Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Sing the Body Eclectic

Frida Kahlo kept a copy of Walt Whitman’s "Song of Myself" at her bedside to read before going to sleep. A gift from a lover, the book of Whitman’s self-celebratory and self-analyzing verse clearly struck a chord with Kahlo, whose both celebrated and analyzed her own life in her paintings. In Frida Kahlo: Song of Herself, psychiatrist and Kahlo expert Salomon Grimberg takes the results of never before published psychological tests performed on Kahlo, modern-day readings of those results, a compilation of Kahlo’s medical history, and his own assessments to sing a new, more personal song of the woman we feel we all know so well from her portraits. “We come close to knowing what it would be like to be a friend of Kahlo’s,” Hayden Herrera writes in her introduction to the book, “how she dressed, how she entertained, what her pets meant to her, how she spent her days… The image that emerges is of a life that was both lonely and festive.” As Kahlo illustrated in her Self-Portrait Wired (above, from 1949), her life was connected to so many different emotions and ideas that contradictions and paradoxes abound. If Whitman could say “I Sing the Body Electric,” Kahlo could say “I Sing the Body Eclectic.”

Grimberg bases much of his book on the memories and work of Olga Campos (shown above with Frida), who first met Frida and Diego Rivera at Diego’s birthday party in 1947. Campos soon became close friends with the Riveras. Campos was then a psychology student working on “a book that would explore the relationship between emotion, color, and line” and was performing interviews and psychological tests on artists to gather material. Kahlo agreed to be interviewed and tested over many months in 1949 and 1950. Unfortunately, the book never materialized and Campos’ findings moldered until Grimberg literally saved them from the rats. Grimberg, who met Campos in 1989, translates these findings into English. As James Bridger Harris, a present-day psychologist who assesses some of Campos’ findings, writes, “Publication of Kahlo’s psychological assessment based on psychological testing is unprecedented. No one else of international stature in the art world has ever exposed so much.” These revelations—in both Frida’s own words and through images created especially for this testing—truly open a new door on who the living woman was behind the modern-day phenomenon of Fridamania.

Campos performed the Rorschach Inkblot Test, Thematic Apperception Test, Bleuler-Jung (Word Association) Test, and Szondi Test on Frida. In addition, Campos asked Frida to draw abstract compositions based on emotionally charged words such as hate, pain, love, mirth, peace, anguish, jealousy, and rage. Kahlo’s drawing for Laughter (“Risa” in Spanish; above, from 1949) shows interlocking circles with bright yellow and purple coloring, generating a sense of movement and energy that almost recreates hearing the artist herself laugh. These illustrated emotions truly bare Kahlo’s soul in a way that her portraits, which are always composed to create a specific effect or follow a conscious narrative, do not. In fact, Grimberg sees the portraits as a way of hiding this “true” Frida rather than revealing her. “Kahlo used up much of her vital breath attempting to reaffirm her identity in the eyes of others,” Grimberg writes. “The performance was mesmerizing, but it entailed the sacrifice of her true self to a mask.” That mask illustrated Kahlo’s insecurities but also reaffirmed them, allowing others to see her as she wished to be seen—as seductress, lover, wife, victim, etc. “By having chosen to walk into a mirror,” Grimberg writes of Frida’s assemblage of self through the self-portraits, “Kahlo had, without realizing, entered a dead end from which there was no way out.” From a psychological standpoint, Frida’s self-portraits become a trap that reinforces rather than breaks the cycle of dependency.

“The Riveras were always in crisis,” Campos writes. “If it wasn’t their love that was in question, it was their health, their finances, or something else.” Frida’s drawing for Disquiet (“Inquietud” in Spanish; above, from 1949) illustrates this continual turmoil in her life with Diego. “As children do, Frida Kahlo sought gratification rather than satisfaction in relationships,” Grimberg believes. “In her mind, if she was not in a relationship, she was being rejected.” Kahlo’s arrested emotional development emerges in Campos’ memories of playing “candy store” and “dollhouse” with Frida, who in “playing with her dolls… would truly transform into a child.” In such passages, Grimberg skirts the dangerous ground of infantilizing Kahlo and falling into the classic trap of denigrating a woman as a child based on her sex. However, he remains respectful of Kahlo’s full oeuvre—both as an artist and a psychologically complex person—to include this side without harming the other facets of her personality. The number of clarifications and amendments Grimberg inserts into Henriette Begun’s 1946 compilation of Kahlo’s medical history, based on many of Kahlo’s own statements, proves that personal history was a fluid concept for Frida with facts such as birthdays as pliable as anything else to her psychological needs.

The most beautiful passages of Frida Kahlo: Song of Herself come when Frida’s speaks in her own words as recorded by Campos. After presenting a brief personal statement by Kahlo of her personal history, Campos organizes Kahlo’s thoughts under categories such as “My Body,” “Sex,” “Love,” and “Death.” Several passages sound almost Whitmanesque but for a lack of formal meter, as in “Myself and Others”:

I am satisfied with my relationships.
Sometimes one dominates without seeming to.
Sometimes I am interested in and affected by opinions about me.
I am frequently offended and hurt.
People who give themselves airs are foolish and vain.
People exaggerate my qualities.
I do not compare myself often with others.
I am quite inept in getting to know the character of people.
All types of people interest me, but I am attracted to the intelligent ones.
I have no heroes.
Of actors, businessmen, or politicians, I admire actors. I admire the artist.

Under “Love”:

Sometimes I think about the end of the affair when it is just beginning.
I am more afraid of being abandoned than of being disappointed.

In such naked revelations, Kahlo opens up her heart in a way that Whitman himself did so expansively in his poetry. There are many contradictions, as there are in the mind and heart of any individual. “Do I contradict myself?” Whitman asks in his “Song of Myself.” “Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” Among the multitudes in Frida’s soul lay both the artist of the graphically sexual, often gory self-portraits as well as the gentle soul who loved feeding ducks with her dogs (above). The final diagnosis Harris gives for Kahlo based on his analysis of the test results is “chronic, low-grade depression and periodic overlays of major depression” along with “chronic pain syndrome” that led her to become a “professional patient.” Such a diagnosis seems coldly analytical, but Kahlo’s own words and drawings add a human warmth to the clinical chill.

In addition to the danger of infantilizing mentioned before, the whole exercise of analyzing the dead should be viewed warily. “Understanding the individual is a daunting task that requires both scientific and creative ways of knowing,” Harris admits. Add onto that problem the distance of decades of time, and the task becomes that much harder. However, the professionalism of Campos’ collection of primary source material gives credence to these findings that analyses of the other famous dead personalities lack. In the final analysis, we see more of Frida than we ever have before and become even more conscious of how much more is now lost to the grave. The sensitivity that Grimberg brings to the subject and her art saves the study from becoming psychological grave robbing and allows it truly to breathe new life into Kahlo’s work. The standard view of the self-portraits as purely cathartic—heroic statements of a soul struggling against emotional and physical pain—should make room for Grimberg’s view of them as equally constricting—reinforcing the insecurities that led Kahlo back to Diego and the operating table time and again against all reason. “She knew how to transform herself into a sensational beauty, irresistible and unique,” Campos says of Kahlo’s makeup regimen. In Frida Kahlo: Song of Herself, Salomon Grimberg presents that same “sensational beauty” in all its variety, uniqueness, and irresistibility.

[Many thanks to Merrell Publishers for providing me with a copy of Salomon Grimberg’s Frida Kahlo: Song of Herself and for the images from the book.]


Winter said...

Wow, loved this post, I'm going to have to run out and buy the book! Thanks!

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