Art: Mexican Autobiography

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Child of my heart

Tomorrow is another day . . .

Sung in a small Mexico City gallery last week, this serenade was the climax of a long and happy evening for the frail, dark-eyed woman lying there in a great four-poster bed. She was Frida Kahlo, invalid wife of Muralist Diego Rivera and Mexico's best woman painter (TIME, Nov. 14, 1938). For her first public show in Mexico, 200 friends, fellow artists and critics had turned out to sing, sip Scotch, and applaud her delicate surrealistic pictures.

The 30 oils and 20 drawings represented 20 years of creative effort and most of them were of Frida Kahlo herself, painted with tiny, meticulous brush strokes and clear, strong colors. There was a moody Frida with an opening in her finely shaped head exposing a childlike skull & crossbones, a gay Frida in schoolgirl dress, Frida as a wounded deer, as an agonized figure writhing on a hospital bed. The overall impression was of a painful autobiography set down with brush & paint.

At 42, Frida Kahlo has a lot of painful memories to wash away. She was just 16 when she was smashed up in a bus accident. She spent a year in a cast, countless months in bed at home. To relieve the boredom, she started painting.

The results drew encouraging praise from Mexico's famed Jose Clemente Orozco. Diego Rivera was even more interested. Frida had known him since childhood, and when he divorced his second wife, they embarked on a violent courtship. Both were temperamental and noisy Communists; Frida proudly points out that she has never been expelled from the party (as Diego was). Much of the time since their marriage in 1929, Frida spent in & out of hospitals. But she never stopped painting, in a style that bears only a suggestion of Diego's technique.

While Diego was piling up laurels at home, Frida showed her pictures mainly in the U.S. and Europe. Though she had many friends and sold paintings privately, Mexico never gave her a public show. Frida thinks it was because of distaste for her surrealist label. "They thought I was a surrealist, but I wasn't. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality."

After seeing her show last week, Mexico could understand Frida Kahlo's hard reality. And it is getting even harder. Recently, her condition has been getting worse; friends who remember her as a plump, vigorous woman are shocked by her haggard appearance. She cannot stand for more than ten minutes at a time now, and there is a threat of gangrene in one foot. But each day, Frida Kahlo still struggles to her chair to paint—even if only for a short while. "I am not sick," she says. "I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint."