We’re all familiar with the term “suffering artist.” It’s fair to say that many non-creative people look on the label with disdain, believing it to be deployed by artists mostly as an excuse for their unsociable behavior or as a rationalization for their lack of success in the marketplace. They’re not alone in this criticism of the term; you’ll find some artists, too, who look down on peers who identify themselves as suffering artists. They might not only argue that to be financially suffering in the pursuit of art is to be somehow revealed as illegitimate, they might also maintain that the emotional component of the term can only get in the way of artistic success. These artists would take the position that any creative person experiencing inner turmoil worthy of the term suffering will inevitably be unable to focus and execute their work with sufficient skill. Then there are the rest of us, who fully understand that the truth lies somewhere in between. Sometimes the term is indeed nothing but a pretentious dodge; sometimes it’s right to equate commercial failure with a lack of purpose, discipline, or vision—just as often as that same shortage of public acclaim or financial reward can also be seen as an artist’s work being “ahead of their time”; and sometimes, as in the case of Frida Kahlo, the term “suffering artist” becomes the ultimate example of a basic definition. Frida was an artist, and there can be no doubt that she suffered tremendously, and her work was then and is now seen as inextricably linked to her insights about the most intimate kinds of physical and psychological pain.
A recent artistic experience of my own brought me back to Frida, star/producer Salma Hayek and director Julie Taymor’s deeply passionate 2002 biopic. A few weeks ago, I had been asked to serve as the model (fully clothed, mind you!) for an art class; at the end of my two sittings, I was able to look at what the students had accomplished. I saw images of me that were variously cartoonish, a little on the grotesque side, and somewhat flattering…as well as one portrait I recognized instantly as the “truth.” While I do not have anything resembling the sophisticated vocabulary I feel would be required to evaluate this kind of work on canvas, I can certainly express what I responded to: the certainty that I was looking at a kind of intensified mirror of all the “good” and “bad” in my life at once. How did this artist accomplish this, in a matter of hours, knowing next to nothing about me? It is a skill I have never possessed, and one I have frequently envied.
That recognition of seeing my own private (or so I thought) self revealed, and the immediate connection I made to the past joys and sorrows that helped forge that innermost identity, felt a lot like a moment that occurs in the opening of Frida, when we first see Frida Kahlo as someone so infirm that she is forced to make an important trip—for reasons we will later discover—confined to a four-poster bed loaded into the back of a pickup truck.
Sharp jolts of pain shooting through her body as the vehicle trundles along a rough road, Frida redirects her attention to a mirror affixed above her, and, to paraphrase the old saying, allows her life to flash(back) before our eyes. Because she is renowned for her self-portraits, however, the use of this device in Frida is a lot more than just a hoary old cinematic cliché. It indicates that the movie aims to act as an extension of the artist’s celebrated technique. It tells us that the motion picture screen is about to become this character’s living canvas.
It is with no great pleasure now that I reveal the truth of what I experienced sitting down to compose some thoughts to share about my recent viewing of this movie—or, I should probably say, my three recent viewings of this movie—and the hours I spent afterward, at home and at the office, desperately aiming to wrangle my prose into something I would consider vaguely presentable.
Ah ha, you say, maybe already sensing an irony presenting itself before I can spell it out—artistic suffering in the face of trying to illuminate a movie about artistic suffering! I found the odd coincidence funny, at first; and then it was no damn joke at all, as each draft of my Frida review dove into one rabbit’s hole of awfulness after another, leaving me feeling powerless to escape my inadequacies without stopping the act of writing altogether.
Not that I was short of things that I wanted to examine in the film. As a big fan of stage and movie director Taymor ever since her first feature Titus, which wrought some fierce beauty out of a lesser-known and deliciously gruesome Shakespeare play, I was absolutely eager to talk about how Taymor’s sometimes florid and theatrical touches meshed perfectly with Frida Kahlo’s own knack for fusing the grim to the glorious.
Regular readers here know that I like to explore the relevance art can have to politics, and vice versa—so it should come as no surprise that I took a good many scribbled notes on how Frida, who already had a sophisticated interest in the writings of Marx and Hegel, connected to and wrestled with muralist Diego Rivera’s (Alfred Molina) ideas about socialism. How might our readers interpret, I wondered, his support of educating the poor and mobilizing the working classes as being related to the discussions we have today about a dominant elite and the problems the “little people” have achieving influence and power in today’s America?
Also of powerfully relevant interest was Frida’s expression of her sexuality and gender identity, which select generations today would still label as unconventional (at best). Frida let the hair grow between her eyebrows and posed for family pictures wearing men’s clothes, to the dismay of her mother (Patricia Reyes Spíndola) and the more supportive amusement of her father (Roger Rees). While Frida would become upset at the affairs Diego Rivera would conduct with other women after they married, she entered into that marriage fully aware of his tendencies to wander, and pursued her own flirtations with women (like photographer Tina Modatti, played by Ashley Judd) and men (Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, played by Geoffrey Rush).
The on-again, off-again relationship between Frida and Diego represents a fascinating mix of the wildly romantic (when Diego tells Frida he believes they were “born for each other”; Frida splitting from Diego only to write him in Paris and admit the life she enjoys there means little without him) and the steadfastly pragmatic (Frida assisting Diego in sheltering the exiled Trotsky; Diego proposing marriage for the second time to a sour and broken Frida, who cannot understand why he would want to stay with her in her failing state). Through their tenacious ardor and the shocking calamities of their journey together, we can’t help but think of our own loved ones, of the risks we take and the promises we make.
Most of us are fortunate enough to be unable to identify with the kind of horrifying injuries that Frida Kahlo sustained after a trolley bus accident broke her collarbone, pelvis, ribs, and spine, also leaving her unable to bear children because of the iron bar that impaled her through the uterus—but I would venture that most of us, just as I did, might still have enough mileage in life to hear Frida say “I can’t remember a time before the pain” and recognize it as something we have thought to ourselves during the hardest of hard times.
We might find it impossible to comprehend how a woman whose baby “came out in pieces” could possibly harness the strength to interpret the trauma of that experience through calm strokes of a brush—while fully understanding how that kind of loss might only be adequately articulated in a way that reaches beyond words. This is why Diego, who lives through the language of art, only breaks down in tears over the event after looking at the painting Frida creates in the immediate aftermath of their loss. This devastating scene reminds us how the power of great art can break the dams holding back emotions we often labor so mightily to keep in check.
And that, I think, has to be one of the explanations I will settle on for why I had so much trouble settling on the direction to take this commentary on Frida. As each of my repeated and failed attempts to work through a written response to this movie frustrated me to no end, one tentative few paragraphs after the other inevitably sucked into rote and awkward and infuriatingly stale descriptions of its plot, I started to consider that part of my angst over the work here must have something to do with how much this latest viewing of the movie tapped into something—or maybe many things—I’d been keeping buried and unexamined.
I can understand the grandiose ambitions of those wanting to fuse artistic expression to life-changing ideas, and I can also heavily identify with the suspicious certainty that those same endeavors might only be meaningful to the artist. The movie reminds us of just how much truly valuable art can be fueled by both strength and weakness, and how easily its creators and consumers acknowledge its power to either save or destroy—ourselves, our relationships, an entire way of life or maybe the whole world.
We see a strange image at the end of Frida—a woman at the moment of her death, engulfed by flames, and smiling. Our “traditional” ideas about an image like this are what make it puzzling to us—to be consumed in fire generally being associated with enormous pain (!) and, at the time of our death, damnation. But we can make greater sense of it by cueing up the captions at the very beginning of the film, when we hear a proud, triumphant voice in song emerge from the darkness. In Spanish, we hear:
And she is the flame
That rises up
And she is a bird in flight
In the night that catches fire
The discovery of this lovely symmetry in the film, to me, reveals another one of its secrets, another one of the secrets of Frida Kahlo’s art, and the truth about the enduring allure of the art we make and in the art made by others. There is usually something deeper to learn if only you look a little closer; great movies can link us to the truth of our own lives in powerful and unexpected ways; and Frida Kahlo was, among a select few artists of this or any other time, an artist of courage and resourcefulness who could help us see the world in the same way her flawed but loving husband describes her work: acid and tender, hard as steel, and fine as the butterfly’s wing. Lovable as a smile, cruel as the bitterness of life.
On the other hand, I can also imagine Frida Kahlo might hear such sentiments and respond like she does to Diego, breaking grave solemnity with a laugh and an affectionate if bitingly sarcastic rebuttal:
Shut up, who died?
So she was at the beginning, so she is at the end—stubborn, surprising, and singularly dedicated to transforming her isolation and pain into the fire that warms, the fire that burns, and the fire that might one day light someone else’s way to taking their own first painful and liberating steps away from their own suffering.