Sitting beyond the shadow of her destiny, Vika sips her Krāslavas beer. From gunmetal to clear blue her eyes veer as she celebrates her freedom: Once I’d have been condemned to die here. The grinding of a streetcar rounding a curve leads to a conversation about Frida Kahlo; a palimpsest of graffiti under peeling paint leads to an exchange about John Lennon: Vika says her father once got arrested for writing ‘Beatles’ on a wall. Tar and rust and gasoline, oily brine and dust: Vika rubs her eyes and slips on her sunglasses. She smiles as I stare through her grey-green disguise; holding her gaze, I caress her cheek.
The third of four daughters, Frida Kahlo found an anchor for her identity in the figure of her father, “with his generous character, refined and intelligent, and his courage, because, despite having suffered from epilepsy for sixty years, he never stopped working and he fought against Hitler”, she was proud to say. Very early she learned how to care for him during his epileptic fits. She shared with him the same experience of fragility, sickness and solitude. Germano-Hungarian, Guillermo Kahlo was an official photographer of Mexico’s cultural heritage during the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. He shared with Frida his passion for the art and archaeology of Mexico.
A tragedy brutally transformed her life: She was but 18 when an accident tore her existence in two. In the collision of a tram and the bus where she had just taken a seat, a metal rod literally transfixed her, running through her body from the back to the uterus. She suffered multiple fractures to her spine, ribs, pelvis, hips and right leg; her right foot was crushed. The steel handrail, entering her body from the left side, came out through her vagina: “The shock threw us forward”, she explained, “and the handrail rod pierced through me like the sword that finishes off a bull”. She then added, with the humour, often macabre, that served her as armour: “And that’s how I lost my virginity”. If she survived this terrifying accident, the suffering that followed was unbearable. She spent a month in hospital, on her back, imprisoned in both a plaster cast and a coffin-like box.
She did not come early to painting as a vocation. No, it was painting that, after her accident, came to spring forth from her wounds, her blood, her guts, her intimate self, her fantasies. It is a kind of confession in images, a way to ward off death: “All her disillusions, all her tragedies, that immense suffering that is woven into her life, all is revealed there, in her painting, tranquilly, with no false modesty and with an exceptional independence of mind”. Several of her paintings have surreal and fantastical elements, but in none of them does she completely detach herself from reality and concrete experience. Consequently, she vigorously refused to belong to any school, whatever the stripe, despite André Breton trying to claim her for the Surrealists.
Her representations of female sexuality and the female body—less idealized, more realistic, sometimes rather sinister—broke the taboos of her time. She is “the first woman in the history of art to have addressed, with absolute and merciless sincerity—with even, one could say, a calm cruelty—the general and particular themes that uniquely concern women”. Characterized by a complexity of which she was acutely aware, she refused to comprise with social convention. She had no qualms, especially during the last years of her life, about displaying her bisexuality in her paintings. As the years went by and her physical frailty made sex with men more difficult, she turned toward women, and in particular to Diego’s mistresses.
In 1953 the gangrene in her right leg started spreading. The pain having become unbearable, in August the doctors decided to amputate the leg at the knee. If the operation brought her some relief, it also drained her of the energy that had always sustained her. Wild mood swings then ensued. One day, euphoric, she would say : “What do I need feet for if I’ve got wings to fly?”; another day, she’d write: “They amputated my leg six months ago which seemed like an eternal torture and sometimes I lost my head. I still feel like killing myself. Only Diego prevents me from doing it, since I imagine he would miss me. That’s what he says and I believe him. But never, in all my life, have I suffered more. I will wait a little longer.” She was still alive, but her hope was dead.