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Toulouse Lautrec and Frida Kahlo: Women, Pain, Death and Joie de Vivre August 26, 2008

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Toulouse Lautrec and Frida Kahlo: Women, Pain, Death and Joie de Vivre


 (Paper given in Spanish at the II Symposium in Celebration of International Women’s Day, March 12, 1999, Guayaquil, Ecuador)



The subject is broad and the time is short.  Frida Kahlo and Henri Toulouse Lautrec, their lives and their art, and their relation to the themes of women, pain, death and joie de vivre.  I am an expert in none of these areas.  I simply wish to share with you some of what I have learned in my investigations, based largely upon two excellent biographies, Frida, by Hayden Herrera; and Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Perruchot.


I will begin and end with Frida.  An inventory of her suffering over a life that lasted only forty seven years is enough to numb the mind.  As a child of six she suffered from polio and was confined to her room for nine months.  It left one leg crippled for life and made her the object of teasing by other children.  At the age of eighteen she suffered an accident in which the bus that she was riding was rammed by a trolley and a metal bar literally impaled her.  Her spine was fractured in three places, her pelvis was crushed, her collarbone and two ribs were broken and her right leg and foot were dislocated and crushed.  The fact that she survived is a miracle in itself.  They say that the scream that came out of her when they pulled out the metal bar drowned out the noise of the ambulance’s siren.  A friend said: “they had to put her back together like a photomontage.”


Frida also suffered from congenital scoliosis of the spine, and later developed osteomyelitis, an inflammation of the bone marrow that causes degeneration of the bones.  Toward the end of her life she developed gangrene of the foot and eventually had to have her leg amputated.


The suffering that resulted from her accident became a daily reality for her.  She lived with pain and the constant threat of illness.  She underwent 40 surgeries, miscarriages and at least three therapeutic abortions.  In an attempt to alleviate her pain she endured  25 different corsets, made of leather, steel or plaster, which she referred to as “torture devises.”  From her operations she suffered infected wounds, paralyzed intestines, and a fungus infection from a bone graft.  At one time she spent three months in a vertical position, hung from steel rings, with sacks of sand tied to her feet, in an attempt to straighten her spine.


One major operation, a spinal fusion caused her two weeks of excruciating pain and screaming and eight months in a steel corset when it was discovered that they had fused the wrong vertebrae and they had to operate again to remove the metal from the first operation and do a bone graft.  This led to drug addiction on morphine and hallucinations.  In 1950 she spent an entire year in the hospital.


I hear you begging.  Enough!  There is more, but I think you see the picture.


Frida’s father was a photographer, and the family was economically stable, although much of that was upset by the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920.  Frida was born in 1907, but she liked to give 1910 as her birthday, the year of the revolution.  She attended the elite National Preparatory School, was one of 35 women in a student body of 2000.


Henri Toulouse Lautrec was born in 1864 to a Count and Countess whose pedigree went back to the early Middle Ages.  He thereby had an income for life.  His father was an eccentric sportsman who lived for the hunt and the outdoor life, and Henri was to follow in his footsteps.  But Henri was a frail child, suffered broken legs that would not heal properly, and suffered from a bone growth disease that left him looking like a grotesque dwarf.  He had a normal torso but his limbs did not grow, he had swollen lips, a broad nose, a lisp and a drool.  Because of this he was unable to take advantage of his heritage and enjoy the easy life of the sportsman.  Rather, he was ridiculed and laughed at when he simply appeared in public.  More important, and for him more tragic, because of his appearance, he was repulsive to women and never knew female love.


It is hard to imagine two human beings cursed with a more cruel fortune than Frida Kahlo and Henri Toulouse Lautrec.  Both seemed to be destined to lives of uselessness and self pity.


Instead, two of the greatest painters of modern history emerged.  Their story is one of courage and heroism. 


Both eschewed self-pity and were determined not to live the life of a cripple.  Both developed gigantic personalities, lived lives in the fast lane, died young, and left a heritage of some of the finest works of art in human history.


Frida, of course, married a man who was already a legend in his time, the great muralist, Diego Rivera.  They were the Anthony and Cleopatra of their era, an epic love story, one filled with rancor and tragedy.  Frida used to say, “I had two accidents in my life, one was with a trolley car.  The other was Diego.”  There is no time to go into the depth of the love they had for one another, a love that survived despite the constant philandering on the part of Diego, Frida’s clandestine affairs and a divorce and re-marriage. 


I’ll just give you two quotes. 


Diego: “If I had died without knowing her, I would have died without knowing what a real woman was.”


Frida: “I take care of him the best I can from a distance, and I will love him all my life even is he wouldn’t want me to.”


Lautrec in his youth agonized over passions that could not be realized because of his ugliness.  Finally, a friend arranged for him to spend a night with a young woman who had a taste for the unusual.  With his name, ancestry and fortune of little use to him, Lautrec took up art as a career, initially with the approval of his family.  He studied rigorously at the Ecole de Beaux Arts and under recognized masters.  However, although he was schooled in the orthodox classics, he was influenced by the revolutionary impressionism of his time and eventually created his own iconoclastic style.  Rather than accept his aristocratic station in life, perhaps because he knew what it felt like to be an outcast, he immersed himself in the burgeoning night life that was developing in the Montemarte district of Paris.  He came to live in and paint: cabarets, dance halls, brothels, opera, theatre, ballet, and costume balls in neighborhoods that were populated by prostitutes, rogues, outcasts, unemployed, failed poets, anarchists, art students and models.  He would sit at a table in one of Montemarte’s night spots with a drink in one hand and his sketch book in the other, observing each and every detail: provocative gestures, deal making, decadence and sophistication, dancers high kicking, lacy underclothes, pimps, and the police guarding the limits of “decency.”  The names “Moulin Rouge” and “Toulouse Lautrec” have come to be almost synonymous.


Frida Kahlo was encouraged to paint by her father.  After her accident it became an obsession with her.  “I only know,” she said, “that I paint because I need to, and I paint whatever passes through my head without any other consideration.”  As opposed to Diego’s huge public murals depicting life and history, Frida painted small cuadros, and her primary subject was herself.  “I paint myself,” she said, “because I am so often alone, and I am the subject I know best.”


But it wasn’t until later in life that her work as a painter became recognized.  Apart from her art, to compensate for her physical pain, the heart-rending tragedy of her inability to have children, and the loneliness of the wife of a man who was both notoriously famous and unfaithful, she developed a stunning personality.  Here is a brief picture of Frida Kahlo:


Piercing eyes, a hoarse (bronca) voice, a laugh full of carcajadas, sensuous, flirtatious, seductive, audacious.  As part of the revolutionary generation reacting against the European influence of the 34 year Diaz dictatorship, she loved to dress in Mexican peasant costume, which became an integral part of her self and public image. She spent hours arranging her clothing, her jewelry, her hairdo.  It was almost as if she painted a portrait of herself every day.   She was fluent in both written and spoken English, and she loved to use slang freely in both languages.  Hijo de chingada madre” was a favorite of hers.  Picture a gutter vocabulary emanating from a feminine looking creature who held her head high on a long neck, like a queen.


She once took the North American art historian, Parker Lesley, to a dance performance.  Here is his account: “No one paid any attention to the dance performance … everyone stared at Frida, who wore her Tehuana dress and all Diego’s gold jewelry.  She wore gold caps with rose diamonds on her front teeth so that her smile really sparkled.  During intermission, she led me to the bar.  The crowd parted before us as if she were a queen.” 


In her visits to San Francisco, Detroit, and New York, children followed her as she walked down the street.  “The circus is coming,” they shouted.


Apart from her paintings, the most amazing thing about Frida was the spirit of joy she projected in spite of a lifetime of intense pain and suffering, both emotional and physical.  She literally spent years of her life in the hospital, where she always painted.  A friend who came to visit her describes this scene: “I was horrified.  She was hanging by steel rings, had her easel in front of her, and she was painting and telling jokes and funny stories.”


Frida clung to the sense of the ridiculous.  In the hospital, on days when the pain was not insupportable, she designed a stage from metal that kept her legs raised, and she did a puppet show with her feet.


A student of hers described her as being so full of alegria that she makes a party around her. People who came to visit her in the hospital came away comforted and morally fortified.  Another visitor said this of her: “she did not concentrate on herself.  One did not feel her miseries when with her.  She was full of interest for others; she even worried herself sick about the well-being of the other patients in the hospital.  It was as if she herself was on a vacation.”


She drank too much and freely admitted it.  “I drink to drown my sorrows,” she said, “but the damned things learned to swim.”


Lautrec as well developed a magical personality.  He was passionate, interested in everything and everyone, he won friends with kindness, sympathy, intelligence and wit.  He laughed at his own misfortune: “I am half a bottle,” he said.  When someone commented to him, “you have a beautiful wit, Monsieur Toulouse Lautrec,” he answered: “my family has done nothing for centuries.  Without it I’d be a total fool.”  About the cruel fate of his crippled body, he commented with characteristic humor and irony: “To think that if my legs had been a bit longer,” he said, “I never would have taken up painting.”


Once, at the Moulin Rouge, two women were arguing about the pedigree of a dog.  One woman said, “Impossible, look at its crooked paws.”  The woman said, “no matter, of course it’s a pedigree,” and she turned to Lautrec, “Am I not correct, Monsieur, in saying that a dog may be ugly and yet have a good pedigree?”  Lautrec rose to his feet, gave a military salute, and said:” Madame, you are talking to the right man.”


As with Lautrec, Frida too developed the strategy of making fun of her pain.  Speaking of her accident and the metal bar that entered her from the hip and exited through her vagina, she quipped: “I lost my virginity.”  She also boasted proudly, “I hold the record for operations.”  She was full of mischief.  To Henry Ford, a known anti-Semitic, she asked: “Mr. Ford, are you Jewish?” and she spoke to America’s foremost capitalist about nothing but communism.  At his parties she used vulgar English, pretending not to know what it means.  “Shit on you,” she told a guest with an innocent smile on her face.


“Nothing is worth more than laughter,” she said, “it is strength to laugh and to abandon one’s self, to be light.  Tragedy is most ridiculous.”


What Frida put up with from Diego, no modern feminist woman would likely tolerate.  For Diego art came first and Frida second; for Frida it was the reverse.  Diego lived the classical male double standard, justifying his own sexual adventures, but becoming murderously jealous of Frida’s.  He once confessed: “If I love a woman, the more I love her the more I wanted to hurt her.  Frida was the most obvious victim of this disgusting trait.”


However, in every other respect, Frida was a paragon of independent feminism.  Her favorite Mexican costume was that of the Tehuantepec, whose women were famous for being stately, brave, strong, intelligent, sensuous and beautiful.  A present day Mexican artist summarized Frida’s effect: “She embodied the whole notion of culture for Chicano women.  She inspired us.  Her works didn’t have self pity, they had strength.”


Frida, who later rejected the categorization, was baptized a surrealist by the “Pope” of surrealism, Andre Breton.  Here is what he said of her work: “There is no art more exclusively feminine in the sense that in order to be as seductive as possible, it plays alternatively at being absolutely pure and absolutely destructive.  The art of Frida Kahlo is a ribbon wrapped around a bomb.”


As a woman, Frida was strong, independent and iconoclastic, brazenly defying the moral standards of her age and culture.  She gradually broke away from playing the traditional role of wife to Diego, and after their second marriage virtually lived independently and self-sufficiently.  In this, the last years of her life, she came into her own, both as a woman and an artist.  She finally had her work exhibited, won prizes and scholarships, obtained a teaching position, and was the first Mexican artist to have a work acquired by the Louvre.  She was bi-sexual, and had numerous affairs, not of the casual and promiscuous nature as Diego, but serious and intense.  In her lifetime she knew and befriended some of the most interesting and important historical figures of her day: Andre Breton, Sergei Eisenstein, Henry Ford, Nelson Rockefeller, Delores Del Rio, Maria Felix, and of course, Leon Trotsky.


Her work was admired by Miró, Kadinsky, and Picasso.


Lautrec found his refuge in the most unlikely of places, the bordello.  Rejected and despised himself, he went to women who were rejected and despised.  From sporadic visits, he eventually came to make whore houses his home away from home.  He would “disappear” for several days at a time.  He eventually brought his easel and materials with him and set up his workshop there.  Brothels are accustomed to the bizarre and not impressed by social status.  He did not stand out.  He was accepted for his kindness and generosity.


Prostitutes were the only women who brought a little tenderness into his life, which he referred to as “a sweet that cannot be bought.”  He brought gifts, played cards, listened to confidences, drafted their letters, consoled, and remembered birthdays.  And of course, he observed and painted.  He was charmed by the almost bourgeois calm and family atmosphere once the doors closed for business.  He found prostitutes to be the perfect models; accustomed to being nude, they posed naturally and without pretensions.  He painted them dressing, bathing, in their sleep, in the medical inspection line-up, with and without make-up, and in sexual activity.  He painted not only their defects, but also their freshness and innocence.  He was particularly touched by their lesbian love for one another.  “No one could be more loving,” he said, “they’re like two birds burying themselves in each other’s feathers.”  Of one of his paintings that show two women dancing, he commented: “Look at them gazing into each other’s eyes, even when they’re closed.”


Of the brothels he said: “I don’t feel at home anywhere else.  At last I’ve found women who suit me.”


An art critic suggested that his paintings of prostitutes sadly gave the impression that many of these women with ingenuous faces might have lived happy regular simple lives, and that he expressed this with such clarity and bitterness.


Both Frida and Lautrec, in rebellion against their family tradition and the accepted social mores of their societies, were avowed anti-Catholics.  Hence their outlook on death was to accept it as a natural phenomenon rather than a transcendental event.  For both of them their “strategy” in the face of the inevitability of death was to mock it by living life to the fullest.


Lautrec joked, “I am doomed, I may as well enjoy life.”  He rejected his parents’ constant urgings to lead a religious life and he laughingly told his friends: “my mother has a nun employed full-time praying for the salvation of my soul, so that makes me free to do anything I want!”  Perhaps Lautrec had absorbed the philosophy of his contemporary, Vincent Van Gogh, who had once cited St. Paul’s admonishment to live “as being sorrowful yet always rejoicing.”


For Frida, suffering and death played a central part in her painting, where death often was a palpable presence.  She symbolized death with skulls and skeletons, as in the Mexican tradition.  The poet Sylvia Plath remarked about death that the ego is symbolized in reflections (mirrors and water), shadows, twins – dividing off and becoming and enemy or omen of death … or a means by which one denies the power of death by creating the idea of the soul as the deathless double of the immortal body.”  Compare this to a friend’s statement about Frida: “She was the only painter who gave birth to herself.  She did not die during the accident.  The struggle of the two Fridas (the name of perhaps her most well-know painting) was in her always, the struggle between the dead Frida and one Frida that was alive.  After the accident came a re-birth, her love for nature and beauty was renewed.”


Frida herself said: “I tease and laugh at death so that it won’t get the better or me.”  She once painted a child who had died because he had been attended by a witch doctor and not a medical doctor.  She was the child’s madrina (godmother), and the painting was entitled “El Difunto Dimas.”  The painting expresses fatalistic sorrow rather than shock or sentimental passion.  When she exhibited it in New York she gave it the ironic title: Dressed for Paradise.  Both Frida and Toulouse Lautrec faced death stoically and without the assurance of religious faith.  The poet Wallace Stevens said: “Death is the mother of beauty, hence from her, alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams and our desires.”  Freud said: “The aim of all life is death.”  Frida said: “we look for a calm or peace because we anticipate death, since we die every moment.”  Both artists mocked death, laughed in its face, and as an antidote to death lived full and joyous lives and produced lasting works of art.


You will notice that I have spoken a great deal about the lives of my two subject artists and much less about their work.  This is partly due to the limits of time but also because I would rather you see for yourself than listen to the opinions of art critics or of myself.  I will limit my remarks to the following:


Lautrec was known for his lucidity.  He painted what he saw without imposing his own opinion.  “I paint realistically not idealistically, I have no mercy on warts,” he said.  He broke away from natural laws of perspective and went beyond impressionism.  He was influenced by the graceful brush strokes of Japanese art. He invented new ways of rendering movement by the rhythm of his lines, which, like his colors, he reduced to essentials.  Although he acknowledged the excellence of their technique, he rejected the classic masterpieces with their historical personages congealed in conventional pomp, with their angels, sirens, and satyrs.  For him outward appearances were shallow, and art was of no use except to give expression to psychological truth and the life of the city.


Of Frida, many considered her a better painter than Diego, including Diego himself.  Her style was primitive in conformity with Mexican indigenous culture, that is, festive, alegria, theatrical and bloody.  “I paint things as I see them and nothing more.”  Her subject was herself and her own notion of psychological truth.  In her paintings she performed a form of surgery on herself, probing deeply.  She painted herself bleeding, cracked open, weeping, and being born.  She painted with a kind of defiance of suffering and death, she didn’t beseech heaven for solace; tears dot her cheeks but she refuses to cry.


After a miscarriage in Detroit, according to Diego Rivera, “Frida began work on a series of masterpieces which had no precedent in the history of art – paintings which exalted the feminine qualities of endurance, truth, reality, cruelty and suffering.  Never before had a woman put such agonized poetry on canvass as Frida did at this time in Detroit.”


As artists, of both Frida and Toulouse Lautrec the words of Diego Rivera apply: “I am not merely an artist, but a man performing his biological function of producing paintings, just as a tree produces flowers and fruit.”


It would not be fair, in any discussion of Frida Kahlo, to omit mention of her political beliefs, which formed a central part in her life.  The subject is too complex to go into here; I will only mention that she was a passionate Mexican nationalist and a lifelong believer in communist revolution.  She said, “I want my work to be a contribution to the struggle of the people for peace and liberty.”  She and Diego were instrumental in bringing to Mexico the exiled Trotsky, who was later murdered by an agent of Stalin, and whom Frida and Diego later renounced.


I wish to conclude this presentation with some comments on meaning in art.  The British novelist Iris Murdoch has complained that the two main views of human nature as expressed in by logical positivists and existentialists (and I note that she was speaking before the advent of post-modernism) are shallow and flimsy.  They assume, she asserts, that humans are solitary and totally free and the fundamental virtue is sincerity, or self-consistency, or being true to one’s self.  To what she referred to as the “facile ideal of sincerity” she suggests that what we need is “the hard idea of truth.”


The Russian novelist, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who spent eleven years in prison for his opposition to Stalinism in the Soviet Union, has said: “In battle with the lie, art has always been victorious, always wins out, visibly, incontrovertibly, for all.  The lie can stand against much in this world – but not against art…”


Henri Toulouse Lautrec and Frida Kahlo, for me embody, both in their lives and in their work, these ideals of truth and art.


I said I would give the final word to Frida – and, by the way, she was always referred to simply as “Frida,” which I have done throughout this talk. The last words in her diary were: “I hope the exit is joyful – and I hope never to come back.”


But, let’s not end there.  Let’s instead look at her very last painting, a still life (In Spanish still life painting is referred to as vida muerte, which literally means “dead life.”  Frida, however, always referred to them as “vida viva” or “life alive”).  This painting pictured a watermelon, the most beloved Mexican fruit.  The painting shows none of the degeneration of style that had appeared in her later work due to the effects of pain and drugs.  It is signed eight days before her death with her name, date, and the name of her lifelong pueblo, Coyocán.  Then in large capital letters she wrote her final salute to life: VIVA LA VIDA.