Kahlo, The Wounded Deer (1946) Oil on masonite. Collection of Carolyn Farb, Houston.
“I tried to drown my sorrows, but the bastards learned how to swim…”
I was passing through Nashville, Tennessee this summer and saw a billboard advertising the “Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection” exhibit so, I took the exit for the Frist Art Museum. I was not disappointed.
The moment I walked into the gallery space and stared into the eyes of a Kahlo self-portrait, I began to cry. It wasn’t just tearing up, it was a full on gusher. I wasn’t wailing but I was gasping to hold the noise in. Her self-portraits displayed with photos, home movies, and her dresses filled me with grief and a need to involve myself the way a dying hero in a good movie does for me - being full of empathy and wanting to fix the problem since I can see what's around the corner. She is larger than life and her work is so loaded with her pain, struggle, and Diego-driven frustration. I’m not an art critic or a historian but you can easily access that information elsewhere. A really great article by Kelly Grovier reads, “But if you really want to comprehend the passions and resentments, adoration and pain that defined the intense entanglement of Kahlo’s and Rivera’s lives, stop reading and start looking.” (Read the full article at this link). Kahlo was often called a surrealist but she balked at the idea, stating that she painted her reality - not her dreams.
The Kahlo/Rivera relationship is not the best example of comparison. I was often hard to live with but I was faithful and proud of my fidelity. However, the ever present need to have my desires, needs, and wishes filled before considering her’s was always there.
Selflessness will be an often considered topic in my daily thoughts because selfishness is what destroys relationships like Kahlo and Rivera or me and my love. I’ll quote Ephesians again today. Chapter 2:3 reads, “…we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath.” We are just born selfish. What is one of the first words you hear a kid speak after ‘mama’ or ‘dada’? It’s often the word ‘no’. I really do remember making plans to rebel when I could hardly talk. The concept of what is right or wrong can bring up hours of debate but without God to direct my morality, what will? My personal morality puts me first always and what is “good” or “wholesome” to me might not be to you. Loving someone is never about what you get in return but what you do to bring a wholeness to that other person. I would sometimes get angry with my wife over something pretty small and have this need for her to acknowledge that I’d been “hurt”. I’d want her to correct it and so I would wait for that correction through silence for a ridiculous length of time. It was psychological and spiritual warfare. I was building an unseen army and she was too. I’d finally break down and apologize for my childish behavior, but the battle had been fault and casualties were counted and scars were forming on the living. I thought silence was such a good weapon. I only persuaded the other to reinforce her frontlines.
Poet and essayist Criss Jami wrote, "Those who live as though God sets the rules are not going by their own rules. That is the self-sacrifice, or selflessness, that peace more often than not requires. Those who insist on going by their own rules cannot make that sacrifice. They are the steady adherents of conflict because they are forever fighting both themselves and others to do whatever they think that they want to do."
Unfortunately, pain and grief and sorrow and struggle can often lead to great art. I’ve always created work out of a dark place and don’t necessarily want to do that any more. I’m not sure how to do that yet. As for life’s imitation, I wish I had curated the first half of the marriage and had the perspective that would’ve caused me to sympathize with the dying hero. I wonder what kind of work Kahlo and Rivera would’ve made had they not been broken. I wonder what kind of work my wife and I could have made if we had been selfless. Of course, if I could hang the show again, my life’s gallery would look so different. It would be bright and joyful - full of hope and wonder. If I could direct the film once more, the hero wouldn’t die. She’d meet the man of her dreams and they’d live happily ever after.