Tag Archives: 1930s

Book Review: The Final Mist by María Luisa Bombal

13 Aug

I already wrote a book review about the wonderful novel “The Shrouded Woman” by María Luisa Bombal, and now I feel that I must also mention her other novel “The Final Mist” (La última niebla) first published in 1934 when Bombal was only twenty-four years old.

Just like Bombal’s already mentioned novel “The Shrouded Woman”, the story is told in the first person by a young woman called Regina who had just gotten married to Daniel. The newlyweds are arriving to Daniel’s country house. From the beginning the atmosphere is mysterious and eerie, maybe slightly sinister too because his first deceased wife is mentioned:

“The previous night’s storm had removed the shingles from the roof of the old country house. When we arrived the rain was dripping into all of the rooms. (…)
As a matter of fact, ever since the car had crossed the boundary of the farm Daniel had become nervous, and almost hostile. It was to be expected. Hardly a year ago, he had made the same journey with his first wife; that sullen, weak girl he adored, who would die unexpectedly hardly three months later. But now there is something like apprehension in the way he examines me from head to foot. It is the same hostile expression with which he always looks at any stranger.
“What are you doing?” I ask him.
“I am looking at you,” he answers. “I am looking at you, because I know you too well…”

The narrator is clear that their marriage isn’t one of love and adoration but one of practicality; she was afraid of becoming an old spinster and she wanted a better life. They start living together in that unkempt sad country house, but they mostly spend time apart and rarely make love. The shadow of his first wife’s death is hanging over them and the enveloping fog is sucking their souls and energy. The motif of the first wife and the film noir atmosphere kind of reminded me of Daphne du Maurier’s novel and film “Rebecca”. The strange atmosphere is kind of similar. Also, just like Flaubert’s provincial heroine Emma Bovary, the narrator is bored, disillusioned and unloved, yet still romantic and prone to dreaming. In dreary autumnal weather she is silently and slowly sinking in the countryside boredom. She is constantly making remarks about her youth, beauty and joy fading forever. But, one night she goes for a walk and meets a stranger who takes her by the hand and leads her into a grand old house where they make love passionately. This adventure makes her feel alive and its memory helps her to endure all the other disillusionment of life.

The central point of the novel is the struggle between dreams and reality; the narrator, just like Anais Nin in her diaries, tries to escape her trivial loveless existence through dreams, fantasies, make beliefs and her cold and distant husband is the first one to shove truth into her face. Did she really get lost in the mist that night and met that man, or was it all just another dream that she uses as a defense against reality’s blows that she cannot bear. The element of fog isn’t here simply to indicate the state of weather, as if perhaps might be in some English novel where people are keen to discuss the weather, no here it sort of stands as a symbol for the portal to the world of dreams. The heroine escapes into fog and the reality ceases to exist. There is also an erotic element that lingers throughout the novel which is also present in “The Shrouded Woman” but here the sensuality is even more emphasised, and it sadly belongs to the world of dreams and not reality for the narrator. Bombal’s writing is full of beautiful imagery, sights, sounds, emotions, acute perceptions and it’s very feminine in a way that Regina’s longing and desperation and boredom are very feminine, I think only a woman can experience them in that particular way… Here are some beautiful quotes:

Every day the fog gets thicker and thicker around the house. It has now covered the trees whose branches brush against the edge of the terrace. Last night I dreamed that, through the cracks of the doors and windows, the fog was slowly leaking into my room, diminishing the color of the walls and the furniture, filtering into my hair, and sticking to my body, as it dissipates everything, absolutely everything…

The years pass by. I look at myself in the mirror, and I see myself with clearly noticeable little wrinkles that only showed when I laugh before. My breasts are losing their roundness and the consistency of a ripe fruit. My flesh is stuck to my bones, and I no longer look slim, but angular. But, what does it matter? What does it matter that my body withers, if it has known love? What does it matter that the years go by, all the same? I had a beautiful adventure, once… With just one memory one can tolerate a long life of tedium. One can even repeat day by day, without boredom, the same small, everyday tasks.

There is a person who I could not meet without trembling. I might find him today, or tomorrow, or ten years from now. I might find him at the end of the street, or in the city when I go around the corner. Perhaps I will never find him. It doesn’t matter; the world seems full of possibilities, and for me in every moment there is hope, so that each minute has its emotion.

There are mornings when I am overrun by an absurd contentment. I have the feeling that a great happiness is going to come to me within the space of the next twenty four hours. I spend the day feeling a kind of exaltation. And I wait. For a letter, or an unexpected meeting? In truth, I don’t know.

My body and my kisses never make him tremble but, like they used to do, they made him think about another body, and other lips. Like years ago, I saw him trying again furiously to caress and desire my body, and always with the memory of his dead wife between the two of us. As he surrendered himself to my breast, his face unconsciously tried to find the smoothness and the contour of another breast. He kissed my hands, and other places, searching for some familiar passions, odors, and shapes. And he wept bitterly, calling for her, shouting absurd things to me, that were directed at her.

Daniel takes me by the arm and starts walking as if nothing had happened. (…) I follow him in order to carry out an enormous number of little jobs; to perform an enormous number of frivolous tasks; to cry as usual, and to smile out of obligation. I follow him to live correctly, and to die correctly, someday. Around us the fog gives things the quality of endless immobility.

And now I will just take a moment to tackle the issue of the title. Bombal’s novel originally called “La última niebla” was published in 1934 and it is translated in English as either “The Final Moment of Fog” or “The Final Mist”. But in 1947 Bombal wrote and published a longer and much altered version of this earlier work and named it “The House of Mist”.

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Frida Kahlo – Love, Flowers, Pain

6 Jul

Frida Kahlo was born on this day in 1907. Happy birthday Frida! Feliz cumpleaños!

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, 1937

In 1938 French Surrealist poet André Breton visited Mexico and upon seeing the paintings of the young artist Frida Kahlo he classified them as works of surrealism which is something she herself denied by saying: “I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality.” And indeed, by looking at her paintings and following the events in her life, the parallel is unmistakable. Frida used art as a diary; she used brush and paint instead of a pen and jotted down her feelings, her anguish, her memories, her sense of identity in a similar way that Anais Nin did in her diaries, and Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath did in their poems. Looking at Frida’s paintings inevitably draws us into her inner world because the two are inseparable; the viewer yearns to know more about her life and the meaning behind the symbols and motifs she painted. I see her paintings as poetic scenes, verses in vibrant colours, and although they may seem surreal, they are always sincere and woven with depths of her feelings.

Frida Kahlo With Classic Magenta Rebozo, Nickolas Muray, 1939

“I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.”

Two things that shaped the life and art of Frida Kahlo were her love for a fellow painter Diego Rivera and “the accident”. Love and pain; two sensations so intermingled that the first one can’t possibly live without the other. In her own words: “There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst.” Pain and love followed her like shadows. When she was six years old, she contracted polio and that left her with one leg shorter than the other; she would later hide this defect by wearing man’s clothes or long traditional Mexican gowns. The illness helped to create a strong bond with her father Guillermo who was also of poor health. Although her relationship with her mother was somewhat strained and distanced, Frida loved her father and described him as being tender and understanding. Guillermo was a photographer and not only did he take pictures of his daughter and talked to her about philosophy, nature and literature, but he also encouraged her to practise sport as a way of regaining her health and he inspired her artistic explorations. Little Frida filled notebooks with sketches but never considered art as a profession until “the accident” occurred: on 17 September 1925 she was riding a bus home from school with her boyfriend and the bus collided with a streetcar. A few people died and Frida suffered nearly fatal injuries; she fractured several bones and was confined to bed for three months. Her dreams of being a doctor crashed, and, in solitude, pain and fatigue, She found comfort from solitude, fatigue and pain in painting. An easel was placed specially so that she would paint laying in the bed and she had a mirror so she could see herself.

Frida Kahlo, Frieda and Diego Rivera, 1931

By 1927 Frida’s health was recovered and she reconnected with her old school friends and joined the Mexican Communist Party. An old school friend introduced her to a group of artists and activists who were gathered around the Cuban communist Julio Antonio Mella. On a party held in June 1928 by Mella’s lover Tina Modotti, an Italian-American photographer, Frida met Diego Rivera who was a well-known artist by that time. She had met him once before when he worked on a mural in her school “Escuela National Preparatoria”. Frida wanted to show him her paintings and longed to hear his opinion. Rivera liked what he saw and he encouraged her to pursue career as an artist, stating that her work possessed: “an unusual energy of expression, precise delineation of character, and true severity … They had a fundamental plastic honesty, and an artistic personality of their own … It was obvious to me that this girl was an authentic artist”.

Diego and Frida married on 21 August 1929: she was twenty two years old, he was forty-two. Their love story is one of the most well known in the world of art and the double-portrait above is actually their wedding portrait made by Kahlo. It looks almost grotesque and deliberately exaggerated in proportions, but it presents the truth. Rivera, a tall and over-weight artist and a womaniser with his feet strongly on the ground is shown holding a tiny hand of his petite and fragile artist-wife; his doll, his little girl; his “muñeca”, his “niña”.

Frida painted Diego with a palette and brushes in his right hand, and herself merely as a companion to the artist. Looking at the portrait, one would never guess that this fragile, timid, gentle looking thing in a dark green dress and a long red scarf, looking so small and gentle compared to the robust and grandeurs artist, was actually an artist herself whose fame today exceeds that of her husband. It might be hard to understand what exactly Frida liked about Rivera; his temperament, his physical ugliness, his eyes that easily wandered to other women (including her younger sister), his age, and yet she adored him, worshipped him. She once wrote: Diego era todo: mi niño, mi amor, mi universo.(Diego was my everything: my child, my lover, my universe.) Frida’s parents referred to the union as the “marriage between an elephant and a dove”. Judging by the portrait and the photographs below – they were right.

“I love you more than my own skin and even though you don’t love me the same way, you love me anyways, don’t you? And if you don’t, I’ll always have the hope that you do, and I’m satisfied with that. Love me a little. I adore you.” (Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera)

“Nothing compares to your hands, nothing like the green-gold of your eyes. My body is filled with you for days and days. you are the mirror of the night. the violent flash of lightning. the dampness of the earth. The hollow of your armpits is my shelter. my fingers touch your blood. All my joy is to feel life spring from your flower-fountain that mine keeps to fill all the paths of my nerves which are yours.” (Letter from Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera)

Frida Kahlo, The Two Fridas (Las Dos Fridas), 1939

Frida and Diego’s marriage was turbulent to say the least. In 1939 their divorce was being finalised. It was Diego who wanted a divorce, and Frida was very melancholic and very lonely. To hush the anguish in her heart, she drank alcohol and painted furiously because she resolved never to be financially depended on a man again. This fruitful artistic period resulted in a series of self-portraits. Painting “Two Fridas” was also made around the time they divorced and it is perhaps the most symbolic of that period in her life and her feelings at the moment. It unites the subjects of love and pain, and it’s also a psychological study of her identity and ancestry. It shows just how childlike, deep and sincere her art was because it deals with her feelings directly, without hesitation or tendency towards snobbish avant-garde, her style is at the same time inspired by naive art, and self-invented and her own.

On the left we see the European Frida: dressed in a white Edwardian gown with lace on her bodice and collar, and a living pulsating wounded heart; she has a pair of scissors in her hand. On the right we see the Mexican Frida: dressed in a traditional Tehuana dress; in her hand she’s holding a little portrait of Diego as a child. The European Frida shows her father’s ancestry who was a German Jew. The Mexican Frida shows the culture that Frida embraced and the Frida that Diego loved. The hearts of two Fridas are connected by one artery and the heart of European Frida is aching, bleeding, falling apart, dying. Diego has rejected the European Frida and she is dying. He thought that: “Mexican women who do not wear [Mexican clothing] … are mentally and emotionally dependent on a foreign class to which they wish to belong.” And so Frida loved to emphasise her mestiza ancestry by wearing traditional Mexican peasant dresses, traditional elaborate hairstyles with braids and flowers and adorn herself with jewellery. Her exotic appearance showed quite a sensation when she was in New York in October 1938. Frida’s exoticism in the eyes of western people, her peculiar expressive self portraits with eyebrows that meet and flowers in her hair are things that first come to mind to people when they think about her.

Still, with paintings as personal as these, I feel it is almost a sacrilege to butcher their meanings and make one’s own assumptions of their meaning. Frida said for this particular painting that it represents her and her imaginary childhood friend. It is this emotional and diary-like aspect of her art that appeals to me, but the overall style and colours are not really my taste.

Frida Kahlo, Memory (The Heart), 1937

Painting “Memory (The Heart)”, painted during Diego’s affair with Frida’s younger sister, also shows her pain inflicted by love. Her heart is painted disproportionally large and shown bleeding.

Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait as a Tehuana (Diego in My houghts), 1943

In the painting above, Frida shows us that Diego was always on her mind, literally so – he is tattooed on her forehead! Could it be more direct?

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait, 1940

“I am that clumsy human, always loving, loving, loving. And loving. And never leaving. (Fridas’ diary entry)

Anaïs Nin – We Write to Taste Life Twice

24 Jun

These days I have been reading Anaïs Nin’s essays, and thinking about them a lot, in particular I am fascinated by her devoted diary keeping, the conflict of dreams vs reality, the reason one writes and the importance of spontaneity and naturalness in writing.

Anais Nin in Havana, c. 1920s

“I can connect deeply or not at all.”

A sensitive and imaginative child, Anais Nin started writing her diary in 1914 at the age of eleven. Other girls her age would probably pretend they were writing to their imaginary friends, but Anais envisaged her diary as a string of letters to her father who had abandoned the family and left to live with his lover. How poignant to imagine this gentle and pale, dark-haired and sad-eyed little girl clutching her notebook, living half in those words and half in dreams, and know that her desire for writing appeared out of her childlike sadness, longing and a desire to gain his love. What began as a desire to be loved and to connect, not only with her father, but with the world, turned into a lifelong occupation; Anais continuously wrote her diary since the age of eleven to her death in 1977.

Nin’s writing fascinates me as much as her family ancestry and her life. She was born in France to Cuban parents; her mother Rosa was a singer of French and Danish descent, and her father Joaquín was a pianist born in Havana, but the hot Catalan Spanish blood flew his veins. Anais spent her childhood in Spain, teenage years in America where she posed for painters, got married in 1923 in Havana to Hugo Parker Guiler, moved to Paris the following year, then lived in the United States for the rest of her life. While in Paris, she wrote the most interesting part of her diary and had an affair with the writer Henry Miller which is documented in “Journal of Love: Henry and June”, and also studied flamenco dancing! It was in Paris that she started pondering seriously on the matter of being an artist, a writer, and she realised there, in the grey suburbs of shiny Paris, that just being a wife isn’t fulfilling. Her Journals of Love witness her sensual and artistic awakening, and her, at the same time, passionate and intellectual relationship with Henry. She says: “How wrong it is for a woman to expect the man to build the world she wants, rather than to create it herself.”

Creating a world of one’s own, through writing and daydreaming

“Don’t wait for it,” I said. “Create a world, your world. Alone. Stand alone. And then love will come to you, then it comes to you. It was only when I wrote my first book that the world I wanted to live in opened to me.” (The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol 1: 1931-34)

And created a world she did! She stopped expecting the world to come to her, and instead gave herself to her diary, and by building a rich inner life, the real life began.

Why one writes is a question I can answer easily, having so often asked it of myself. I believe one writes because one has to create a world in which one can live. I could not live in any of the worlds offered to me — the world of my parents, the world of war, the world of politics. I had to create a world of my own, like a climate, a country, an atmosphere in which I could breathe, reign, and recreate myself when destroyed by living. That, I believe, is the reason for every work of art. (…)

We write to heighten our own awareness of life. We write to lure and enchant and console others. We write to serenade our lovers. We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection. We write, like Proust, to render all of it eternal, and to persuade ourselves that it is eternal. We write to be able to transcend our life, to reach beyond it. We write to teach ourselves to speak with others, to record the journey into the labyrinth. We write to expand our world when we feel strangled, or constricted, or lonely… If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write because our culture has no use for it. When I don’t write, I feel my world shrinking. I feel I am in prison. I feel I lose my fire and my color. It should be a necessity, as the sea needs to heave, and I call it breathing.

I know this quote by heart because it really chimes with me, but there is one line in particular which I can’t get out of my mind for two weeks now: “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection.” To write, then, means to trick transience because a moment of beauty is captured forever in words, and what a luxury a memory is because we can play it out in our minds as many times as we want. A sunset and a sight of a flower, can give birth to stories and daydreams in our imagination, the past can be relived and transformed, beautified and idealised until it becomes a whole new fantasy. Writing brings freedom and it shields you from reality, it’s like a soft flimsy dusty pink veil of protection, it offers beauty instead of loneliness. Writing heals the wounds inflicted by living, and turns our tears into flowers.

Henry Miller and Anais Nin, c. early 1930s

The Importance of Diary

Anais’s literary legacy lies in her diaries, and in her essay “On Writing”. self-published in 1947, she praises her diary for its spontaneity and naturalness:

“It was while writing a Diary that I discovered how to capture the living moments. Keeping a Diary all my life helped me to discover some basic elements essential to the vitality of writing.

When I speak of the relationship between my diary and writing I do not intend to generalize as to the value of keeping a diary, or to advise anyone to do so, but merely to extract from this habit certain discoveries which can be easily transposed to other kinds of writing.

Of these the most important is naturalness and spontaneity. These elements sprung, I observed, from my freedom of selection: in the Diary I only wrote of what interested me genuinely, what I felt most strongly at the moment, and I found this fervor, this enthusiasm produced a vividness which often withered in the formal work. Improvisation, free association, obedience to mood, impulse, bought forth countless images, portraits, descriptions, impressionistic sketches, symphonic experiments, from which I could dip at any time for material.

In the same essay she points to the importance of writing continuously, and the dangerous of perfectionism:

To achieve perfection in writing while retaining naturalness it was important to write a great deal, to write fluently, as the pianist practices the piano, rather than to correct constantly one page until it withers. To write continuously, to try over and over again to capture a certain mood, a certain experience. Intensive correcting may lead to monotony, to working on dead matter, whereas continuing to write and to write until perfection is achieved through repetition is a way to elude this monotony, to avoid performing an autopsy. Sheer playing of scales, practice, repetition — then by the time one is ready to write a story or a novel a great deal of natural distillation and softing has been accomplished.

“I am sick of my own romanticism!”

Another thing I love about Anais Nin is her ability to crystallise her thoughts and feelings so well, and in so few words. She gets to the point. Some writers would need thousands of words to explain why one writes, and they still wouldn’t deliver a wise or interesting definition. Anais lived equally in her words as she did in real life, and, as years went on, she mingled the two; her life and loves became a dream, and her inner life was enriched by real experiences. Her wisdom and intuitiveness, and her understanding of her own moods and emotions comes well in her writing and it gives it beauty.

I have learned, and am learning so much from Anais. Firstly, the already mentioned idea of creating a world of your own. Imagination, dreams and daydreams are just as real as real life, and to cultivate them is to cultivate your inner life. In the world dominated by extroverts, daydreaming is sadly seen as escapism, and not as a gift of transcending reality. Secondly, the importance of emotional experiences, she says “And nothing that we do not discover emotionally will have the power to alter our vision.” I learned a great deal through observing Anais’s reactions to some sad situations in her journals, mostly with love. Detaching yourself from life in moments of despair, and observing the situation rather than being in it, frees your from pain of living it and feeling you are one with it. Out of this detachment arises bliss, and even the situation which would usually cause me pain or sadness can seem trivial and laughable. At the same time, Anais allows herself to experience emotions, but grows from the experience and doesn’t let herself be drowned in the dark oceans of sadness.

Anais inspired me to never leave the blooming fragrant garden of my imagination and seek happiness in the dry barren desert of reality where pains loom on the horizon like tall green cactuses and eagles seek their prey. Sadness is a deceptive shadowy creature, and happiness is like warm golden rays of sun, it touches your for a moment but you cannot possess it fully. Passion, enthusiasm, rapture, Imagination, daydreams, eternal quest for beauty and abundance of love to give; these are some things that are mine entirely, cannot be taken away but grow with me. In a way, writing connects our inner world with the real world. To end, here is another brilliant quote by Anais:

“I am an excitable person who only understands life lyrically, musically, in whom feelings are much stronger as reason. I am so thirsty for the marvelous that only the marvelous has power over me. Anything I can not transform into something marvelous, I let go. Reality doesn’t impress me. I only believe in intoxication, in ecstasy, and when ordinary life shackles me, I escape, one way or another. No more walls.”

Mark Rothko and Langhston Hughes – Subway Face

28 Jan

Today we are going to take a look at one of Mark Rothko’s early works called “Entrance to Subway” which is part of his series about New York City’s subways.

Mark Rothko, Entrance to Subway, 1938

Paintings from Rothko’s subway series don’t really display an outstanding skilfulness, they are not breathtakingly beautiful either, but their mood is striking. Rothko used an everyday urban scene and transformed its simplicity and banality into a psychological portrait of society’s alienation and depersonalisation. The series, painted mainly in the 1930s when Rothko was in his thirties, is filled with thin elongated figures with mask-like faces, tired commuters detached from themselves, their environment and each other; there’s no communication between figures. They seem so mute, apathetic and defeated. One can almost feel the heaviness of silence between them. Instead, they pass the time reading the newspapers or immersed in their own thoughts as they wait for the train, or for Godot? In “Entrance to Subway”, the lost souls of New York City’s wasteland descend into Hades’s underground where tall brown column stretch in a repetitive never-ending row. The urban scenery and the energy of these paintings reminds me of Kirchner’s Berlin street scenes laden with anxiety and frenzy. Still, if Kirchner’s thin figures are about to burst from anxiety and frenzy, then Rothko’s figures are about to melt into a shapeless grey puddle.

Mark Rothko, Subway, 1937

A visual detail to notice here is the dominance of colour over the line. Rothko said that “colors are performers” and indeed, it seems that the figures or the tall columns were made out of single brushstrokes. There is little or no shading and brushstrokes are thick and visible, leaving the edges of colours visible, just as they would be in Rothko’s later works. Although in “Entrance to Subway” the colour palette is rather cheerful with those blues, purples and yellows, in other paintings of the series a murky palette of browns prevails. Rothko had some strong opinions about the importance of colour on a painting. In 1936 he started working on a never finished book which was suppose to explore the similarity between children’s paintings and the art of modern painters which was inspired by primitive art. His thesis was that “the fact that one usually begins with drawing is already academic. We start with color.”

It took a long time and a lot of experimenting and thinking for Rothko to find his own unique artistic path. These paintings are merely the seed of what was to become of his art. As we can see in these early examples of Rothko’s art, it is clear that he always wanted to portray a deeper truth, the tragedy of humanity with spiritual overtones, but he didn’t know quite how to achieve that until he found an artistic path that was entirely his own – colour block painting.

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Woman in Subway Station), 1936

Mark Rothko, untitled, (The Subway), 1937

I feel that there is something so romantic about these ephemeral city experiences. The pointless frenzy over a train that eventually arrives whether you spend time worrying about it or not, the tired faces, the fact that you will probably never see the person that sits opposite you ever again, for better or for worse. Langhston Hughes, a poet of the Harlem-Renaissance took a more cheerful approach to the subject than Rothko and here is his short and beautiful poem called “Subway Face”:

“That I have been looking

For you all my life

Does not matter to you.

You do not know.

 

You never knew.

Nor did I.

Now you take the Harlem train uptown;

I take a local down.”

Frida Kahlo – Love, Flowers, Pain

4 Nov

In 1938 French Surrealist poet André Breton visited Mexico and upon seeing the paintings of the young artist Frida Kahlo he classified them as works of surrealism which is something she herself denied by saying: “I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality.” And indeed, by looking at her paintings and following the events in her life, the parallel is unmistakable. Frida used art as a diary; she used brush and paint instead of a pen and jotted down her feelings, her anguish, her memories, her sense of identity in a similar way that Anais Nin did in her diaries, and Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath did in their poems. Looking at Frida’s paintings inevitably draws us into her inner world because the two are inseparable; the viewer yearns to know more about her life and the meaning behind the symbols and motifs she painted. I see her paintings as poetic scenes, verses in vibrant colours, and although they may seem surreal, they are always sincere and woven with depths of her feelings.

Frida Kahlo With Classic Magenta Rebozo, Nickolas Muray, 1939

“I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.”

Two things that shaped the life and art of Frida Kahlo were her love for a fellow painter Diego Rivera and “the accident”. Love and pain; two sensations so intermingled that the first one can’t possibly live without the other. In her own words: “There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst.” Pain and love followed her like shadows. When she was six years old, she contracted polio and that left her with one leg shorter than the other; she would later hide this defect by wearing man’s clothes or long traditional Mexican gowns. The illness helped to create a strong bond with her father Guillermo who was also of poor health. Although her relationship with her mother was somewhat strained and distanced, Frida loved her father and described him as being tender and understanding. Guillermo was a photographer and not only did he take pictures of his daughter and talked to her about philosophy, nature and literature, but he also encouraged her to practise sport as a way of regaining her health and he inspired her artistic explorations. Little Frida filled notebooks with sketches but never considered art as a profession until “the accident” occurred: on 17 September 1925 she was riding a bus home from school with her boyfriend and the bus collided with a streetcar. A few people died and Frida suffered nearly fatal injuries; she fractured several bones and was confined to bed for three months. Her dreams of being a doctor crashed, and, in solitude, pain and fatigue, She found comfort from solitude, fatigue and pain in painting. An easel was placed specially so that she would paint laying in the bed and she had a mirror so she could see herself.

Frida Kahlo, Frieda and Diego Rivera, 1931

By 1927 Frida’s health was recovered and she reconnected with her old school friends and joined the Mexican Communist Party. An old school friend introduced her to a group of artists and activists who were gathered around the Cuban communist Julio Antonio Mella. On a party held in June 1928 by Mella’s lover Tina Modotti, an Italian-American photographer, Frida met Diego Rivera who was a well-known artist by that time. She had met him once before when he worked on a mural in her school “Escuela National Preparatoria”. Frida wanted to show him her paintings and longed to hear his opinion. Rivera liked what he saw and he encouraged her to pursue career as an artist, stating that her work possessed: “an unusual energy of expression, precise delineation of character, and true severity … They had a fundamental plastic honesty, and an artistic personality of their own … It was obvious to me that this girl was an authentic artist”.

Diego and Frida married on 21 August 1929: she was twenty two years old, he was forty-two. Their love story is one of the most well known in the world of art and the double-portrait above is actually their wedding portrait made by Kahlo. It looks almost grotesque and deliberately exaggerated in proportions, but it presents the truth. Rivera, a tall and over-weight artist and a womaniser with his feet strongly on the ground is shown holding a tiny hand of his petite and fragile artist-wife; his doll, his little girl; his “muñeca”, his “niña”.

Frida painted Diego with a palette and brushes in his right hand, and herself merely as a companion to the artist. Looking at the portrait, one would never guess that this fragile, timid, gentle looking thing in a dark green dress and a long red scarf, looking so small and gentle compared to the robust and grandeurs artist, was actually an artist herself whose fame today exceeds that of her husband. It might be hard to understand what exactly Frida liked about Rivera; his temperament, his physical ugliness, his eyes that easily wandered to other women (including her younger sister), his age, and yet she adored him, worshipped him. She once wrote: Diego era todo: mi niño, mi amor, mi universo.(Diego was my everything: my child, my lover, my universe.) Frida’s parents referred to the union as the “marriage between an elephant and a dove”. Judging by the portrait and the photographs below – they were right.

“I love you more than my own skin and even though you don’t love me the same way, you love me anyways, don’t you? And if you don’t, I’ll always have the hope that you do, and I’m satisfied with that. Love me a little. I adore you.” (Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera)

“Nothing compares to your hands, nothing like the green-gold of your eyes. My body is filled with you for days and days. you are the mirror of the night. the violent flash of lightning. the dampness of the earth. The hollow of your armpits is my shelter. my fingers touch your blood. All my joy is to feel life spring from your flower-fountain that mine keeps to fill all the paths of my nerves which are yours.” (Letter from Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera)

Frida Kahlo, The Two Fridas (Las Dos Fridas), 1939

Frida and Diego’s marriage was turbulent to say the least. In 1939 their divorce was being finalised. It was Diego who wanted a divorce, and Frida was very melancholic and very lonely. To hush the anguish in her heart, she drank alcohol and painted furiously because she resolved never to be financially depended on a man again. This fruitful artistic period resulted in a series of self-portraits. Painting “Two Fridas” was also made around the time they divorced and it is perhaps the most symbolic of that period in her life and her feelings at the moment. It unites the subjects of love and pain, and it’s also a psychological study of her identity and ancestry. It shows just how childlike, deep and sincere her art was because it deals with her feelings directly, without hesitation or tendency towards snobbish avant-garde, her style is at the same time inspired by naive art, and self-invented and her own.

On the left we see the European Frida: dressed in a white Edwardian gown with lace on her bodice and collar, and a living pulsating wounded heart; she has a pair of scissors in her hand. On the right we see the Mexican Frida: dressed in a traditional Tehuana dress; in her hand she’s holding a little portrait of Diego as a child. The European Frida shows her father’s ancestry who was a German Jew. The Mexican Frida shows the culture that Frida embraced and the Frida that Diego loved. The hearts of two Fridas are connected by one artery and the heart of European Frida is aching, bleeding, falling apart, dying. Diego has rejected the European Frida and she is dying. He thought that: “Mexican women who do not wear [Mexican clothing] … are mentally and emotionally dependent on a foreign class to which they wish to belong.” And so Frida loved to emphasise her mestiza ancestry by wearing traditional Mexican peasant dresses, traditional elaborate hairstyles with braids and flowers and adorn herself with jewellery. Her exotic appearance showed quite a sensation when she was in New York in October 1938. Frida’s exoticism in the eyes of western people, her peculiar expressive self portraits with eyebrows that meet and flowers in her hair are things that first come to mind to people when they think about her.

Still, with paintings as personal as these, I feel it is almost a sacrilege to butcher their meanings and make one’s own assumptions of their meaning. Frida said for this particular painting that it represents her and her imaginary childhood friend. It is this emotional and diary-like aspect of her art that appeals to me, but the overall style and colours are not really my taste.

Frida Kahlo, Memory (The Heart), 1937

Painting “Memory (The Heart)”, painted during Diego’s affair with Frida’s younger sister, also shows her pain inflicted by love. Her heart is painted disproportionally large and shown bleeding.

Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait as a Tehuana (Diego in My houghts), 1943

In the painting above, Frida shows us that Diego was always on her mind, literally so – he is tattooed on her forehead! Could it be more direct?

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait, 1940

“I am that clumsy human, always loving, loving, loving. And loving. And never leaving. (Fridas’ diary entry)

Magical Nocturnal World of Federico Beltran Masses

27 Dec

Deep midnight blues, cold and distant femmes fatales entranced by the melodies from afar, silver stars and guitars, hints of Spanish folklore, aloof guitar players with closed eyes, luscious full red lips, shining golden fabrics, nocturnal somnambulist atmosphere; welcome to the magical worlds of Federico Beltran Masses and Federico Lorca.

1925. Federico Beltrán Massés ‘Carnaval’ ca.1925. Federico Beltrán Massés, Carnaval, ca.1925

I think that the visual companion to the magical world that Federico Lorca has created in his poems, particularly those from his poetry collection ‘Gypsy Ballads’ (1928), can be found in paintings of Federico Beltan Masses, not just because they are both Spanish and are named Federico, but because the mood, poetic images, and characters from Lorca’s poetry all found their way in Masses’ paintings. Although Beltran wasn’t officially inspired by Lorca, I feel that their wellspring of inspiration is somewhat similar; it’s deeply rooted in Spanish tradition, and similar motifs occur in their poems/paintings, such as moon, nocturnal atmosphere, guitar. In Lorca’s poetic world, passion is the initiator of everything, and the atmosphere rises to that of immense ecstasy and beauty, somnambulism, enchantment, and the feeling of trance and being utterly lost in time and space.

1920s-federico-beltran-mases-the-venetian-sistersFederico Beltran Mases, The Venetian Sisters, 1920

Lorca’s perception of the word was more sensual and passionate than rational, and his poems are the result of his deep experiences of the life of Spain, its landscapes and its people. He was inspired by tradition, but he leaned to avant-garde, and he is usually associated with Surrealism. As you’ll see further on, his poems are often based on metaphors and symbols, and are very musical and acoustic, because he enjoyed works of Chopin, Debussy and Beethoven, and perhaps subconsciously inter weaved his poems with this charming musicality. Characters in Beltran’s paintings often seem entranced by some melodies that we cannot hear, but are pervading their nocturnal landscapes painted in deep shades of blue that often appears blackish with a few silver stars in the sky.

1934-federico-beltran-masses-tres-para-uno-c-1934-oil-on-canvas-98-x-100-cmFederico Beltran Masses, Tres Para Uno (Three For One), c. 1934

In ‘Tres Para Uno’ a tanned gentleman entertains three ladies with a guitar while the gondolas sway dreamily in midnight water of the silent Venice that sleeps in the background. ‘Three maidens of silver’ with pale, ghostly, almost greyish complexions, shiny sensual red lips and large elongated eyes. Something about their appearance frightens me, especially the woman on the right, with a grey streak in her hair. Beltran modelled her on his wife. All four seem strange, like vampires, wondering through the lonely streets of Venice at night, half-drugged half-mad, searching for a victim to entrance with their dead-cold gazes and melodies from the guitar.

Guitar as a symbol leads me again to Lorca and his poem ‘Riddle of the Guitar’:

At the round

crossroads,

six maidens

dance.

Three of flesh,

three of silver.

The dreams of yesterday search for them,

but they are held embraced

by a Polyphemus of gold.

The guitar!

1920-luisa-casati-federico-beltran-massesLuisa Casati, Federico Beltrán Masses, Luisa Casati, 1920

Beltran Masses loved painting at night, and the story goes that Luisa Casati, a rich and extravagant Italian heiress once turned up in his studio in Venice and demanded that to be painted instantly, he indulged her happily. Nocturnal setting is present in most of his paintings, and this specific dreamy, dark, sensual blue is often called ‘Beltran blue’, because it pervades his canvases. Imagine a world where night would rule, with moon and stars – that would be really magical. Notice the attention Beltran places on details such as the shine of Casati’s dress.

Beltran was popular amongst Hollywood actresses and actors, but his popularity unfortunately waned when the World War II broke out; that’s because that world of glamour, decadence and frivolity disappeared over night. Some have drawn parallels between Beltran and Kees van Dongen; both painted glamorous worlds of rich people, but van Dongen was a Fauvist and his style of painting is more stylised.

1932-passion-by-federico-beltran-masses-1885-1949Federico Beltran Masses (1885–1949), Passion, 1932

Neither Lorca nor Beltran presented the real world in their poems and paintings, but a nocturnal fantasy, led by passions, enchantments, moonwalking, ecstasy… In Passion we can see that famed Venice gracing the background. In all of Beltran’s paintings there’s a sense of escapism, whether through dreams and fantasy, eating exotic fruit, listening to sounds of guitar, surrounded with pretty women, riding a gondola through Venice and daydreaming about elegance and luxury.

And now for the end, Lorca’s guitar again:

The Six Strings

The guitar
makes dreams weep.
The sobbing of lost
souls
escapes through its round
mouth.
And like the tarantula
it spins a large star
to trap the sighs
floating in its black,
wooden water tank.‘ (*)

1920s-pola-negri-and-rudolf-valentino-by-federico-beltran-masses-1885-1949Pola Negri and Rudolf Valentino by Federico Beltran Masses (1885–1949), 1920s

Fashion Icons: BIBA Girl

22 Sep

First day of Autumn – a very appropriate date for the mood of Biba fashion. Still, this is the last post in my fashion icon series. You can read all of them here.

I really hope you enjoyed this collage-journey throughout (mostly) 1960s fashion icons. Who knows, this might not be my last series regarding history of fashion, I do have a cunning idea on my mind, but about that some other time. What do you think? And let me know which one was your favourite fashion icon from this series. Do share your opinions. Although I enjoyed writing about them all, my personal tastes lean towards styles of Marianne Faithfull, Brigitte Bardot, Edie Sedgwick and Anna Karina.

1970s biba lady

This photo is the essence of Biba look (apart from the nudeness) -luscious richly textured pillows in jewel colours of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, fabrics from the East, velvet, heavy perfumes, dark lipsticks, orchids and roses, animal prints – leopard and tiger, hint of 1930s glamour, doll-like make up, black lace, rosy cheeks and floral print evoking Victorian wallpapers – that’s Biba; more than fashion, it is the aesthetic, the mood, the spirit…

And now a few facts. ‘Biba‘ label was started by Barbara Hulanicki, a fashion designer and illustrator born in Warsaw in 1936, who moved to England in 1948 and later studied at Brighton School of Art. The first Biba boutique opened in Abingdon Road, Kensington in September 1964, and its first hit was a brown pinstripe dress. Despite its popularity in times of Swinging London, Biba style couldn’t have been more different to the classic, tailored and structured Mod look worn by Twiggy and The Beatles fans. Barbara’s designs were made specifically for young people, girls in their late teens and early twenties, because, in a typical sixties spirit, she wanted to draw a line between the outfits those girls would wear and the outfits their mothers would.

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Likewise, her store was a place for ‘groovy’ individuals, with loud music and lavishing decadent interior in a boudoir-meets-Art Nouveau-and-Art Deco style. When designing, Barbara drew inspiration from romantic Victorian and Edwardian fashions, as well as the glamour of the 1920s and 30s, particularly when it came to make up, inspiration for which was found in faces of film stars such as Greta Garbo, Louise Brooks, Jean Harlow and Theda Bara. Colours she used were very Autumnal, very much in the Count Dracula-graveyard tea party-Miss Havisham-Ophelia-funeral kind of mood – browns, shiny purples, midnight blues, plum, orchid, mahogany, copper, tobacco, camel, camelia pink, red, amethyst, jade… Dresses themselves were very uncomfortable, made from itchy materials and designed in a way it often made it hard to move your arms! But the sixties gals didn’t really care, as long as they looked like Victorian dolls.

Young girls working there were given a new Biba dress every week, along with their regular pay check, so you can only imagine how cool it must have been working there. Hulanicki described her customers as ‘postwar babies who had been deprived of nourishing protein in childhood and grew up into beautiful skinny people: a designer’s dream. It didn’t take much for them to look outstanding.‘ Biba’s models, such as Maddie Smith and Ingrid Boulting, followed a similar pattern. They were all skinny chicks with doll-like faces; soft round eyes, chubby cheeks, thin eyebrows and beautifully shaped full lips. And the best thing is that Barbara Hulanicki dressed in the same style she created, which I think shows just how passionately she loved the whole aesthetic. She lived her designs, and isn’t that the best advertisement?

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This is the end, dear reader, the end….