How to Make Word Soup with Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo, The Wounded Deer, 1946.

This year I’ve presented several workshops on art writing and I always start with The Wounded Deer (1946). I open up PowerPoint and there she is. Frida Kahlo’s head painted on the body of a young stag running through the forest, as nimbly as it can on those tiny, delicate hooves; its torso punctured with not one but nine arrows. In the background, forked yellow lightning splinters the sky—crack.

On 17 September 1925, Kahlo was in that accident, the bus she was on hit a streetcar. Several passengers were killed and Kahlo was pierced by an iron handrail. Her collarbone and back were broken. She became an artist famous for portraying her wounds.

Kahlo painted The Wounded Deer after an operation failed to improve her back pain. Some say the painting expresses her disappointment; others that it represents her difficult love life. (Her husband Diego Rivera famously had an affair with her younger sister. A detail I’ve never gotten over.) One thing is certain, the deer is based on her pet Granizo.

Kahlo has become the unlikely mascot for my art-writing career. Let me backtrack. In the late 1990s, I bought my dad Frida Kahlo’s Mix and Match, a magnetic dress-up set made by The Unemployed Philosopher’s Guild. I probably got it on K Road. It included a cut-out of Kahlo, of course, but also Rivera’s head, an easel, a palette, and the Pope’s hat. It also included a cut-out of Kahlo’s own heart from one of her paintings—presumably she got the details anatomically correct—and a bowl of watermelon that I now recognise is from the last canvas she ever painted, Viva la Vida—meaning long live life.

Watermelon is a popular symbol in Day of the Dead celebrations. When the dead return, they like to feast on their favourite fruit. I like watermelon too. The way the juice runs into the crevices of my hand while I’m seated at my computer, writing an art review. I even swallow the pips.

My PowerPoint about art writing includes a shoddy image of the Mix and Match magnet set. My point is this: only the greats become fridge magnets. And you can move fridge magnets around easily. You can mix and match. Slap a pair of denim shorts on Diego. Put a sombrero on Kahlo’s head. Take Kahlo’s bowl of watermelon and put your own shopping list under it. Even criticism is a weird self portrait.

One of the first exhibitions I ever reviewed was Viva la Vida: Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism at City Gallery Wellington in 2000. I lived in Auckland, so didn’t even see it, but I didn’t let that stop me. ‘Kahlo’s paintings operate as a surreal and often perverse kind of Dear Diary entry’, I wrote.

I remember—proudly—showing dad my published review. He read it in his kitchen, frowned, then said, ‘It’s a bit of a word soup.’ That first arrow hit me right in the neck. Twang! I was sitting near his fridge. Then he went on to call my art writing ‘verbal embroidery’. ‘Verbal embroidery’ isn’t necessarily a criticism, is it? I like to think now that he was subliminally responding to Kahlo’s Self Portrait as Tehuana (1943), in which she wears that elaborate starched ruffled white headdress known in Mexico as a resplandor. Now that’s a great piece of embrodiery!

My poor father, forever remembered for these tiny arrows that pierced me as I ran through the woods of my youth on delicate cloven hooves desperate for his approval. How much has really changed?  

I still like to eat watermelon. I still swallow the pips. A big Kahlo show is on right now at Auckland Art Gallery. I’m in Wellington and have not seen it. I’m forty-seven years old, the same age as Kahlo was when she died in 1954. Her final diary entry read, ‘I hope the exit is joyful and I hope never to return.’ But I moot she never left.

This year, I’ve been Writer in Residence at Victoria University’s Institute of Modern Letters. One day, I was lying in a funk on my office floor. So I picked up The Exercise Book, published by Victoria University Press, and did a creative writing exercise called ‘Opening the Door’ by author Hinemoana Baker. The exercise is a visualisation. You imagine a knock at the door, then open it to reveal someone—famous, fictional, or otherwise—who wants to help unblock your creativity. I lay on the floor and heard the knock. I opened the door and Kahlo stepped inside. ‘Paint a self portrait using the third eye’, she told me.

After she left, I googled: What is the third eye?

Originally published for my Art News New Zealand column, The Listening Room, issue Spring 2022.