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Frida Kahlo: The Brush of Anguish.

One of Mexico's most celebrated painters and the best knwon Latin American woman artist of her generation, Frida Kahlo was the wife of the great muralist Diego River. Frida Kahlo: The Brush of Anguish is a welcome addition to the growing list of publications about Kahlo.

Originally privately published as El pincel de la angustia in 1987, Martha Zamora's new biography features over one hundred illustrations, including reproductions of Kahlo's paintings, photographs of the artist, and memorabilia. The text and pictures combine to create a telling image of the paradoxical Frida, whose efforts to create her own artistic "persona" make the biographer's task all the more difficult.

Stricken with polio at the age of six, Frida suffered from physical ailments during her entire life. She met Diego while he was painting a mural at the National Preparatory School, where she was a student. At the time, however, Frida was in love with a classmate, and, although she teased Rivera and shocked her classmates by saying she would love to have his baby, she did not actually come to know him well until several years later.

When she was eighteen, Frida was in a serious traffic accident in which the metal rod of a handrail impaled her, damaging her uterus. She began to paint while she was convalescing. After her recovery, she was forced to work to help support her family. She went to see Rivera to ask his opinion of her paintings and whether or not he thought she could make a living as an artist. The couple fell in love and in 1929, when she was twenty-two, she married Diego Rivera, then forty-three.

In the beginning, Frida subordinated her own work to Diego's. She kept house for him and became active in his political causes, attending communist rallies. For long periods she painted little. However, with time she began to devote more energy to her work and eventually became known as an important artist in her own right. Although Rivera was supportive of her career and did much to get her the recognition she deserved, he was a difficult man to live with. Frida had to put up with her husband's temper, lies, and constant philandering. In 1939 Frida and Diego were divorced, but they remarried the following year.

Frida's paintings, most of which are self-portraits, depict a woman in anguish, often with tears in her eyes. Her 1948 self-portrait shows her dressed in a beautiful Tehuana costume--both she and Diego loved traditional Mexican crafts and Frida almost always wore regional outfits--with droplets on her cheeks. Her Self-Portrait Dedicated to Dr. Eloesser shows her with a thorn necklace lacerating her skin. Likewise, in Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, blood drips from the wounds in her neck.

Painted the year of her divorce from Diego, The Two Fridas contains a double self-portrait, suggesting both the artist's duality and her loneliness: Frida's only companion is herself. The Frida on the left is dressed in the kind of Tehuana costume preferred by Diego, with her dress torn open and her wounded heart exposed. She represents the Frida that Diego once loved. Blood drips from one end of an open vein onto her skirt. The other end is connected to the heart of a plainly dressed Frida. A vein wraps around the arm of this second Frida and ends in a miniature portrait of Diego as a child--a symbol of the lost lover, the Diego that once was.

In her introduction, Martha Zamora tells how her perception of Frida was altered by her research: "I began my work in total fascination before the perfect romatic heroine: one who suffered greatly, died young, and spoke directly through her art to our atavistic fears of sterility and death." Influenced by Frida's paintings and writings, in which the artist projects the image of a tormented victim, Zamora at firt saw her subject as a marvelous although fairly unproductive artist, a faithful and resigned wife, and a semi-invalid who lived a sad, reclusive life. Howeve,r her investigations brought to light a fun-loving, hard-drinking rebel who had countless love affairs with both men and women. Frida traveled widely and had an active life apart from her husband's. Furthermore, she painted far more canvasses than Zamora had originally thought.

Although Zamora insists on the breadth of her research, the text of the book contains little new information not available in other biographies, such as Hayden Herrera's Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo. Zamora does lay to rest the old myth, perpetuated by Rivera's biographer Bertram Wolfe and others, that Frida was obsessed by frustrated maternity. Zamora points out that Frida had several abortions, not all of them therapeutic.

Marilyn Sode Smith's translation of Zamora's Spanish reads far more smoothly than Herrera's translations of Kahlo's diary and letters. However, the strength of Zamora's book is not really the text, but the illustrations. Intelligently selected and beautifully reproduced, Frida's paintings come to life in these pages, and the photographs of the artist, many of which were taken by famous photographers such as Nikolas Muray, reveal, more then Zamora's prose, Frida's passion and complexity. Although Martha Zamora provides some important cautionary guidelines, in the end the images speak louder than the words.

Barbara Mujica is a writer and professor of Hispanic literature at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. She also directs El Retalbo, a Spanish-lan-guage theater group.
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Author:Mujica, Barbara
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1991
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