The pumpkin vines are dying back, exposing a landscape of garrulous orange. I’m glad we have enough carving pumpkins for all our CSA members this year; I feel like a failure when we can’t give every family at least one. John’s not sure jack o’ lanterns are the best use of field space but he humors those of us who need to carve a pumpkin at the end of October.
They’re more than decorative, I tell him. It’s the ritual that’s important, one that marks the end of the season and is rooted in ancient folk traditions celebrating the last days of harvest before the coming winter. Besides, I tease, we have to grow pumpkins because we don’t grow turnips big enough to carve like they did in medieval Europe.
Last night we watched the PBS documentary The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo and I’m trying to figure out why I’m so attracted to Kahlo as an artist and woman. With the publication of several books on her life, including Barbara Kingsolver’s recent novel The Lacuna, and a popular film produced by and starring Selma Hayek, Kahlo has become an icon of feminist self-expression, female sexual liberation, and heroic achievement amidst physical suffering. Her likeness and paintings are found on everything from key chains to matchboxes. She may even have eclipsed her husband, the muralist Diego Rivera, in artistic stature.
I was introduced to Frida Kahlo as a college student in the late 70s by my two wonderful professors of Spanish language and literature who were admirers of Kahlo’s work before it was discovered by feminists in the United States.
Like George O’Keefe, whom she met, Kahlo struggled as a woman artist within an art world defined and dominated by men, including her own husband, but she was not a woman to be ignored. Kahlo used her body as a canvas draped in traditional Mexican dress and flamboyant jewelry, creating an image of herself that never conformed but rather confronted bourgeois notions of female decorum.
But it’s more than her colorful life that fascinates me; it’s the sensory shock of the art itself. Often confined to her bed, Kahlo painted what she saw in the mirror but used the outward appearance of her body to express the inner world of her imagination. Kahlo painted her compromised and exposed body in pain, bloody and wounded, but also in the midst of vivid natural surroundings, tendrilled in lush greenery and vibrant flowers. As Carlos Fuentes writes in his introduction to The Diary of Frida Kahlo, “[N]o matter how interior her work was, it was always uncannily close to the proximate, material world of animals, fruits, earths, skies.”
The documentary examines the influence of Catholic iconography on her work—the retablos of the crucifixion and lives of the saints. But her work also features the macabre element of death, as is found in the skeleton figures of El Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican Day of the Dead when families gather at cemeteries to picnic and remember those who have passed to the spirit realm.
According to Fuentes, the Mexican idea of death is not finality but origin: “Without the dead, we would not be here, we would not be alive.” In this way, he writes, Kahlo’s work “had the sense of fooling death, of fooling around with death.” In the painting The Dream, for example, a sleeping figure of Kahlo floats in a bed with Death leering from the canopy above.
It’s the juxtaposition of everpresent death with verdant life that makes her paintings so startling. Her art is beautiful yet frightening, a thorny reminder that death is the part of life that makes us live it more.
Like Kahlo’s art, celebrating the end of our farm season with bright orange jack o’ lanterns allows us to participate in the ritualof life and death with laughter and a touch of the macabre as they wink and grimace and remind us not to take ourselves too seriously.