One of my favorite things about being back on Paros is the chance to work on my container garden. Being surrounded by plants makes me happy and I can’t imagine living without them. Seems Frida Kahlo also felt the need to be surrounded by vegetation.
Recently, there’s been a number of articles surfacing regarding the Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life exhibition at the New York Botantical Garden. The intention of the exhibit is to recreate the atmosphere of Frida’s Casa Azul garden in Coyoacán.
Not only did Frida adorn her dining table with bouquets of zinnias, calla lilies, marigolds and violets as well as wear dahlias in her hair, she also like painting plants in her self-portraits. Her copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was full of pressed flowers from her garden. For Frida, man lived in symbiosis with nature.
When Frida went to the United States with Diego Riviera, she visited Luther Burbank’s home and, although she didn’t have the possibility of meeting him personally, was mesmerized by his botanical experimentation. For one, the idea of cross-pollination and hybridizing were concepts used in her art. Her admiration for him led her to painting his portrait in her own surrealistic style.
In the painting, Luther himself is depicted as a hybrid. He is coming out of a tree whose roots are being fed by his own corpse (the leitmotif of life feeding off of death is common in Frida’s work). Burbank is holding a philodendron, fertility symbol in many ancient Aztec codices.
The Wizard of Horticulture, Burbank magically created a variety of new plants, fruits and vegetables via cross-breeding. His Russet Burbank potato has been extensively used by McDonald’s for their French fries since it’s easy to store and maintains a continuity of taste and texture.
Burbank had a revolutionary approach to horticulture believing that by manipulating nature, crops could yield more. For 20 years, he worked at creating a spineless cactus (c. 1908) in hopes of creating a desert plant that livestock could feed off of. Unfortunately, the cactus created was too delicate to survive desert weather and became his biggest economic failure.
Frida felt she was like a plant and painted a self-portrait entitled Roots (1943) with vines coming out of her body. Fed by Frida’s blood, the vines can then feed the barren earth. Although she was not able to have a child, Frida desired to be a tree of life.
Frida often included depictions of the Bird of Paradise flower (Strelitzia reginae) in her paintings as well as Green Velvet plants (Alocasia frydeks).
There were also a number of statues in Frida’s garden. Many were from Riviera’s pre-Columbian collection whereas others were by the Mexican sculptor, Mardonio Magaña. Riviera was so impressed by Magaña that he wrote his biography.
Gisèle Freund, the French photographer, visited with Frida and Diego taking many photos of Frida in her garden (1951) providing us with much documentation.
The garden was full of a variety of plants including mother-in-law’s tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata), agave, old-man cactus (Cephalocereus senilis), organ pipe cactus, yucca, jacaranda, bougainvillea and swiss cheese (Monstera deliciosa).
Probably the most tragic of all her self-portraits was the last. Entitled Self-Portrait Inside A Sunflower (1954), there is no longer that precision she’d developed when helping her father retouch his photos. Instead, her world has become blurred. Probably due to the painkillers she was on, everything seems approximated and clumsy. Frida stands in front of a lava wall wearing her typical traditional dress. There’s nothing flower like about the petals around her head. It looks more like she’s a bearded lady with a hair dye gone wrong. The eyebrows are the only indication that it’s her. A short time after completing this painting, Frida died. She was only 47 years old.
(This article was originally published HERE.)
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