The Broken Column ~ Ekphrasis; A Tribute To Frida Kahlo

There must have been a reason why we landed at a very distinctively Mexican restaurant yesterday. I believe Frida Kahlo orchestrated it (magical synchronicity and all that) given it is the week of her birth and death anniversary. The former was on the sixth of July and the latter is tomorrow, the thirteenth of this month. We hadn’t planned the day except for a visit to a microbrewery in the middle of nowhere; we weren’t hungry either, but this establishment stood like a piñata in that same ‘middle of nowhere’ and we simply had to visit. The restaurant is named after the Spanish word for ‘strength’, so it came as no surprise that the walls featured the very epitome of strength, Frida Kahlo herself. 

As an artist who lived most of the 47 years of her life with the legacy of polio in her right leg, a major bus accident that drove an iron rod through her pelvis and uterus, multiple surgeries, a leg amputation, two abortions, a miscarriage, spinal deformity and personal tumult, she elevated her life in her long colorful skirts, huipiles (embroidered square-cut top)rebozos (traditional Mexican shawls), elaborate resplandors or headdresses and layers of jewelry, her vivid art, her strong opinions, her international travel with her paintings, her love life, her political causes and her tremendous strength [1]

There is so much written about her art as a painter, but she has also been a bit of a poet. I discovered a few of her writings yesterday that are mostly about her time with her husband, prominent Mexican artist and possibly, the love of her life, Diego Rivera. They are like prose poems, excerpts from her letters to Rivera, published long after her death and are therefore extremely personal and filled with words, vividly passionate. I found a poem Kahlo wrote to Rivera (from Frida el pincel de la angustia ~ Martha Zamora) translated by Claudia Rodriguez at her blog  [2] that is particularly striking in that it captures Kahlo’s  relationship with the artist. I think it is an exquisite poem written by an artist about herself.

Frida Kahlo Poem Dedicated To Diego Rivera
Translation by Claudia Rodriguez

In saliva
on the paper
in the eclipse.
In all the lines
in all the colors
in all the jars
in my chest
outside, inside
in the inkwell
in the difficulties in writing
in the wonderment of my eyes
in the last moons of the sun
(the sun doesn’t have any moons) in everything
To say in everything is imbecile and magnificent.
Diego in my urine- Diego in my mouth- in my heart, in my
madness, in my dream, in the blotting paper- in the tip of the pen,
in the pencils- in the landscapes- in the food- in metal-
in my imagination. In my sickness- in the ruptures- in his
lapels—in his eyes-in his mouth-in his lie.

Kahlo, Frida. in “Frida el pincel de la angustia. Zamora, Martha. La Herradura, Mexico. 1987.

We have always enjoyed the movie soundtrack of Salma Hayek’s ‘Frida’, that features great artists like Chavela Vargas, Lila Downs, Caetano Veloso and even the Trio, Marimberos and my husband even played it for me through the evening, so it was doubly inspiring to write this post. I was truly fascinated by what I discovered about Kahlo’s writing. Most of what I found appears to be written to, or for, Diego Rivera.

Maria Popova, at her blog, Brainpickings, features a collection of Kahlo’s poetic letters to Rivera, (from ‘The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait’ ) that are definitely worth a look. Popova describes them as stretching across the twenty-seven-year span of Kahlo’s relationship with Rivera, that speak of ‘the profound and abiding connection the two shared, brimming with the seething cauldron of emotion with which all fully inhabited love is filled: elation, anguish, devotion, desire, longing, joy and breathless intensity.’ I liked particularly, the fifth one, in which Kalho makes a mention of the day after her birthday and what I understood to be an exhortation to herself. She writes of the simplicity of senseless song and the folly of wind in her heart. I find it beautiful, considering her turbulent life was very public, that her writing should reveal such intimately wrung emotions, which actually hint at her fiery and feisty optimism [3]

At Brainpickings, (Source: Public Library)
For my Diego 
the silent life giver of worlds, what is most important is the nonillusion. morning breaks, the friendly reds, the big blues, hands full of leaves, noisy birds, fingers in the hair, pigeons’ nests a rare understanding of human struggle simplicity of the senseless song the folly of the wind in my heart = don’t let them rhyme girl = sweet xocolatl [chocolate] of ancient Mexico, storm in the blood that comes in through the mouth — convulsion, omen, laughter and sheer teeth needles of pearl, for some gift on a seventh of July, I ask for it, I get it, I sing, sang, I’ll sing from now on our magic — love.

Frida Kahlo was a passionate woman if her paintings are any measure. Many of her magnificent self portraits strike a nerve; in fact when in January 1939 she sailed to Paris to stage an exhibition of her work, where with the aid of Marcel Duchamp she was able to arrange for one at the Renou et Colle Gallery, they refused to show all but two of her paintings, considering them too shocking for audiences [1] Diego Rivera had a great influence on her work just as she had on his, ever since she married him at 22, a ‘dove’ to his ‘elephant’, a beauty juxtaposed against his features of remarkable contrast; one would wonder as many did then, including her parents, why she chose to marry him and then remarry him again, despite the hurt she felt with his serial infidelities the same as hers [4] For all appearances they seemed a powerful couple that stayed together simply perhaps to love or torment each other or so it would appear from her letter to Rivera just before the amputation of her leg in 1953 [5], the text of which appears in ‘Letters of Note‘, a compulsive collection of the world’s most entertaining, inspiring and powerful letters with love at their heart.

The letter is colourful, with very little euphemism and I have chosen a couple of passages that reflect her angst at, how she termed it, ‘amputating’ Diego Rivera from her life. I must admit, I was quite humoured by the text despite the seriousness of the circumstance. She addressed them to ‘Mr. Diego’:

~ since I’ve never been able to understand what you looked and look for, what they give you that I couldn’t. Let’s not fool ourselves, Diego, I gave you everything that is humanly possible to offer and we both know that. But still, how the hell do you manage to seduce so many women when you’re such an ugly son of a bitch?

Further along:

The reason why I’m writing is not to accuse you of anything more than we’ve already accused each other of in this and however many more bloody lives. It’s because I’m having a leg cut off (damned thing, it got what it wanted in the end). I told you I’ve counted myself as incomplete for a long time, but why the fuck does everybody else need to know about it too? Now my fragmentation will be obvious for everyone to see, for you to see.

She had a strong sense of self pride for certain but then she also goes on to say:

I’m writing to let you know I’m releasing you, I’m amputating you. Be happy and never seek me again. I don’t want to hear from you, I don’t want you to hear from me. If there is anything I’d enjoy before I die, it’d be not having to see your fucking horrible bastard face wandering around my garden.

That is all, I can now go to be chopped up in peace.

Good bye from somebody who is crazy and vehemently in love with you,

Your Frida

Whew !! 😅 I believe Diego was simply a front to the real anguish over losing a precious limb. Surprisingly, the amputation of her leg didn’t kill her in 1953 despite the many infections that wouldn’t heal. In fact, she had a sexy prosthetic boot made for herself, embellished in dragons and bells.

Prosthetic leg with leather boot. Museo Frida Kahlo. Photograph Javier Hinojosa. ©Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Archives, Banco de México, Fiduciary of the Trust of the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Museums [7][8]

In her last days though, Kahlo was mostly bedridden and seemed to be aware of her approaching death, which she spoke of to her visitors, while she drew skeletons and angels in her diary. Her last drawing was a black angel, interpreted by her biographer Hayden Hererra as the Angel of Death, accompanied by the last words she wrote, “I joyfully await the exit – and I hope never to return – Frida” (“Espero Alegre la Salida – y Espero no Volver jamás”). She succumbed to pulmonary embolism, or perhaps an overdose of painkillers at around 6 a.m. on 13 July 1954 [1] Whichever may have been the case, she left very passionate art behind and some interesting writing.

I decided on an ekphrastic exercise today, based on one of her paintings and all the images I took of the murals of her, yesterday, one of which was actually in the Ladies room. In my reading of Frida Kahlo over the years, she comes accross as someone with a great deal of courage and exuberance; her way of coming to terms with her own deformity appears to be through her art. Rivera, I would like to believe, was simply a foil, a contrivance. Rather than focus on her debilitating physical condition, she focussed on him and it that, lay her redemption and transcendence. Nothing appears surreal in her art or life, it all seems painfully real and I feel happy to write a poem to a woman like her.

I chose for the ekphrasis, her painting, ‘The Broken Column’ (La Columna Rota in Spanish) [6], an oil on masonite, painted in 1944, shortly after she had surgery on her spinal column, The original painting is housed at the Museo Dolores Olmedo in Xochimilco, Mexico City in Mexico. It appears to me, her paintings were a way to exorcise her physical pain. Kahlo comes across as a very vibrant, vivid character with a zest for life and the urge to publicly display herself. Some called her paintings a self obsession. When asked once why she so often portrayed herself in her works, Frida replied that it was because she was always alone and because she herself was what she knew best. The paintings are painfully heart-rending but I wished to view ‘the broken column’ as something healing, transformative, so this exphrasis is to rehabilitate the ‘brokenness’ in her painting, and give it a home in a poem, on the eve of her death anniversary. This one is for Frida Kahlo.

The Broken Column, 1944 self-portrait by Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo. Frida Kahlo/Museo Dolores Olmedo – Source: Wikipedia
The Broken Column ~ Frida Kahlo 
An Ekphrastic Exercise

The dark lady arrives,
stealthily resplendent
in her silk shawl, kohled
eyes, pouting, the kiss.
Would you refuse her?
She does not seek you to die.
Death is simply a cheap gift
that bankrupts the world
in your demise. No !
The dark lady
only wonders
at the contrivances
of your lust for life.

So, you affixed
an Ionic column
with a fluted phallus
and four volutes; no Acanthus
leaf, not even Fig for shame,
as it crumbled to mere bones
of vertebrae that failed
your centre of gravity.

So, you danced transfixed
by her skeletal gaze,
and girdled your passions
in a metal brace;
sharp women's things,
like bound feet, stilettos,
catwalks and corsets.
They held skin and bone
as you danced alone,
on one good leg, but why
dance on feet when you can
pirouette in the sky.

So you pinned, pointed
and spread yourself
like oil on Masonite,
a butterfly painting,
the remnants of chrysalis
now merely a silk rebozo.

The dark lady smiles,
as the pain lacerates
your eyes and you
drip poems in blood
on virgin canvas
urging her to look away
one more time,
and she concedes,
for she likes
that you found yourself
through a broken column.

~ davina e. solomon

[2]Kahlo, Frida. in “Frida el pincel de la angustia. Zamora, Martha. La Herradura, Mexico. 1987~