic.  She wrote in her diary alongside a sketch of her amputated leg:

“…Feet…what do I need them for if I have wings to fly….

In April 1954, Frida contracted pneumonia and was hospitalized for two months.   Three months later, on July 7th,  Frida had her 47th birthday. That morning, dressed in a traditional white Yalalag huipil with a lavender tassel, make-up on and flowers in her hair, she was carried down the stairs into the dining room.  There she entertained more than 100 guests throughout the day. At 8 o’clock in the evening she was taken back upstairs to rest but continued to hold court.

Viva la Vida by Frida Kahlo (1954)

My final painting by Frida Kahlo is her last work of art which she completed just eight days before she died.  It is entitled Viva la vida and is a still-life work.  It is a juxtaposition of the crimson of the chopped and sliced watermelon with the half dark, half light sky.  The last element of this painting was the inscription Frida painted on the slice of melon we see in the foreground:


Coyoacán 1954 Mexico

The night before Frida died she was critically ill with pneumonia. Diego sat beside her bed until 2:30 am. That night Frida gave Diego a ring that she had bought for him as a gift for their 25th anniversary, which was still seventeen days away. When he asked why she was giving it to him so early Frida simply replied

“…Because I feel I am going to leave you very soon…”

In the early morning of Tuesday, July 13th, 1954, Frida died in the “Blue House” where she was born 47 years earlier. The cause of death was officially reported as a pulmonary embolism.   Frida’s old schoolmate from the Preparatoria, Andrés Iduarte, who was now the director of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, gave Diego permission for Frida’s body to lie in state in the huge high-ceiling hall.   That night, dressed in Tehuana attire and over accessorized with jewellery, Frida’s body lay in state in the foyer of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, with Diego at her side the whole night. By noon the next day more than 600 mourners had passed by her coffin to pay their last respects.

Onc,e when asked what should be done with her body when she dies, Frida replied:

“Burn it…I don’t want to be buried. I have spent too much time lying down…just burn it!”.

On November 24, 1957, Diego Rivera died of heart failure in his San Angel studio.

Frida and Diego in 1954
The year she died

I leave you with a diary entry Frida made during the last painful months of her life, which shows how, despite all the setbacks she suffered and the pain she had to endure, she was still an optimist and a fighter and still very much in love with her husband:

I have achieved a lot,

I will be able to walk

I will be able to paint

I love Diego more

than I love myself

My will is great

My will remains


As was the case when I wrote about the great Italian female painter, Artemisia Gentileschi, (My Daily Art Display November 24th 2011) this has not just been a tale about art and an artist but a tale of sadness and suffering and one wonders why some people have to suffer so much in their life time.

Frida Kahlo – Part 3

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944)

My blog today is the third part of the biography of the Mexican Surrealist artist, Frida Kahlo.  My first look at her life and her paintings concentrated on her parents and ancestors and the second one followed her from birth to her high school days.  Today I am looking at the middle part of her life once her school days were behind her.   In my last blog I talked about the two most important men in her life at that time, her father and her first lover, Alejandro.   Her love affair with her fellow student Alejandro Gómez Arias had run its course and ended after three years in late 1927.

In truth, there were actually three main men in Frida Kahlo’s life and although she had seen this third one when she started at the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria school in 1922, she had not been introduced to him.  Mexican Muralism, which was the promotion of mural painting, began in the early 1920s.  The murals more often or not contained social and political messages.  The reason for this was the desire of the country to try and reunify the population after the bloody Mexican Revolution with its one million death toll.  Three painters were chosen by the government to lead the operation to paint these “murals with messages” in public buildings, churches, libraries and schools and one of them was Diego Rivera.  In 1922, Diego Rivera began painting his mural “Creation” at the school’s lecture hall of Frida’s school.  Frida was fascinated by Rivera’s work and would often stop and watch him create his mural.  The bus crash followed in 1925 which devastated Frida’s life and all her dreams of studying medicine evaporated.

By 1928, Frida had almost completely recovered from her serious injuries although the physical pain would remain with her for the rest of her life as well as the numerous on-going operations which would follow.  However she was a fighter and tried as best she could to once again lead a normal life.  She started to mix again with her old school friends who had all now graduated.   It was one of these friends that introduced her to a group of young people who were interested in the Cuban Communist Julio Antonio Mella, who at the time was in exile in Mexico.    One of the members of this group was the photographer and silent film star Tina Modotti, who was the lover of Mella and also an acquaintance of Diego Rivera.   It was whilst at a party hosted by Modotti that Frida finally met Diego Rivera face-to-face for the first time although they never spoke to each other.  Days later she was introduced to Diego Rivera, the man, who six years earlier, she had watched painting a mural at the amphitheatre of her school.   She showed him some of her paintings and asks his opinion about the standard of her work.  Rivera was impressed and told her so and it is at this point that Frida decided to take up art as a career.   Rivera was not only impressed by Frida’s art but he was also very impressed with the woman herself and started to go out with her.  Rivera approached Frida’s father, Guillermo Kahlo, and asked his permission to marry his daughter.   His father was reputed to have warned Rivera about his daughter, saying:

“My daughter is sick and always will be….she’s intelligent but not pretty…I see that you are interested in my daughter…eh..?

When Rivera replied that he was, Kahlo said,

She is a devil”.

Frida Kahl;o and Diego Rivera
(wedding photograph, 1929)

After a whirlwind romance Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo married in a civil ceremony in the town hall of Frida’s home town, Coyoacán, on August 21st 1929.  For Rivera, Frida had become his third wife.  They made for an odd couple.  Frida was twenty-two years of age, slim, of medium height, weighing a mere 98 pounds whereas her forty-two year old husband was over six feet tall, obese in the extreme, weighing in at 300 pounds.  As far as Frida’s mother was concerned this was not a marriage made in heaven and saw only the worst in Frida’s husband.  According Frida’s mother, Matilde, who was a staunch Catholic, Rivera was too old, too fat and to make things even worse in her mind, he was a Communist and a proclaimed atheist.  She did not attend the wedding ceremony.  She described it as:

“… the marriage between an elephant and a dove…

 Frida’s father on the other hand did attend and was not as damning in his opinion of his new son-in-law as he was well aware that Rivera was financially sound and could pay Frida’s medical bills.  Many of Frida’s friends were horrified by her choice of husband for reasons of his age and his appearance but some realised that by marrying him, Frida could get a foothold in the Mexican and American art world.

More heartbreak followed for Frida with two terminations of pregnancy due to complications which occurred through the physical injuries caused by the bus crash.  The fact that Frida had actually survived was almost a miracle. However, part of her injuries were caused by a steel handrail of the bus which had literally skewered her body in the abdomen and out the vagina. She never had a day without pain because these severe injuries never fully healed.

Whilst Frida was saddened by the terminations, Rivera was relieved as he never wanted children as he believed they would hamper his career and the travelling required carrying out various commissions.   In 1930 Frida and Rivera travelled to America where they remained for three years.  The American public became fascinated with the Mexican cultural development since the revolution and especially interested in Mexican Muralism of which Rivera was a leading proponent.  The couple settled in San Francisco and Rivera was idolized by the elite of the city and commissions for his work poured in.  Unfortunately for Frida, it was Rivera’s work which was in demand and it was he alone who achieved a God-like persona whereas she was looked upon as simply an “add-on”

There can be no doubt as to the amount of physical pain she had to endure following the bus crash and this was highlighted by the self portrait she completed in 1944 entitled The Broken Column which is today’s featured work  It was in 1944, ten years before her death, that her physical decline became more life-threatening. She has to endure painful spinal taps and was confined in a series of corsets and for her last ten years had to suffer many severe and painful operations on her back and leg.  Her physical and mental wellbeing was almost tested to breaking point at this time in her life and this can be seen encapsulated in this very moving self portrait.

Look how the silent tears cascade down her cheeks, the sharp metal nails puncturing her body all form part of her pain and we wonder how she had managed to endure it.  She stands alone in a desolate wasteland without any sign of hope on the horizon. This is a depressing self image but Kahlo’s fortitude courageously prevails in this barren landscape of despair.

I think this painting also gives one an idea of the mental suffering the accident had also caused Frida.   In the painting we see her with her nude torso surrounded by a brutal body cast which holds her broken body together.  Her spinal column is represented by a stone column which is broken in several places.  The mental torment of the young women can be seen by the way she portrays herself, not as a beautiful woman but as an ugly person with her joined eyebrows.   Could it be that this self-portrait highlights a sort of double life she had to endure – outwardly proud but inwardly broken.  In Helga Prignitz-Poda’s 2004 biography on Frida Kahlo entitled Frida Kahlo: The painter and her work she quotes the artist’s own comments with regards the painting.  Frida said of it:

“…Waiting with anguish hidden away, the broken column, and the immense glance, footless through the vast path … carrying on my life enclosed in steel … If only I had his caresses upon me as the air touches the earth…”

It is a harrowing painting.  One is mesmerised by it.  We can feel her distress and pain as she sorrowfully stares out at us.  The physical pain we can understand but the mental pain associated with her illnesses, her accident and the turbulent life she had with Diego Rivera are a little harder to contemplate.

In my next blog I will conclude the look at Frida Kahlo’s life.

Unemployed by Ben Shahn

Unemployment by Ben Shahn

My featured artist today was quite unknown to me.  I came across him and his paintings when I was flicking through an art book looking for information regarding another painter.  One painting stood out from the rest and I have made it My Daily Art Display featured painting of today.  There was something very haunting about the picture with its great sense of realism and I had to find out more about the work and the artist, Ben Shahn.

Ben Shahn was at the forefront of the American Social Realist art movement of the 1930s, a grouping, which included the likes of artists of the Ashcan School, many of whom I have featured in earlier blogs.   Social Realism is a term used to describe visual and other realistic art works which record the everyday conditions of the working classes and mainly feature the life of the poor and deprived and how they had to live.  The works are a pictorial criticism of the social environment that brought about these conditions. Social Realism has its roots back in the mid-19th century and the Realist movement in French art.  Twentieth century Social Realism refers back to the works of the French artist such as Courbet and his painting Burial at Ornans or Millet’s great work The Gleaners.   Social Reailsm art became an important art movement in America during their Great Depression of the 1930’s.

The art of the Social Realist painters often depicted cityscapes homing in on the decaying state of mining villages or broken-down shacks alongside railroad tracks.  Their art is about poverty and the hardships endured by the ordinary but poor people.  Often the works would focus on the indignity suffered by the poor and how they would work hard for little recompense.  The depiction of this inequality of course implied a criticism of the capitalist society and capitalism itself.  The Social Realist painters of America did not want their works to focus on the beauty of their country as portrayed by the likes of the Hudson River School painters.  For them, to get their message across to the public, their works needed to depict the industrial suburbs with its grime and unpleasantness or the run-down farming communities with their broken-down buildings.  Occasionally these artists would depict the rich in their paintings but they were only included for satirical reasons.

Ben Shahn was born in Kovno, Lithuania in 1898 and was the eldest of five children of an Orthodox Jewish family.  His father, Joshua, was a woodcarver and cabinet maker.  In 1902, probably because of his revolutionary activities, his father was exiled to Siberia.  His mother, Gittel Lieberman, and her children moved to Vilkomir, which is now the Lithuanian town of Ukmerge.  Four years later, in 1906, Shahn’s mother and three of her offsprings emigrated to America and settled in Brooklyn with Joshua who had already fled there from Siberia.  Ben Shahn original artistic training was as a lithographer and then as a graphic artist.

At the age of twenty-one Shahn went to New York University and studied biology.  Two years later he transferred to City College of New York to study art and then moved on to the New York National Academy of Design which is now known as The National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts.

In 1924 Shahn married Tillie Goldstein and the two set off on a long journey of discovery taking in North Africa and the traditional artist pilgrimage of the capital cities of Europe taking in the works of the great European modern artists of the time such as Matisse, Picasso and Klee.  He had not been won over by their art or the European Modernist art scene and soon felt less influenced by their work and preferred to follow the style of the Realists painters especially those who showed a concern for the plight of the downtrodden.  Shahn was inspired by the likes of the photographer Walker Evans, the Mexican communist painter Diego Rivera and the French Realist painters.   It was with Rivera that Shahn worked on the public mural at the Rockefeller Centre, which was to cause such controversy and had to be hidden from public view and eventually destroyed.

As a political activist Shahn became interested in newspaper photography.  Photography was to act as his source material for some of his paintings and satires. During the 1930’s he was engaged in street photography himself, recording the lives of the working-class and immigrant populations and the hardship of the unemployed.   Over the years Shahn, with his trusted 35mm Leica camera, built up a large collection of photographs which poignantly recorded the horror of unemployment and poverty during the Depression years.

My Daily Art Display featured painting is simply entitled Unemployment and was completed by Shahn in 1934.  Shahn exhibited many paintings and photographs which highlighted the plight of the unemployed and homeless especially during the time of the Great Depression.  Before us stand five men, all purported to be out of work.  They look down on their luck.  Their black eyes stare out at us.  They stand upright trying to muster a certain amount of dignity despite the hopelessness of their situation.  In some of their faces we see a look of desperation and fear of what their future may hold.  The man in the right foreground has his arms folded across his chest.  His look is more defiant almost questioning the viewer about what they intend to do about his plight.  One man has a makeshift patch on his eye which makes him look even more vulnerable.  I suppose Shahn and other Realist painters believed that through the moving nature of the subjects of their works it would help remind everybody of the horrors of life we could face and counsel us to avoid similar pitfalls in the future.  Sadly, as in the case of war with its tragedies and horrors, we rarely learn by our mistakes and seem to always repeat our mistakes.  There seems to be little we can do but shake our heads sympathetically as we view these Social Realist paintings and can only hope that we ourselves are never touched by similar tragedies.