Tag Archives: frida kahlo

The Extra Bicycle

28 May

There are three bicycles on my balcony right now.

Normally there are only two – my shiny blue bike, with its giant seat and extra-wide wheels, and Matt’s sturdy green mountain bike. But for the last week or so there’s been another bicycle out there, one with a funky wire basket and a badly-warped frame frame.

This third bike belongs to a mystery woman who was involved in a cycling accident at the foot of the hill that I live on. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I do know that she landed face-first on the pavement, and I know that by the time the paramedics arrived her breathing was shallow and her heart rate uneven.

Her bicycle ended up on my balcony because Matt and Theo happened to be walking by the scene of the accident shortly it happened. Theo is fascinated by and and all emergency vehicles, so the sight of the firetrucks and ambulances was an instant hit with him. Ever since that day, he keeps saying:

“The firefighters took the woman away. The firefighters took the woman to the doctor to make her better.”

For Matt, the scene was a reminder of my own bike accident, which happened almost five years ago. Seeing that woman being strapped onto a stretcher and loaded into the waiting ambulance triggered all kinds of memories for him of my ill-fated tangle with a set of streetcar tracks down at Church and Adelaide. That was why he brought the bike home and left his name and number with the paramedics – because he remembered the kind stranger who had dragged my bike out of the road and locked it up, then given me his business card in case I couldn’t find it when I went to get it back.

I think about that accident fairly often. It’s hard not to, to be honest; the stiffness and occasional ache in my left knee are a constant reminder of the fact that my leg is packed with hardware. And anyway, that crash was a sort of turning point in my life; I’m not going to get all dramatic on you and say that it was a near-death experience or that it changed my view of humanity, but it definitely altered the course that I thought I was on. At the time, I was upset, even angry about that, but now I’m mostly thankful for it, because if I hadn’t fallen and banged up my knee, who knows where I would be now? If I’d kept on going in the direction I was headed in, I probably wouldn’t have Theo, for one thing. For another, who knows if I’d be writing, or teaching yoga? Who knows where I would be at all?

The reason that I happened to be at Church and Adelaide that morning was because I was starting my second week of George Brown’s Sign Language Interpreter program. I was running late, and I probably, almost certainly, wasn’t being as careful as I should have been. I’d always been wary of streetcar tracks, because I knew of other people who had had dangerous interactions with them, but I guess that I let my guard slip a bit that morning. I remember that I had to turn left onto Adelaide and I had to move into the left lane to do that, so I was simultaneously pedalling furiously to make it to the intersection before the light changed while signalling the lane change with my left hand and also looking back over my shoulder, watching out for cars. Just as I was getting ready to turn, I felt the traction change underneath my front tire – it went from rumbling over rough pavement to, for just a moment, skidding sickeningly, uncontrollably over smooth metal. Then with a jolt my front wheel slid neatly into the groove of the track, and I was stuck. At the same time my back wheel jerked forward, causing my bike to jackknife beneath me.

I knew that I was going to fall, but I thought, for some reason, that I could prevent it. I put my left foot down to try to steady myself, but my bike’s momentum was too much. I went down.

I don’t actually have any recollection of falling. I remember realizing that I was screwed, and then I remember lying sprawled on the hot pavement, my bike upended beside me and its wheels spinning pathetically in the air. I don’t think that I blacked out or anything – I’d somehow managed to avoid hitting my (unhelmeted) head – but I guess that whatever I was experiencing in that moment was too much for my brain to handle and it just shut down or somehow blocked it all out.

I remember thinking that I should stay sitting there in the middle of the road, even though cars were zooming around me, because it seemed like the safest place. A crowd had gathered around me soon after I’d crashed, and a few of them had to convince me that it was much smarter to get over to the side of the road. Two people helped me up, and that was when I realized that I couldn’t put any weight on my left leg. It didn’t hurt, exactly, it just didn’t work. So these two people had to half carry me over to the curb, while a third person went and rescued my poor bike (her name was Frida, by the way, as in Frida Kahlo, and she had an elegant if  heavy vintage solid metal frame with a beautiful, now-smashed, wicker basket on the front).

By the time I reached the side of the road I was crying, hard, and hyperventilating. Not because I was hurt or scared, but because it had suddenly hit me that I could maybe, possibly have died. A woman sat beside me and told me to breathe while someone else called an ambulance on their cell. A third person handed me their phone so that I could call Matt. Back then I didn’t have my own cell phone, so I told him that I didn’t know where they were taking me but would call him from the hospital once I got there.

Once I got to the hospital no one, myself included, thought that there was any rush to look at my leg. I was certain that my knee was just sprained or twisted – after all, it barely hurt at first, and I hadn’t even torn my jeans. But by the time Matt got there, my leg was aching something fierce, and he found me huddled up in a wheelchair in the waiting room, crying quietly, trying not to bother anyone with my sobbing.

Eventually, someone called my name, Matt wheeled me through the big metal door, had some x-rays done and then sat for another hour or two on a hospital bed. Finally, a doctor came in and said brusquely,

“Your left tibial plateau is fractured. An orthopaedic surgeon will be coming to discuss the details of your surgery with you. Okay bye!”

I mean, I’m sure it didn’t exactly play out like that, but that was the general feeling of it. The doctor’s routine view of what I’d managed to do to my left knee was miles and miles away from my experience as a person whose life had just been turned upside down by a few brief sentences. Everything suddenly started to sound like it was very grainy and far away, and my vision began to go dark. I had to lie down before I passed out.

The technical details of what happened were this: my left femur, that big, heavy, club-like thigh bone, had, in the course of my accident, slammed into my tibial plateau (the place where the tibia and fibula meet to form the bottom part of the knee joint) hard enough to dent it. Surgery was needed to build the surface of the plateau back up, or else I would almost certainly walk with a limp for the rest of my life. So they took a bone graft from their bone bank, and held it in place with a metal plate and a series of large metal pins.

Why yes, this does mean that I have a dead person’s bone in my body! I kind of hope that it comes from a murderer or a genius or a murderer-genius or some other interesting type of person, but of course you can’t be too picky in these types of situations.

After surgery, I didn’t walk for three months. I went from having a giant, heavy cast to a much lighter, foam-and-plastic brace. When the took the cast off, I’d lost so much muscle mass that my thigh was narrower than my knee joint. It was gross. Oh and speaking of gross, if you ever want to terrify your needle-and-generally-medical-phobic partner, please invite them into the room while your cast is removed and the twenty six enormous metal stitches in your knee are suddenly revealed.

Yeah.

Matt had to leave after that.

Once I was ready to start putting weight on my leg again, I discovered that I’d somehow forgotten how to walk. I went to physiotherapy twice a week and, slowly and painstakingly, re-learned something that I’d mastered at the age of fourteen months. I still walk funny, even now, five years later – my left arch collapses and my entire left leg rolls inward, so that if I’m not thinking about it, I walk with a tiny bit of a limp. A limp, mind you, that becomes much more exaggerated when I’m tired or the weather is bad.

It goes without saying that I had to drop out of school – for the first few weeks after surgery, I could barely get out of bed, let alone go to class. On top of that, I was totally, totally loopy from the drugs I was on. I was so loopy that I read Twilight and thought it was good. No joke.

So I left school and, once I was able to function like a person with two legs again, returned to my nearly-minimum-wage retail job. I started trying to put my life back together and figure out what I wanted to do with myself, but I was at loose ends. I’d written a book the year before, and had had it tentatively accepted by a publisher and an agent, but the summer after my accident both of them ended up rejecting my manuscript. I didn’t know what to do with it, or myself. My life felt totally directionless.

In the summer of 2009 I married Matt, as planned. Eight months later I was suddenly, unexpectedly pregnant. And now, nearly five years after my accident, I have a hilarious toddler and a fantastic partner, I manage a yoga studio, I teach yoga, and I’m sorta, kinda, maybe accepting the fact that I might be a writer.

If I hadn’t fallen, there’s a chance that I would still be in an equally good, equally happy place in my life. But I’m not willing to take that gamble – if given the choice, I would always, always pick the prize on display over whatever’s behind the closed door. A bird in the hand, etc. So I guess that in a weird way I’m kind of thankful that my wheel slid into that streetcar track. I’m thankful that I ended up sprawled out on the ground, and I’m thankful that I smashed my knee up badly enough to need major surgery. Because all of that, every single little aspect of it, lead me to be right where I am.

I also think that falling off my bike was a big part of what helped me learn to love Toronto. I’d only been living here for a little over a year, and so far the city had seemed strange and unfriendly to me. If you’d asked me before my accident what would happen if a Torontonian fell off their bike in the middle of traffic, I would have said that everyone on the street would have gone about their business while that poor unlucky soul got run over. The people at Church and Adelaide that day proved me wrong, though, and since then I’ve learned over and over again that this city can, when necessary, have a heart.

The mystery woman, the woman whose bike is currently taking up real estate on my balcony, called this past weekend. She’d spent three days in the ICU, she said. She’d bled out into her brain and nearly died, she said. She kept thanking Matt for saving her life, and he had to tell her, over and over, that he’d only saved her bike.

She’s home now from the hospital, and her nephew is coming over sometime soon to pick up her bike. I hope she ends up being okay. I hope that someone told her just how many people stopped to help her, how much love and care she got from total strangers. Most of all, though, I hope that however this accident changes her life (as it certainly will) it ends up somehow being for the better.

Me, on crutches, out for brunch with friends

Me, on crutches, out for brunch with friends

Frida

22 Oct

On Friday night, Matt and I went on a For Real Date to see the Frida & Diego exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Frida Kahlo is probably my all-time favourite painter; I have literally been counting down the days until this show opened.

I have friends who know a lot more about galleries and exhibiting art than I do. They make intelligent remarks like, I wasn’t thrilled with how this collection was curated, or, I thought the lighting in the third room really brought an interesting tone to the whole show. I hope you’re not here to read anything like that, because I honestly know very little about how galleries should or shouldn’t display art. On top of that, I’ve been waiting at least ten years to see Frida’s works in person, so the AGO could probably have held the show in a dank basement room lit by a single 60-watt bulb and I would still have been thrilled.

The Frida & Diego exhibit is an assortment of Kahlo and Rivera’s works, often juxtaposed in interesting ways. The first room is filled with paintings from Rivera’s days as an art student in Madrid and Paris; they’re neat because you can clearly see the time he spent dabbling in Realism, Cubism and Post-Impressionism. That being said, although his early paintings are clearly technically very good, for the most part they aren’t terribly interesting or different.

Three of Rivera’s earlier works

The second room is more still more Rivera, and includes a reproduction of one his most famous murals, The Arsenal, starring Frida as a communist bad-ass distributing weapons to the people.

Finally, in the third room, we begin seeing some of Kahlo’s work. I dragged Matt from painting to painting, drinking in the familiar scenes and pointing out details that I was noticing for the first time. I began to look at the dates of the paintings, trying to slot them into the narrative of her life, and in doing so  I was struck me was how young she was. I mean, I’d always known that she’d died young, but for the first time I realized that she’d been painting masterpieces when she was younger than me.

Frida was born in 1907 (although she often gave her birthdate as 1910 in order to coincide with the beginning of the Mexican Revolution), and was the third of four daughters born to Guillermo and Mathilde Kahlo. Frida’s father came from a German-Jewish background, and her mother was of Spanish and Indigenous descent; Frida was fascinated by her parents’ history, and her own mixed heritage would come to play an important part in her art. In 1927, at the age of 20, she already considered herself to be a professional painter. She married Diego Rivera in 1929.

Her seminal painting Henry Ford Hospital, which depicts a bed-ridden Kahlo shortly after a traumatic miscarriage, dates from 1932. I kept looking at it and thinking, she was only 25 when she went through that. She was only 25 when she painted that.

Henry Ford Hospital, 1932

Kahlo’s 1932 miscarriage (which was the second of three that she suffered) was by no means the first time she’d experienced pain or hardship in her life. At the age of six she was stricken with polio and, although she made a near-full recovery, for the rest of life her left leg remained smaller and weaker than the right. Then, at the age of 18,  she was riding a bus that collided with a tram car. She suffered massive injuries, including three breaks in her spinal column, a shattered pelvis and multiple other broken bones. She was also skewered by a steel handrail, which pierced her abdomen and came out her vagina. She later told her family that the handrail took her virginity (totally untrue, by the way).

Her boyfriend at the time, Alejandro Arias, described the scene of accident to Kahlo biographer Hayden Herrera in gory but also hauntingly beautiful terms:

Something strange had happened. Frida was totally nude. The collision had unfastened her clothes. Someone on the bus, probably a house painter, had been carrying a packet of powdered gold. This package broke, and the gold fell all over the bleeding body of Frida. When people saw her they cried, ‘La bailarina, la bailarina!‘ With the gold on her red, bloody body, they thought she was a dancer.” – Hayden Herrera, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo

Frida suffered from the effects of that accident for the rest of her life. She underwent 35 separate surgeries in an attempt to repair the damage. The handrail had gone through her uterus, leaving her unable to carry a baby to term; this was especially heartbreaking, as Frida wanted almost more than anything to have a child with Diego.

Part of the reason that Kahlo wanted to have Rivera’s child is that she thought it would bind them together in a way that marriage on its own couldn’t. Diego was a known womanizer, and continued to sleep with other women even after he married Frida. Deeply hurt by Diego’s infidelity, as well as her own inability to carry a child (which would have been Rivera’s fifth, as he had four others by past wives and mistresses), Frida began to have her own affairs with both men and women. Throughout the rest of her life Frida had dozens of lovers, including, purportedly, Josephine Baker and Leon Trotsky.

The fact that both Frida and Diego had numerous love affairs over the course of their marriage (which lasted from 1929 until 1939, then resumed in 1940 and lasted until Frida’s death in 1954), and the fact that both of them slept with women, makes the AGO’s juxtaposition of the two portraits of Natasha Gelman, one each by Kahlo and Rivera, all the more interesting.

Kahlo’s portrait of Gelman, 1943

Rivera’s portrait of Gelman, 1943

In Kahlo’s portrait, Gelman is unsmiling, even stern, while Rivera’s version of Gelman is languorous and sensual, a small smile playing on her lips. Kahlo’s Gelman seems matriarchal, perhaps even a bit masculine, with a square jaw and intently serious gaze. Rivera’s Gelman, on the other hand, takes on a more traditionally feminine appearance, both in the softness of her face and the curve of her hip and leg. Simply put, Kahlo’s version of Gelman looks like a fucking awesome boss lady, and Rivera’s looks like someone he would want to sleep with.

I’m no expert, but I feel like these two pictures say a lot about how Kahlo and Rivera view women, both in general and as prospective partners.

It was also fascinating to see a selection of works by Kahlo that were inspired by her miscarriages hung alongside a series of paintings by Rivera depicting mothers of young children. I can’t imagine how heartbreakingly difficult it must have been for Frida to know that Diego had children with other women; how at times she must have felt inferior and defective because she could bring another “Little Diego” into the world.

Frida Kahlo – Frida Y El Aborto

Diego Rivera – Maternidad

One of my favourite parts of the exhibit was the room that contained media by other people of Frida and Diego. There were photographs on the walls, and a black and white video of the couple was playing on the large screen. Of all the photographs that were included in this show, my favourites by far were those taken by Nickolas Muray, Frida’s former-lover-turned-good-friend.

Nickolas Muray – Frida In The Dining Area Coyoacan With Cigarette

Nickolas Muray – Frida Kahlo on White Bench

In many of Muray’s pictures, Frida is looking straight into the camera. Her gaze is intimate, disarming; her eyes bore into you, and it seems like she’s just about to speak. In some of the pictures, her mouth is quirked into a half-smile, as if she and the viewer share some kind of inside joke. No one else really understands, her expression tells you, no one but you and I, that is. You feel complicit in something, but you’re not sure what.

The video was just as wonderfully intimate as Muray’s photographs. In it, Frida and Diego are shown at home, in the courtyard of Casa Azul. In their every movement, their every look and touch, their tenderness for each other is evident. At one point Frida reaches out to take Diego’s hand and place it on her cheek; her expression when she feels his palm against her face is like that of a cat sleeping in a puddle of sunlight.

On the whole, the show is wonderful. My only issue with it (aside from the fact that several of my favourite Kahlo pieces are missing) is the subtitle, Passion, Politics and Painting. The advertising done for the show, which includes the slogan, “He painted for the people. She painted to survive.” makes it seem as though the politics were all Diego’s and the passion all Frida’s. Even within the exhibit, there is much attention given to Diego’s political activities, and only a few brief mentions of Frida’s membership in Mexico’s communist party.

To say that Frida wasn’t political is a mistake; she was deeply political, and on a very personal level. The way she dressed was political, as was the way she behaved, not to mention her art. In a time when the Western culture and its concept of beauty was beginning to take over Mexico’s cultural landscape, Frida, in many ways, turned her back on it and embraced her Mexican of her heritage. She traded the European clothing of her childhood for traditional Spanish and Indigenous garb. She refused to alter her unibrow, and, in fact, accentuated it and her mustache in her self-portraits. She was known to be unfaithful to her (equally if not moreso unfaithful) husband, and took women as lovers. Perhaps most importantly, she painted and talked about things that no one had ever publicly discussed before: things like miscarriage, infertility, sexuality, violence against women and infidelity.

In many ways, she started conversations that we’re still having today.

Plus, how can you think someone is not political when they paint this on their own body cast?

Kahlo’s Body Cast with Hammer & Sickle and Fetus

I wish I could explain to you how and why I love Frida so much. I keep starting sentences and then deleting them; all the words I pick seem fumbling and wrong, the emotion either overwrought and clumsy or woefully lacking. Even the things that I’ve already written here seem stilted and lifeless, which is the opposite of what writing about Kahlo’s life should be.

I guess that the best thing that I could say would be this: Frida had a really hard fucking life, but instead of backing down, she took all of her pain and heartache and turned it into something beautiful. She lived and she worked and she loved and she challenged and she pushed and in the end, I think, she won.

***

Frida died of a pulmonary embolism in 1954, at the age of 47. I mean, 47. Fuck. She was so heartbreakingly young. Shortly before her death, she wrote the following in her diary:

I hope the exit is joyful — and I hope never to return — Frida”

I hope that wherever you are now, Frida, you are joyful. I hope that you’re finally free from pain. Most of all, I hope that Diego is there with you.*

Frida and Diego ofrendas

The exhibit closes with a pair of ofrenda depicting Frida and Diego. An ofrenda is a type of Mexican home altar, most often built for el Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead). An ofrenda typically represents a dead family member, and is honoured by the living with traditional offerings of food and flowers. On October 24th, Mexican artist Carlomagno Pedro Martinez will construct an ofrenda in the gallery space; visitors on that day will be given art supplies and encouraged to contribute drawings and words to Martinez’s work. The installation (along with the entire exhibit) will be on display until January 20th, 2013.

*And that he’s, like, hanging out with you and not busy macking on angels or whatever (I am JUST SAYING, okay?)

p.s. In case you weren’t sure how I felt about Frida Kahlo in general, and this exhibit in particular, here is a visual aid for you: