Here in Portland, along with springtime scraps of blue sky, we’ve got a Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican Modernism exhibit at Portland Art Museum. It’s a terrific show and if you’re in town, do go. One of the joys of attending is watching a mural bloom in the lobby.
Another, of course is the gorgeous work of Frida and Diego. I’m hugely enamored of Kahlo’s self-portraits, all of which are honest and unflinching and actually make me a little nervous. I feel intimate with her emotional life when I stand before her work. Of course part of that is what I bring to the viewing, what I know of her life, her physical pain. But it is also that she doesn’t sugar-coat. She doesn’t smile, her eyes aren’t soft, she is intensely present, staring at me as much as I am staring at her.
When I was a teenager, my mother commissioned a local artist to make a portrait, a large pastel, of the two of us sitting on a flowered couch, surrounded by the ferns and philodendrons that populated our late 1970’s home. We sat close together and the artist, Kitty Wallis, did her best to capture the love and vinegar of our relationship. My mother had the portrait framed, and never hung it up. Why? Wallis truthfully depicted our facial hair! We are a Jewish and Italian family and, like Frida Kahlo, our upper lips had fuzz. My mother and I used bleaches and wax to eradicate the unwanted adornment, yet Wallis revealed our embarrassing feature. We hated it! So much so that when my mother ran into Wallis at our local grocery store, she asked, sheepishly, if Wallis would “fix” the portrait. Wallis gave a firm no.
When I left the art museum I called my mom and yes, the portrait is still stashed in the back of her closet. The next time I visit I’m going to bring it home and hang it up. We are no longer mustachioed. (Thanks laser hair removal!) I am a little sad about the torment I felt about my upper lip. God love Frida Kahlo’s take no prisoners expression. I wish it had been a skill of mine.