On bad days I think of Frida, nailed to her bed by pain, staring up at the ceiling, wondering when her husband, the painter Diego Rivera, a man as round and fat as the sun, would come home, and if he was finished making love to her sister.
She dressed in Mexican folk costumes, partly because the long skirts hid her polio-withered leg, and decorated herself with chunky necklaces made from broken Aztec beads. She braided her hair with colored wools and piled it on top or her head and put big bows and flowers in it until it looked like an altar to some garish god. She wore all this while she lay in bed, recovering from one or another of 30 operations to repair her spine and pelvis, which were broken in a streetcar accident when she was a girl.
She had a mirror attached to the underside of the bed canopy so she could paint while lying down with her canvas propped up against her knees. Over and over, she painted herself against backgrounds of glossy leaves and fruits, embraced by monkeys and surrounded by butterflies and parrots, hummingbirds and a little hairless, gray-skinned Xoloitzcuintle dog.
Critics say that she lacks universality, that her art is only about herself. Prolonged illness turns you inward, and what else can you do while everybody else is out going about their business but ruminate about yourself? \”I paint myself because I am so often alone,\” she said.
She didn\’t make it to 50. She died of a clot in her lungs, having recently undergone the amputation of a gangrenous leg, and of the alcohol and pain killers to which she was addicted–though for the latter, who can blame her?
I lie in bed with Bisou asleep on my stomach and wonder, how did Frida keep from getting oil paint all over herself when she painted lying on her back? Were her monkeys and her dog allowed on the bed? With her appalling pain, how did she manage that impressive string of love affairs with men and women, cabaret dancers, movie stars and intellectuals, and were they just a way to get back at Diego?
Most of all I wonder, what kept her going? What reservoir of grit and rage drove this tiny hirsute woman to paint 140 pictures that, even if you don\’t like them, you will never forget?
She was not a nice person, as she was the first to admit. Yet to me she is a saint of sorts, the patron saint of those whose bodies have betrayed them but who struggle to make their stories be about something more than just that.