Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
“Funeral Blues” by W.H. Auden
We know Frida Kahlo primarily through her self-portraits, which are strung together across the painful abyss of her life like beads on a rosary of resolve in the face of physical and emotional anguish. In Frida Kahlo: The Still Lifes, Salomon Grimberg proves that the approximately 40 still lifes Kahlo painted reveal Frida’s internal life just as intensely as the approximately 80 self-portraits she completed. As in his other recent book, Frida Kahlo: Song of Herself (which I reviewed here), Grimberg brings his psychological training as well as his exhaustive research into Kahlo and her world to provide a fascinating new look at this underappreciated aspect of her art. “I paint flowers so they will not die,” Kahlo told her last lover, Josep Bartoli. Grimberg sees this death-defying, time-freezing impulse in all of Kahlo’s still lifes. None of Kahlo’s still lifes express this time fetish as much as The Broken Hours (above, photographed by Lola Alvarez Bravo in 1954), a three-dimensional still life Kahlo created in her home featuring one clock frozen at the time Diego Rivera asked for a divorce in 1939 and another clock frozen at the time they remarried in 1940. “Separation anxiety shaped every moment if her life,” Grimberg writes of Kahlo, “and, obsessed with avoiding inevitable partings, Kahlo painted still lifes with the intention of bringing time to a stop, of holding on to the attachments that nurtured her and the objects that linked her to them. These works became visual representations of her struggle to master the fear of loneliness and of confronting death.” With Grimberg as a guide, Frida Kahlo: The Still Lifes decodes the language of things that the artist used to reveal her innermost self.
Using what Hayden Herrera calls in her foreword “the author’s wonderfully inventive analytical process,” Grimberg delves deeply into the structure of many of Kahlo’s still lifes to reveal the meanings left hidden right there in the open. For example, in Kahlo’s Self-Portrait With Bonito (above, from 1941), which is technically a self-portrait, the still life Kahlo surrounds herself with speaks in a secret language of insects and mythology. “The butterfly, caterpillar, and cocoon are symbols of Christ’s Resurrection,” Grimberg asserts, “the cocoon represents the tomb, the caterpillar life on earth, and the butterfly the beautiful form emerging from the tomb and rising toward glory.” The death-obsessed meaning of this painting, done shortly after Kahlo’s father’s death, becomes even clearer when Grimberg connects Bonito, Kahlo’s beloved parrot, with “Horus, a falcon-headed diety from Egyptian mythology best known for avenging the death of his father, Osiris, and redeeming him with eternal life.” Perhaps Kahlo envisioned a similar redemption for her father, himself an amateur painter, through her art. By teasing out the intricacies of Kahlo’s still lifes, Grimberg proves not only his own prowess as an art history detective but also the depth and width of Kahlo’s personal mythology, which goes beyond the self-fashioned persona of the self-portraits.
Understandably, many of Grimberg’s readings of Kahlo’s still lifes centers around Kahlo’s personal issues with sexuality and childbirth. Her Still Life (tondo) (above, from 1942) shows a scene teeming with flowers in which “a uterus-shaped, seed-filled halved squash” sits as a Polyphemus moth flits above it. “Painted with the quiet, even colors of twilight, representing the time of life when we become reflective about the passage of time and the imminence of death,” Grimberg writes, this tondo frankly states Kahlo’s thoughts on her childlessness. The squash serves as an obvious double for Kahlo’s own damaged reproductive organ, but the subtle key to the piece is the moth. Grimberg deftly explains how the Aztecs believed that such moths, whose coloring resembles flames, were the reincarnations of men who died by fire. He then links that death association to sex through the moth’s physiological loss of needing to eat during the caterpillar stage. “Instead, sex is her only requirement,” Grimberg says of the moth, asserting that Kahlo knew such facts also, “and that is how she will spend her limited time and energy until she dies.” Like the moth, Kahlo flitted from relationship to relationship throughout her life, choosing to spend her limited time and energy on empty sexual recreation since fruitful procreation was impossible. Such subtle, profound use of flower and insect imagery recalls usage in Renaissance and Dutch Golden Age art, demonstrating Kahlo’s grasp of art history while still adding her own native land’s baroque mythology to the mix.
In her Flower of Life (above, from 1944), Kahlo literally turns that history of still life flower language on its head. Kahlo’s “flower of life” is a mandrake, the magical plant of lore that could reportedly cure infertility through its phallic power. Flipping the flower phallus end down, Kahlo shapes “its ‘body’ to resemble her internal sexual organs,” Grimberg shows, “adding arteries to feed the vaginal walls, and turn[s] the ‘arms’ into fallopian tubes from which the ovaries are missing.” Minus those egg-bearing ovaries, this “flower of life” is ironically barren. “This flower is Kahlo’s self-portrait as an incomplete woman,” Grimberg concludes, “available to gratify a man’s desire but unable either to conceive or to experience sexual pleasure.” Whereas the “official” self-portraits show us the Frida she wanted us to see, almost always in control despite all obstacles, such still lifes as Flower of Life are where Frida truly reveals herself and her insecurities to those who look deeply enough. In another still life, from 1951, Kahlo places a weeping face on a coconut—the agonized visage behind the masquerades of the self-portraits. Rarely did Kahlo allow herself such moments of complete, uncalculated frankness in her art, but such rare moments most often appear in the still lifes.
Frida loved things in her life, as demonstrated by the pride in which she poses above in a 1940 photo before a part of her collection of native crafts. In addition to setting elaborate dinner tables and sending a flower-strewn lunch basket to Diego each day he was working, Frida created still lifes all around her home of fresh fruit and flowers. Along with painting, such things became the tools through which she expressed her inner life, making the painting of still lifes a natural intersection of those impulses. The Frida of popular culture and Fridamania is primarily the persona of the self-portraits, and understandably so thanks to the expressive power of those works. However, as Salomon Grimberg proves in Frida Kahlo: The Still Lifes, the “real” Frida’s self-portrait may actually lie within the flowers and fruit of the still lifes, calling us to find her again and to stop the clocks that counted out her tragic life once more, so that Frida, like her painted flowers, will not die.
[Many thanks to Merrell Publishers for providing me with a review copy of Salomon Grimberg’s Frida Kahlo: The Still Lifes and for the images from the book.]