Archive for Frida Kahlo

Venetian Red Bookshelf: Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

Posted in Artists Speak, Book Review, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Music & Dance with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 18, 2013 by Liz Hager

© Liz Hager, 2013. All Rights Reserved

Recollect that only when habits of order are formed can we advance to really interesting fields of action—and consequently accumulate grain on grain of wilful choice like a very miser—never forgetting how one link dropped undoes indefinite number.   —William James

I wish I had a routine for writing. I get up in the morning and I go out to my studio and write. And then I tear it up! That’s the routine really. And then, occasionally, something sticks. The only image I can think of is a man walking around with an iron rod in his hand during a lightning storm.   —Arthur Miller

Always struggling to create working discipline in my creative life, I snatched up Mason Curry’s Daily Rituals, hoping to glean a few actionable tidbits this compilation of anecdotes on the working habits of 161 writers, musicians and artists, from Voltaire to Abramović.  Culled from Curry’s blog of the name, the book is a fast and entertaining read.  Though I wasn’t struck by proverbial lightening bolts while reading, after digesting the book I did formulate one hugely-important overriding maxim for myself.  More about that below.

A disclaimer in the book’s introduction sets a modest stage:

“…this is a superficial book… it’s about the circumstances of creative activity, not the product; it deals with manufacturing rather than meaning.”

I suspect the book has been wildly popular precisely because it looks behind the curtain, so to speak, of the creative process.  Not exactly a “how to” book, Daily Rituals is nevertheless instructive.  In the introduction Curry purports to address (if not answer) the big hairy questions we all ponder:

How do you do meaningful creative work while also earning a living?

Is it better to devote yourself wholly to a project or to set aside a small portion of each day?

When there doesn’t seem to be enough time for all you hope to accomplish, must you give some things up or can you learn to condense activities, to work “smarter”?

Are comfort and creativity incompatible? Or is finding a basic level of daily comfort a prerequisite for sustained creative work?


Vladimir Nabokov
©Yousuf Karsh

The book is not organized around these questions (in fact, an organizing principle was not obvious to me), and leaves the reader to his or her own conclusions. Helpful patterns do emerge, however:

Wake Up.  Creatives rise around the clock.  At one end, rose Proust typically did not get up until 3 or 4 in the afternoon; on the other end,
Balzac rose at 1am.

Work Routine. This category too yielded no regularity.  As a visual artist, I was astonished (jealous?) to discover how few hours most of the writers purport to work day, usually just a few hours before noon. Many set word limits for themselves and then, working day completed, went on to the other parts of their lives. (To be fair, many writers held/hold down paying jobs—Trollope, Cornell, Eliot, Joyce.) Some, like Simon de Beauvoir did, work in two shifts, adding an after dinner session to the morning routine. Philip Roth reports all-day work. Conversely, Gertrude Stein habitually wrote only 30 minutes a day. Descartes believed idleness was essential to good mental work.  Henry Miller had to switch routines midway through life, realizing that he was a morning person. Francis Bacon’s routine was chaos. One look at his studio, faithfully reproduced in The Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin, tells you all you need to know.

Bed. A big part of the routine, especially for writers… Proust wrote exclusively in bed, his head propped up by two pillows. Truman Capote always wrote “horizontally.” I particularly relish the image conjured up by James Joyce’s sister of the writer in bed”smothered in his own thoughts.”

Cecil Beaton, Dame Edith Sitwell, 1962 Bromide Print on card mount Courtesy National Gallery

Cecil Beaton, Dame Edith Sitwell, 1962
Bromide print on card mount
Courtesy National Gallery

Edith Sitwell, who was reputed to have slept in a coffin from time to time (one would have thought that would be Anne Rice’s territory…), also enjoyed her bed.  “All women should have a day a week in bed,”  she quipped. At the end of one particularly long day working in bed, she observed:  “I am honestly so tired that all I can do is lie on my bed with my mouth open.”

Although Frida Kahlo is not included in this book, one is reminded of her lengthy and involuntary stays in bed. So driven to work, she rigged ingenious set ups , which allowed her to paint while nearly immobilized.

Food. For breakfast, coffee or tea, toast and, more often than not, cigarettes. It seems that hardly anyone in the book skipped breakfast or at least the first meal of the day. (Possibly the advice imparted by a recent graduation speaker—”Never start something new on an empty stomach”—is already common wisdom among creatives.)  Lunch and dinner are also recorded, mostly as social events with family or friends.

Stimulants. Daily Rituals offers irrefutable confirmation that creatives consume copious amounts of alcohol, occasionally while working. (Or used to, at any rate. Maybe that has all changed in today’s health-conscious world.)  Francis Bacon was legendary, living a life of “hedonistic excess, eating many rich meals a day, drinking tremendous quantities of alcohol, taking whatever stimulants were handy, and generally staying out later and partying harder than any of his contemporaries.”

John Deakin, Francis Bacon. 1962

John Deakin Francis Bacon,1962
© The Estate of John Deakin

Patricia Highsmithalways downed a stiff drink before starting work, in order to calm her manic energy level. Toulouse-Lautrec was well-known for his nights of binge drinking. That routine probably cost him his life—he died at 36.

Smoking. Many many cigarettes of course, but also cigars (Georges Sand famously; Thomas Mann, continuously), and some pipes.  Bathus had a most evocative description of the uses of smoking:

“I’ve always painted while smoking. I am reminded of this habit in photographs from my youth. I intuitively understood that smoking double my faculty of concentration, allowing me to be entirely within a canvas.”

Other habits & diversions:  Creative people spend lots and lots of walking. (A body in motion is a powerful ideation tool.) And working at regular income jobs. On the subject of breaks, composer John Adams sensibly says: “The problem is that you do get run out of creative energy and sometimes you want to take a mental break.”

And indulge in your guilty pleasures! PG Wodehouse reportedly never missed an episode of “The Edge of Night” afternoon soap opera.

Henri Matisse at work Photograph © Alvin Langdon Coburn, courtesy Getty Images

Henri Matisse at work
© Alvin Langdon Coburn, courtesy Getty Images

On the pain and joy of the craft. Writers compete for superlatives on the distress of working. Philip Roth: “Writing isn’t hard work, it’s a nightmare.”  Styron similarly complains: “Let’s face it, writing is hell.” Ira Gershwin observed of his brother, George: “To me George was a little sad all the time because he had this compulsion to work. He never relaxed.”

On the other hand, joyful work be yours, if you happen to be a creative Gustave. The Austrian Mahler:  “You know that all I desire and demand of life is to feel an urge to work!” The French Flaubert quipped: ” After all, work is still the best way of escaping from life!”

Among visual artists, Matisse was perhaps the most relentless worker, even telling “all sorts of tales” to get his models to work on Sundays.  “I can’t sacrifice my Sundays for them just because they have boyfriends.” Matisse had the great fortune to basically enjoy everything. “I am never bored,” he often admitted.

Chuck Close, Self Portrait,  2006

Chuck Close, Self Portrait, 2006

I’m not sure Daily Rituals provides overt answers to the big questions Curry poses at the onset.  In the aggregate, its overwhelming message is that creative work, like all work, is often just relentless grind.  One has to find the ways to muscle through. On a personal note, I try to live by Chuck Close’s well-known adage: ” Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” Amidst our creative toil, who among us has not at times felt Kafka’s lament: “Time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant straightforward life is not possible then one must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers.”

If the 161 anecdotes in Daily Rituals offer any collective wisdom, it is that there is no one way to achieve regular production.  That’s permission to engage in whatever habits work best for one’s own creative process, as long as the habit is regular.  In a 2005 NY Times article, Michael Kimmelman noted: “Out of routine comes inspiration. That’s the idea, anyway. To grasp what’s exceptional, you first have to know what’s routine.”

Find a process and trust it.

The Rabbit Hole

Twyla Tharpe—The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life
More Artist Routines—How We Work
John Deakin: Photographs
Eric Fishl—Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas
NY Foundation for the Arts—”Ten Habits of Successful Artists

Frida Kahlo: What the Water Gave Her

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , on December 10, 2008 by Liz Hager


Painting was a part of Frida Kahlo’s battle for life. It was also very much a part of her self-creation; in her art, as in her life, a theatrical self-presentation was a means to control her world.

—Hayden Herrera, Frida: The Biography of Frida Kahlo, 1983


Frida Kahlo, What I Saw in the Water or What the Water Gave Me, 1938, oil on canvas, 91×70.5 cm. (Paris, Daniel Filipacchi collection)

As of this writing Venetian Red readers have anointed Cult Offering the site’s top post. With that in mind, we delve again into the work of Frida Kahlo.

What I Saw in the Water wasn’t part of the SF MOMA show, but it should have been (although perhaps they wanted it and couldn’t secure it). The painting is one of Kahlo’s most visionary and disturbing;  the sophisticated water fantasy provides the vehicle for a densely-packed portrayal of the artist’s subconscious. It’s almost as if she crammed her entire life into this bathtub scene.  Kahlo returned to the same symbols over and over; many of the items included here can be seen in her other paintings, some without much alteration.

The bathtub environment equates to the womb, which was for the artist a source of both pleasure (, release) and pain. (Frida deeply lamented her inability to bear children). In the years 1937-38, Kahlo’s paintings show a thematic preoccupation with motherhood; this shows up pointedly in examples such as My Doll & I, as well as Girl with a Death Mask.  In “What I Saw in the Water” the painter’s toes emerge from the water pointing up, but also, through the device of reflection, pointing back at the “events” of her life. Her legs are nearly invisible beneath the water, and the clarity of the reflection links it visually to the actual toes. The theme of physical deformity introduced. Moreover, the right foot shows a bleeding sore between the deformed big and second toe. This defect typically accompanies spina bifida, a congenital deformity, which results from incomplete closure of neural tube and a partially unfused spinal cord. Kahlo suffered from the condition, although it wasn’t properly diagnosed until her visit to San Francisco in 1930. It, together with polio and the 1925 streetcar accident, was the root cause of Kahlo’s lifelong battle with neuropathic pain.  In front of the volcano, the small portrait Frida Kahlo’s parents (almost as they appear in My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree) allude to the condition—after all, they have passed along this disease to her.  The skyscraper, which extrudes itself from the volcano, while superficially phallic (i.e. passion), also references the straight column of a normal spine, the “well” self that eluded Kahlo during her life.

Kahlo uses the two nude figures on the bed in front of the volcano later in Two Nudes in the Wood or The Earth or My Nurse and I . In the context of that painting, they are generally considered a reference of her bi-sexuality, although the different skin colors typically were used by the artist to symbolize her dual heritage—European and native Indian.

Traditional dresses (not quite tehuanas) similar to the one floating in the foreground of the painting appear in earlier works (Memory of the Heart, 1937) and as a lonely Doppelgänger for Frida in the 1933 “My Dress is Hanging There or New York.”  In “Water” too, the dress must be symbolic of Frida, here a ghostly presence, half submerged, weighed down by a lack of self-confidence.

And where in the painting is Diego, the source of both her passion and pain? There is no portrait representation of him, and yet we know that the man Kahlo referred to as “my child, my lover, my universe” must be here, if only a subliminal presence.  This painting was executed during a time that she and Diego were experiencing marital problems (they would divorce briefly in 1940); moreover it was sandwiched between her affairs with Leon Trotsky and photographer Nikolas Muray. Passion must certainly have been in the forefront of her mind.  Beginning in 1937, flowers and fruits appear in her work—obvious sexual symbols, though when sliced open, they become a reference to her mutilated body. Perhaps the shell shot full of holes in the midground is Diego’s stand-in. Kahlo often used shells to symbolize male and female elements—ultimately Diego and herself.

A finally, the spewing volcano, although perhaps an allusion to Kahlo’s Mexican heritage, could be equated to the act of suppressing her feelings about her body, her relationship to Diego, her self-worth. Inevitably that volcano erupts.

Wider Connections

Hayden Herrera—Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo

Salomon Grimberg—I Will Never Forget You: Frida Kahlo and Nickolas Muray

PBS—Life & Times of Frida Kahlo

Daniel Filipacchi

Guggenheim Museum Publications—Surrealism: Two Private Eyes, the Nesuhi Ertegun and Daniel Filipacchi Collections

“St. Frida” —Look Down!: IWP, SF#2

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Graffiti with tags , , on July 31, 2008 by Liz Hager

©2008 Liz Hager

Date: July 31, 2008

Time: 1:30pm

Location: Valencia between 20th & 21st, WEST sidewalk

“Indispensable Wisdom on the Pavement”: 6 little icons all in a row, close enough to the store front to avoid pedestrian traffic, reminding us that it is sacrilegious to trample an icon.

Cult Offering: Frida Kahlo at SF MOMA

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , on July 24, 2008 by Liz Hager


Frida Kahlo, Moses, 1945,
oil on board, 61×75.6cm
(© Diego Rivera & Frida Kalho Museums Trust).

A friend asked me this morning whether she should go to the Frida Kahlo show at SFMOMA.  At first, I was sorely tempted to advise her—DON’T BOTHER. Even with tickets, the very first room was impossibly crowded. Moreover, it was brimming with hoards of people strapped into their self-guide cassette players, moving sluggishly, as they tend to do, in a crowd, effectively creating huge barrier zones in front of the paintings. My usual strategy of moving on and circling back did not work; there were throngs around every painting in that room. I even encountered more than one mother attempting to manouever baby strollers through the crowd. (Who thought those would be a good thing to allow in a popular show?) Viewing any of the paintings would be a challenging, if not fruitless, effort.

In that first room,  I was all set to walk out of the show in utter frustration. Admittedly, I’ve had the good fortune to have seen much of Kahlo’s work previously in various places (Casa Azul, Dolores Olmedo and Tate Modern’s 2005 show), so my tolerance for overcrowding in this case was extremely low.  Still, I pressed on and was rewarded with a few charming little pieces I hadn’t seen before in the less crowded rooms beyond.

By the last room, my disgust melted into reflection.  Amidst the continuing evidence of mass popularity, I wondered what it was that continued to draw the masses. Was it really the art? After all, other galleries in the Museum were empty.  I began to reassess my relationship to Kahlo’s work. With the Frida image resolutely placed in our mass-communicated consciousness through kitschy magnets sporting images of her paintings, iconic t-shirts and even dress-up paper dolls, I had to ask myself whether the work itself held up. Was it still providing me with new and relevant insights?

Frida Kahlo didn’t hit the US radar screen until the 1978 SF show, 24 years after she died.  Certainly as a dead female artist,  “launched” during the height of the Woman’s Movement, she was bound to attract attention.  In addition, the personal narrative told through her work—the triumph of the human spirit over inconceivable pain—had universal appeal.  Add to that unfailing human Schadenfreude—physical and emotional misery is relentlessly on display in Kahlo’s oeuvre to a degree quite unlike any other artist—and you may have the basic fuel that propelled Kahlo into cultdom (dare I suggest secular martyrdom?) But what is keeping her there?

As a gringa outsider, it was the very deliberate amalgamation of references to her country’s pre-Columbian and art traditions (retablo, ex-votos) that sucked me in—Frida as the product of noble and not so primitive cultures; Frida as embodiment of simple peasantry; Frida as beloved Virgen de Guadalupe, national symbol of Mexican-ness.  She opened up a whole new world of culture that I am still mining. Further, I always found her subject matter more easily accessible than the European surrealists. Also, to me the naïveté of her folk-art style was an antidote to the often overbearing style and relentless march of socialism on display in the work of her countrymen, Rivera and the other muralists.

At the SF MOMA show, however,  I found myself disturbingly and inexplicably disengaged from the auto-iconic nature of the work. Seeing the same version of her in every painting became hypnotic after a while. I stopped really seeing the details.  For the first time, I had a nagging thought that an oeuvre comprised solely of self portraits from anyone less famous would be labeled narrow and self-indulgent. Was I reluctant to face that Frida’s work had passed from the realm of high art to mass iconography and I wasn’t a member of the cult?

With time, I expect that Kahlo’s work will become something like an old, undemanding friend to me. Though the intense emotional relationship has faded and we don’t see much of each other, we still have history together, and that counts for something.

Wider Connections

Venetian Red: “What the Water Gave Her”

Denise Rosenzweig—Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress: The Fashion of Frida Kahlo

Heyden Herrera—Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo

Helga Prignitz-Poda—Frida Kahlo Retrospective

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