Visiting Vienna, a change of routine and a change of temperature. Saturday morning, and a meeting with Frida Kahlo.

My first encounter was in 1977 and it was accidental. At that time I was actively involved with mural painting and researching the work of the Mexican Mural Renaissance, my immediate interest being the work of Siqueiros, Orozco and Rivera, the name Kahlo appearing in the text only because of her involvement with the latter. Black and white photographs of the large framed Diego often included the figure of a short, ethnically dressed woman with one eyebrow standing in his shadow. Her name and work at that time was largely unknown but it’s a very different story now, everybody wants to know her, their roles have reversed. Kahlo’s star has risen, and her fragile crippled frame and reputation now casts its shadow over him.

The queue of visitors waiting patiently to enter the Bank Austria Kunstforum was evidence of this, it stretched 200 metres along the Freyung. Thankfully Maria and Benni had the foresight to pre-book our tickets, however the sight of this conga line forewarned us of what to expect once we entered the building. The hustle and bustle was not the ideal conditions to view the exhibition, in my head the voice of an ’80’s Sting summed it up – ‘Don’t stand/Don’t stand/Don’t stand so close to me’. A large degree of patience was needed in this rugby scrum, blockbuster exhibitions can attract the most inconsiderate people. The experience of close contact with the work on the walls however was reward enough for our perseverance.

Kahlo battled continuously against adversity throughout her life, and for that alone she is an inspiration. The series of self portraits by Rembrandt reveal a life from confident aspiring young man to reflective old age and the Kahlo portraits illustrate a similar narrative, that of a determined survivor, and when the opportunity arises to view a collection gathered together, it must be grasped. Exhibited in these rooms were the influences and incidents of a colourful and eventful life, which ignited and bore fruit; naive votive images, psychological scribbles, the traditions of ancient civilisations, political upheaval; sieved, shaken, stirred and blended to create her unique Kahlo character cocktail.

Amongst this retrospective of powerful and remarkable images, one piece leapt from the wall and hit me. A simple drawing, which amongst such attention demanding neighbours was quiet and unassuming, but to me it spoke volumes – and it probably took no longer than 5 very intense minutes to create. Lines quickly, roughly and freely drawn, erased, corrected and drawn again. Again, and again. Her final self portrait (‘with Dove and Lemniscate’ 1954). Her life was soon to end and this image was filled with a lifetime of frustration. The searching lines sang a song of despair. Despite familiarity with the subject the process of recording her own image was as big a struggle as it had always been. Alongside she had included a poem, La Paloma by Rafael Alberti.

LA PALOMA / THE DOVE

Se equivocó la paloma. / The dove was mistaken.
Se equivocaba. / She was mistaken.

Por ir al norte fue al sur. / Instead of north, she headed south.
Creyó que el trigo era agua. / She mistook wheat for water.
Se equivocaba. / She was mistaken.

Creyó que el mar era el cielo; / She mistook the sea for the sky;
Que la noche, la mañana. / the night for the morning.
Se equivocaba. / She was mistaken.

Que las estrellas, rocío; / That stars were dew,
Que la calor, la nevada / that warmth was snow.
Se equivocaba. / She was mistaken.

Que tu falda era tu blusa; / That your skirt was your blouse;
Que tu corazón, su casa. / that your heart was her home.
Se equivocaba. / She was mistaken.

(Ella se durmió en la orilla. / (She fell asleep on the shore.
Tú, en la cumbre de una rama.) / And you, on top of a bough.)

Rafael Alberti.

Although she had drawn the reflection in the mirror innumerable times, she never resorted to a formula. Each one was a challenge, success never guaranteed. Photographs suggest she was confident and assured but for me this drawing revealed that she was as human and fallible as the rest of us, and that image making was still a struggle regardless of the years of experience. I felt a connection with her as though she had reached out and poked me in the eye. At that moment………….I knew exactly how she felt.