A Visit From The Other Side: Max Blagg Imagines A Conversation With Frida Kahlo
While briefly employed as maitre d’ at a very cool Mexican restaurant in downtown Manhattan a few years ago, a secret of that funky location was revealed to me. A door to the past is concealed inside one of the buckets that hang from the ceiling in the basement brasserie.
The buckets are merely ornamental, now that the holes in the sidewalk above have been fixed, but the door still opens from time to time to admit a traveller from the other side. Last week, when I dropped by for a platter of their immaculate tacos, the joint was honoured by the ghostly presence of one of Mexico’s greatest artists, Ms Frida Kahlo, who had stopped in on her way to call on Isamu Noguchi, another shade still haunting his old studio in Long Island City.
“Oye, mi pinche pata de palo!” were the first words from this eccentrically dressed woman’s mouth, a mouth enhanced by a very fine moustache, which matched the monobrow running above her piercing dark brown eyes. A spider monkey perched on her shoulder. (We also suspect there may have been another monkey on her back, from the way she was popping what looked like Percocets, though they might have been Tic Tacs. Dios mio, the woman is surely entitled to a pill or two after 35 operations, several of them on her polio- damaged right leg, which is concealed tonight by the beautifully embroidered Tehuana dress she is wearing.)
The gods decided that polio wasn’t punishment enough – as a teenager she was in a horrendous bus accident in which her lower body was impaled by a metal handrail. Yet Kahlo persisted in a lifelong search for outrage, art and beauty that continues long after death. In that elegant outfit and the custom-made boots with one heel 3in higher than the other, she fit right in with this boisterous Manhattan lot. I joined her at a corner table where she was scrutinising the madhouse crowd. I discreetly taped our chat, but the Olympus was silent when I played it back. Here is what I remember of our conversation.
FRIDA KAHLO: “[Smoothing her moustache.] Who is that man over there? I thought it was André Breton for a moment with the beret like that. If it was Breton you could smell him – he has the worst body odour! The French, they don’t wash as often as we do.”
MAX BLAGG: “That fellow must be special, because men wearing berets are not usually admitted here. Perhaps there’s a revival going on in Bushwick that I don’t know about. André Breton adored you, Frida – talked you up everywhere, said your work was ‘a bomb tied with a silk ribbon’.”
FK: “Yes, all very nice, but he wanted always the sex! And he tried to link me up with the surrealist group, and I am not a surrealist – surrealism seems to me a manifestation of bourgeois art. Besides, it was his wife Jacqueline who I loved. She was truly LHOOQ, not smelly André and his intellectual crew. In the catalogue for my first New York show they printed his text only in French. Imagine! Who do you think even bothered to read it?”
MB: “I’m sure all the scholars are still parsing his brilliant observations, retailed in lingo so obscure only a fellow academic could translate. But let’s not talk about art when you have such a throbbing sexual history. First, let me order some food – do ghosts have a sense of smell?”
FK: “All of my senses are quite intact, just that some of them are of no use. One of my favourite dishes was squash blossoms in a quesadilla – can your chef make that?”
MB: “Chef Fabian can make anything, and he adores you, Frida. You’ll think you’re back in the blue house in Coyoacan. And will you have something to drink?”
FK: “Yes, fill this up with some fine tequila [Frida removes one red leather boot with tiny bells attached and hands it, tinkling, to the astonished server.].”
SERVER: “Si, senorita! I will fill this vessel with Milagro Reposado.”
FK: “Si, bring una copiosa! I used to drink to drown my sorrows, but now they have learned to swim.”
MB: “You are such a poet [Kisses her crippled foot.]. You might also be described as the original selfie taker – so much of your work is self-portraits, and unlike so many current selfies, not all of them show you in a flattering light.”
FK: “Yes, I have always painted what I see, what is happening in my life.”
MB: “A divinely wild life, of which we highly approve. Especially considering the horrific accident when you were still a young girl, and the endless series of operations. And what you called your ‘other accident’, your husband, Diego Rivera, all 300lb of him. I hope you don’t find this question inappropriate, but the first thing my editor asked me to ask you – was the schlong really that long?”
FK: “Mierda! So rude! I like that! It was obviously his genius that drew me to him when I was still a schoolgirl. I knew right away that I would marry him, even though all my friends laughed at me. The schlong, as you call it, was a nice bonus, when I finally arrived in his bed years after my adolescent crush. Obviously, he was the love of my life, but physically what I loved most was his big, round belly, not to mention his armpits, his eyes, his smell… ”
MB: “Both of you certainly had powerful sexual appetites. You even had an affair with Leon Trotsky after you gave him and his wife refuge in your own beautiful house. Meanwhile, Diego was sleeping with your sister.”
FK: “We were serious about the revolution! But life interferes with the purity of the cause. And Cristina was beguiled by Diego, it’s true. Alas, poor Trotsky, I knew him well. He was crazy about me, but if you saw his wife, you would know why. And I called him El Viejo for a reason! His Dutch secretary was much younger, so I slept with him, too, just for fun.”
MB: “But Diego’s constant infidelity caused some serious liaisons of your own – the photographer Nickolas Muray, for example.”
FK: “Nickolas was a great comfort to me when Diego was out sleeping with anything that moved. The ‘big frog’ – we called him that to his face, and indeed Diego did sometimes resemble an enormous frog standing on his hind legs, eyes bugging out as he recited to me his list of Hollywood girlfriends. The actresses especially made me so mad – so physically perfect, so brainless! Paulette Goddard – that bitch moved in right across the street from Diego and thought I wouldn’t notice. Chinga!”
MB: “Diego rarely complained about your female hook-ups, of which there were enough to qualify you as a very busy bisexual. And yet your male admirers drove him crazy. Noguchi, for example.”
FK: “Isamu was a beautiful man, and what soft skin! I think it was from all the seaweed he ate. Diego almost caught him in my bed. Isamu escaped over the rooftops. Diego threatened to kill him more than once. Probably because he respected Noguchi so much as an artist.”
MB: “Noguchi was also close to Dorothy Hale, the society belle whose suicide you so terrifyingly memorialised for Clare Boothe Luce, the wealthy American collector. La Luce expected a recuerdo and got a retablo, which showed in graphic detail Miss Hale’s suicide – she jumped from a tall building. You even painted blood on the frame!”
FK: “She never took the painting out of the packing case and finally gave it away. And now it’s one of my most famous paintings that’s not a selfie! She asked Noguchi to paint out the dedication from me to Señora Luce. At least she didn’t burn it as she had threatened to do. A cultural misunderstanding, really. She didn’t know the Mexican tradition of ex votos, which tend to show details of the person’s passing.”
MB: “While we are on the subject of people who just don’t get it, we’d like to solicit your opinion of this man Trump, accidentally elevated to the status of president of the USA. Among a multitude of heinous ideas, he wants to build a wall between Gringoland and Mexico and send back 11 million hard-working immigrants.”
FK: “Que pendejo! How could anyone want this guy to be their presidente? He has no love in him, this one, he is as cold as an iguana. And that fat neck, the mottled skin – that’s how I would paint him if I did his portrait, a big ugly iguana with tiny paws. But I don’t waste paint on such cabrones, so it’s not even a question. Although I liked that photo of him with the pope – that would make a good painting, the gringo grinning like an ape and el papa looking like he was about to explode. I never saw the Holy Father so angry. Now, donde esta mi bota? Is it empty already? I have to leave you now and roll on to Isamu in LIC before the night’s too old. And I will be back in Coyoacan by morning, wrapped around Diego’s marvellous belly. Hasta la vista, todos!”
And with a rustle of skirts and the delicate tinkling of the bells on her red leather boot, the fabulous creature was gone. The bucket on the ceiling trembled slightly, then came to rest again.
Text by Max Blagg
Illustration by Stephen Doherty
Taken from the latest issue of 10 Magazine, REBEL HEART, on newsstands now…