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Life Is Elsewhere

THE INCANTATION OF FRIDA K., A Novel By Kate Braverman, Seven Stories Press: 224 pp., $23.95

April 07, 2002|YXTA MAYA MURRAY | Yxta Maya Murray is the author of "Locas," "What It Takes to Get to Vegas" and the forthcoming novel "The Conquest." She is a professor at Loyola Law School.

Mexican painter Frida Kahlo took the messy, wonderful and sometimes horrible stuff that is a woman's life and transformed it into likenesses that are as bracing as ice on a burn. Her self-portraits, painted in the 1930s and 1940s, reveal a hirsute red-lipped woman whose dark and staring eyes accuse the observer of crimes--indifference, complacency and worse. The portraits (and a large portion of her oeuvre was an obsessive excavation of her own image) are hallucinatory and disorienting. Sometimes Kahlo portrays herself as a man, a moody siren, a heartbroken Mary Magdalene; in other works she depicts herself as a victim of physical illness undergoing excruciating treatments in a hospital.

Naturally, Kahlo's reliance on self-portraiture leads us to wonder about the autobiographical foundations for these various incarnations; Kahlo, too, admitted that style and substance merged in her work, when she so famously said: "I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality." And most of us have heard the stories: Didn't she have some sort of horrible disfiguring accident? Didn't her husband, muralist Diego Rivera, treat her like a doormat? Didn't she commit suicide? Didn't she have an exotic love life?

It is easier, actually, to grapple with these facts and rumors than with the art itself. With the art, we're floating at sea; we're confused and exhilarated; we're indicted with felonies we didn't even know we had committed. But when we work with the facts and the rumors, we can reduce Kahlo the great artist into Frida the troubled and bisexual brown girl: Yes, she had a mutilating accident and had polio; she loved women; she loved and hated Diego; she was a drug addict. And once she is so condensed, she isn't that intimidating at all. We could do anything that we wanted with her, now that we see her sick, strange, dejected, dead. And dead exotic female artists usually can't escape being shrunk to fit into shapes that suit the next generations' needs for Tragic Victims of Patriarchy (Sylvia Plath) or Madwomen in the Attic (Virginia Woolf) or Genius Hermit Virgins (Emily Dickinson, though that reputation is being revised).

It was inevitable that current consumers would refashion Kahlo's story. There is the upcoming biopic starring the Mexican actress Salma Hayek, of which I know nothing. My worst fear was that by now I'd be watching some soapy network miniseries starring Meryl Streep in brown face and Antonio Banderas in a fat suit.

Oh, God, now I only wish it were that, after having read Kate Braverman's shockingly bad fictionalized biography of Kahlo, "The Incantation of Frida K."

The novel contains a chaotic rendition of Kahlo's inner monologue as she lies on her deathbed. Braverman, a Los Angeles native who has won acclaim for works such as "Lithium for Medea" and "Palm Latitudes," wastes her gifts of poetry and passion on an incoherent account of Kahlo's marriage, travels, miscarriage and, most prominently, her illness.

That pain and sickness ate up a significant portion of Kahlo's life is well-known. Moreover, though Kahlo gained fame as a portraitist of Latina identity, she also illustrated the desperation and agony that accompany serious injury and disease, and so articulated a part of life that less brave artists might have shut their eyes on. The world of literature could use a similar contribution, but Braverman takes Kahlo's sometimes explicit depictions of disability as a license to devolve into lurid and disjointed accounts of Kahlo's physical disintegration.

There are lengthy and pornographic descriptions of corroding body parts, fungus on skin, infections, pubic infestations--why go on? Moreover, sensational descriptions of disease are used for the archaic purpose of adding an exotic and even mystical element to the narrative: "My toes were decaying in my shoes .... They were having their own autumn. They would curl and fall." "In the corridors, golden moths with metal mouths. They feed in hospitals and depots. They spread infection. They carry cancer. They slip through the mesh."

It is important to note that Kahlo's work, too, was called pornographic, on account of its depictions of disease and violence against women. In the 1944 "The Broken Column," Kahlo paints herself nude, bleeding, pierced with nails and physically ripped open to reveal the shattered obelisk that represents her spine. In 1945's "Without Hope" she vomits a fountain of repulsion while lying in a hospital bed.

These canvases are not pretty things to look at, having none of the simple grace of some of the still lifes and the more pulchritudinous self-portraits. But Kahlo's work avoids being simply shocking and so, in the end, banal because of her excellent craftswomanship: Her renderings are precise, edited, accurate and elegant. Also, she withholds in her paintings. Even at their most graphic, Kahlo maintains her famous reserved expression and so creates a tension in the work between dignity and almost unbearable candor.

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