Discover Frida Kahlo’s Wildly-Illustrated Diary: It Chronicled the Last 10 Years of Her Life, and Then Got Locked Away for Decades

When we admire a famous artist from the past, we may wish to know every­thing about their lives—their pri­vate loves and hates, and the inner worlds to which they gave expres­sion in can­vas­es and sculp­tures. A biog­ra­phy may not be strict­ly nec­es­sary for the appre­ci­a­tion of an artist’s work. Maybe in some cas­es, know­ing too much about an artist can make us see the auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal in every­thing they do. Fri­da Kahlo, on the oth­er hand, ful­ly invit­ed such inter­pre­ta­tion, and made know­ing the facts of her life a neces­si­ty.

She can hard­ly “be accused of hav­ing invent­ed her prob­lems,” writes Deb­o­rah Solomon at The New York Times, yet she invent­ed a new visu­al vocab­u­lary for them, achiev­ing her most­ly posthu­mous fame “by mak­ing her unhap­py face the main sub­ject of her work.”

Her “spe­cial­ty was suffering”—her own—“and she adopt­ed it as an artis­tic theme as con­fi­dent­ly as Mon­dri­an claimed the rec­tan­gle or Rubens the cor­pu­lent nude.” Kahlo treat­ed her life as wor­thy a sub­ject as the respectable mid­dle-class still lifes and aris­to­crat­ic por­traits of the old mas­ters. She trans­fig­ured her­self into a per­son­al lan­guage of sym­bols and sur­re­al motifs.

This means we must peer as close­ly into Kahlo’s life as we are able if we want to ful­ly enter into what Muse­um of Mod­ern Art cura­tor Kirk Varne­doe called “her con­struc­tion of a the­ater of the self.” But we may not feel much clos­er to her after read­ing her wild­ly-illus­trat­ed diary, which she kept for the last ten years of her life, and which was locked away after her death in 1954 and only pub­lished forty years lat­er, with an intro­duc­tion by Mex­i­can nov­el­ist Car­los Fuentes. The diary was then repub­lished by Abrams in a beau­ti­ful hard­cov­er edi­tion that retains Fuentes’ intro­duc­tion.

If you’re look­ing for a his­tor­i­cal chronol­o­gy or straight­for­ward nar­ra­tive, pre­pare for dis­ap­point­ment. It is, writes Kathryn Hugh­es at The Tele­graph, a diary “of a very par­tic­u­lar kind. There are few dates in it, and it has noth­ing to say about events in the exter­nal world—Communist Par­ty meet­ings, appoint­ments at the doctor’s or even trysts with Diego Rivera, the artist whom Kahlo loved so much that she mar­ried him twice. Instead it is full of paint­ings and draw­ings that appear to be dredged from her fer­tile uncon­scious.”

This descrip­tions sug­gests that the diary sub­sti­tutes the image for the word, but this is not so—it is filled with Kahlo’s exper­i­ments with lan­guage: play­ful prose-poems, wit­ty and cryp­tic cap­tions, free-asso­cia­tive hap­py acci­dents. Like the visu­al auto­bi­og­ra­phy of kin­dred spir­it Jean-Michel Basquiat, her pri­vate feel­ings must be inferred from doc­u­ments in which image and word are insep­a­ra­ble. There are “nei­ther star­tling dis­clo­sures,” writes Solomon, “nor the sort of mun­dane, kitchen-sink detail that cap­ti­vates by virtue of its ordi­nar­i­ness.” Rather than expo­si­tion, the diary is filled, as Abrams describes it, with “thoughts, poems, and dreams… along with 70 mes­mer­iz­ing water­col­or illus­tra­tions.”

Kahlo’s diary allows for no “dreamy iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with its sub­ject” notes Solomon, through Insta­gram-wor­thy sum­maries of her din­ners or wardrobe woes. Unlike her many, gush­ing let­ters to Rivera and oth­er lovers, the “irony is that these per­son­al sketch­es are sur­pris­ing­ly imper­son­al.” Or rather, they express the per­son­al in her pre­ferred pri­vate lan­guage, one we must learn to read if we want to under­stand her work. More than any oth­er artist of the time, she turned biog­ra­phy into mythol­o­gy.

Know­ing the bare facts of her life gives us much-need­ed con­text for her images, but ulti­mate­ly we must deal with them on their own terms as well. Rather than explain­ing her paint­ing to us, Kahlo’s diary opens up an entire­ly new world of imagery—one very dif­fer­ent from the con­trolled self-por­trai­ture of her pub­lic body of work—to puz­zle over.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Fri­da Kahlo’s Pas­sion­ate Love Let­ters to Diego Rivera

A Brief Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to the Life and Work of Fri­da Kahlo

Vis­it the Largest Col­lec­tion of Fri­da Kahlo’s Work Ever Assem­bled: 800 Arti­facts from 33 Muse­ums, All Free Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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