Frida Kahlo and Retablos

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, dreaming of a unified and independent Mexico,  sustained the Mexican Revolution and thus all things indigenous. They, like many other artists at the time, were highly influenced by educator and philosopher José Vasconcelos as well as painter and filmmaker Adolfo Best Maugard who both encouraged a return to Mexico’s native roots. This was the beginning of “Mexicanism” in the fine arts. Previously Mexicans, colonized by Spain, had a sense of artistic inferiority feeling that anything of cultural worth had to be of European origin.
So with this Mexican Renaissance, Frida and Rivera began collecting Hecho en Mexico. Their collection included folk art, Pre-Columbian artifacts as well as over 1000 retablos many of which are on display today at the Casa Azul. Collecting retablos was made easier for them by the fact that during the Revolution, many churches were closed by the authorities facilitating the appropriation of the retablos inside.

They Collected Retablos

The term retablo comes from retro tabula (“behind the altar”) and, in Spain, refers to the large paintings behind the church altar. However, in Mexico, retablo generally refers to small devotional ex-voto paintings commissioned by someone who wants to give thanks for an answered prayer.
The origin of a retablo is a need. And to resolve this need, one prays for help. If this need is taken care of, thanks must be given. So a retablero, one who paints retablos, is commissioned. The ex-voto painting has 3 basic elements: an icon of the person prayed to, a graphic description of the reason behind the prayer, and an inscription describing and thanking.

Personifications of Devotion

Prayers are generally directed to the Virgin of Guadalupe but sometimes Jesus or anyone of the infinite number of saints is supplicated including St. Lucia, St. Francis, St. Juan Diego and St. Peter of Verona.

Muchas Gracias to Our Lady of Sorrows

Frida found a retablo regarding a trolley car accident that so resembled her own that she decided to retouch it in such a way as to make it seem that the retablo had been made specifically for her. At the bottom she added the inscription: Mr. and Mrs. Guillermo Kahlo and Matilde C. de Kahlo give thanks to Our Lady of Sorrows for saving their daughter Frida from the accident which took place in 1925 on the corner of Cuauhtemotzin and Calzada de Tlalpan.
Many of Frida’s paintings resemble retablos in that they are narrations painted in a naïf style with an element of despair based on real life situations.
When André Breton saw Frida’s work, he called her a surrealist. But he also said that Mexico was the most surrealistic country in the world—relief sculptures of bloodletting Aztecs, Day of the Dead skeletons, martyred saint statues, imaginary animal carvings are all examples of this surrealism.

Wounded

One of Frida’s paintings is based on  a newspaper article about an unfaithful woman who’d been stabbed to death by her husband. The husband defended himself by saying that “it was just a few small nips”. Angered by the violence so frequently inflicted upon women, Frida painted the massacred wife (Unos Cuantos Piquetitos, 1935).

Recuerdo of Dorothy

Dorothy Hale was the wife of a well-to-do portrait painter but when her husband died in a crash, Dorothy was left without means to support herself. She decided to resolve the situation by throwing herself out of a skyscraper window. Dorothy’s friend, Clare Booth Luce, commissioned Frida to do a portrait for Dorothy’s mother. But the result was too hardcore for Luce who, instead of giving it to Dorothy’s mother, kept it hidden for years (The Death of Dorothy Hale, 1939).

Scissors Reflect My Solitude

When Frida discovered her husband was having an affair with her sister, she decided it was time for a divorce. Wearied by womanhood, Frida replaced her Tehuana costumes for a man’s suit, cut her long hair and portrayed herself with scissors in hand and locks of hair scattered all over the floor.  The verse of a song is painted across the top: «See, if I loved you, it was for your hair, now you’re bald, I don’t love you anymore». (Pelona, 1940)

Although there is no longer a market for retableros as in years past, there are artists such as Alfredo Vilchis Roque, Fermín Luna Sanbrano (or Zambrano) and David Mecalco who make paintings in retablo style. And, in the not too distant past, migrant workers from Mexico working in the U.S. also commissioned a number of retablos. Today, instead of commissioning retablos, many people simply leave on the wall of small churches photos with inscriptions of thanks.

Muchas Gracias For Our Refrigerator Full Of Food

Muchas Gracias For Your Divine Intervention That Saved Me From A

Muchas Gracias to St. Sebastian

I, too, have a passion for retablos. Retablos are not only visually delicious, they also represent the concept of gratitude. That’s why years ago I wrote about the Aesthetics of Appreciation and did a series of Cardboard Retablos. Expressing thanks for what we have has many benefits like reshaping our brain.

She Tried Reshaping Her Brain

A smile can automatically lift our spirits as can gratitude because both provoke chemical reactions in our brain. Both increase the production of serotonin and dopamine, the feel good neurotransmitters. Gratitude, then, is like Prozac. Some people take pills. Some people say thanks.
When you start expressing gratitude on a regular basis, negative thoughts are sent to the shadows. Instead of seeing the glass half empty, you see it half full.

Her Glass Was Half Full, His Half Empty

The more you give thanks, the more you realize how much you have to be grateful for. So why not make a retablo!

(Originally posted HERE)

Related links: A Brief History of the Mexican Votive Paintings That Inspired Frida Kahlo

Mal Oo

Copyright © 2015 Cynthia Korzekwa. All Rights Reserved

Frida’s Garden

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.

Frida In Her Garden

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.

She Had Flowers On Her Table

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.

The Hybridization of Luther Burbank

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.

Burbank Liked His Cactus Spineless

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.

Art Gave Frida The Roots She Needed

Frida And Her Monkeys

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.

Frida Had Sculpture In Her Garden

Gisèle Freund, the French photographer, visited with Frida and Diego taking many photos of Frida in her garden (1951) providing us with much documentation.

Her Garden Let Her Grow

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).

She Watched From Behind The Plant

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.

Frida As A Sunflower

(This article was originally published HERE.)

Mal Oo

Copyright © 2015 Cynthia Korzekwa. All Rights Reserved