Frida Kahlo painted herself lying on her sickbed, the tip of a funnel entering her mouth. The bowl of the funnel is stuffed with poison and death -- a skull, a dead fish, dead fowl. Tears run down her cheeks.
A barren desert landscape forms the background: In the sky, a sun burns brightly and a pale, smooth moon glows wanly. Called “Without Hope,” the 1945 self-portrait is an allegory of the Mexican artist’s life. The sun represents her philandering husband, the mural painter Diego Rivera, and the poison is the lies he tried to make her swallow. The moon represents Kahlo, always trying to be near the confident, powerful sun, and destined never to approach it. The desert is her childlessness.
The painting is one of 150 works that Berlin’s Martin- Gropius-Bau has assembled for the biggest exhibition of Kahlo’s art ever in Germany. There is not one single Kahlo painting in German public collections, and most are owned individually by private collectors. Getting them together was a major operation, Gereon Sievernich, the museum’s director, told journalists.
“It was detective work tracking them down,” Sievernich said. “In some cases, it was hard to find a phone number.”
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Not everyone said yes. Madonna, who owns three Kahlo works, declined to part with hers. The paintings in La Casa Azul, Kahlo’s beautiful house in Coyoacan, Mexico, and now a museum, are not permitted to travel. In the end, 45 collectors agreed to lend pieces, and the retrospective includes some that were thought lost and others that have never been shown in public.
Yet quantity isn’t everything, and with some of the sketches, you wonder whether it was worth the bother of getting them to Berlin. Few of the drawings offer anything that isn’t addressed more comprehensively in the oil-on-canvas work; in fact, many are just sketches for the paintings.
Pain and suffering are the keywords of Kahlo’s dramatic work, as they were of her life. She was born in 1907, probably with spina bifida, though it was not diagnosed as such until much later. In 1925, she was severely injured in a bus crash, pierced by an iron handrail.
During her convalescence she began to paint, and gave up her medicine studies. Though she did partially recover, she endured many more operations throughout her life, even having one foot amputated before her early death in 1954.
Her best-known -- and finest -- works are the self- portraits, often showing her in exotic, folkloric dress, her plaited hair elaborately woven with flowers, the trademark single, thick eyebrow spread like bat wings across her forehead.
In “Broken Column” (1944), she painted herself with an open wound down the middle and a cracked column for a spine. Her body is in a brace -- a reference to all the medical treatments she endured (in later life she wore a steel corset). Her skin is pierced with nails, the stabs of pain from Rivera’s affairs.
This exhibition shows Kahlo as a martyr, obsessed with her own pain, loneliness and jealousy. Even her still-lifes are codified self-portraits, according to the curator, Helga Prignitz-Poda. Kahlo used her extensive knowledge of mythology, religion and folklore to create symbols for her own predicament, so that the portraits became like icons, laden with metaphors.
The retrospective includes a room of photographs of Kahlo, taken by family, friends and by Nickolas Muray, a professional photographer who was her lover for 10 years. Curated by Kahlo’s great-niece Cristina Kahlo, the photos show the Frida the outside world saw rather than the tortured soul of the paintings. This Frida was strikingly beautiful, sensual, strong, self-possessed and highly eccentric.
The Frida Kahlo retrospective is on show at the Martin- Gropius-Bau through Aug. 9. Go to http://www.gropiusbau.de for more information.
(Catherine Hickley is a writer for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)