THE BIO-FICTIONAL: TRANSLATING FRIDA KAHLO IN RAQUEL TIBOL’S FRIDA KAHLO: AN OPEN LIFE AND ANDREA KETTENMANN’s FRIDA KAHLO, 1907-1954: PAIN AND PASSION

            Despite the biographer’s intentions, the historical subject can’t be fully portrayed in biography. Similar to the translator´s task, the biographer also undergoes a process of interpretation, transfer and reorganization of information as s/he translates the historical figure into a biographical subject, whereby the historical figure is transformed and re-invented by the biographer. In Raquel Tibol’s Frida Kahlo: An Open Life and Andrea Kettenmann’s Frida Kahlo, 1907-1954: Pain and Passion, the authors imaginatively recreate Frida Kahlo´s life and identity through their use of interpretative and fictional methods. Similar to translators who transfer meaning from one text to another, the biographers also transfer the historical Kahlo into biography, while molding her into certain identity frameworks. For example, while Tibol portrays her as an exemplary woman, Kettenmann uses the narrative framework that Kahlo is “destined to be a great artist” to portray her life, depicting her as an exemplary artist. In addition to restructuring her life and identity to fit certain identity frameworks, the biographers also omit certain aspects of her life and oversimplify her identity. Like in translation whereby meaning is transformed, Frida Kahlo is also transformed and re-invented, as the biographers imaginatively recreate her life and mold her identity on the basis of certain biographical focuses.

            Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson distinguish between four ‘I’s’ in life narrative: the ‘historical I,’ ‘narrating I,’ ‘narrated I,’ and ‘ideological I.’ According to Smith and Watson, the historical ‘I’ is the person “whose life is far more diverse and dispersed than the story that is being told of it. This is the ‘I’ as historical person, person located in a particular time and place… This ‘I’ lives or lived in the world… we can verify this ‘I’’s existence” (59). Similar to translation, biography seeks to translate the historical subject—the person who lives or lived in a particular time or place—to a biographical subject, the subject whose life is being told about by a third person. According to Eugene Nida’s model of translation, the translator starts by analysing and interpreting the source language text (Nida 3). At this stage, the translators take into account the “presentation of class, status, age, sex of the speaker, [analyze] his [or her] relationship to the listeners and the context of their meeting in the SL

… [and interpret] the significance of the phrase in its particular context” (Bassnett 31). Similarly, the biographer also has to start by analyzing the data available on the subject in question, interpret the subject’s autobiographical material available, and/or draw from the biographer’s own knowledge of and memories of the person being studied. Despite the verifiability of the historical subject’s existence, the “self experienced only by [the self], the self felt from the inside” (Smith and Watson 5) will never be available to the biographers. Like the translator who must “accept the untranslatability of the SL

phrase in the TL [target language]” (Bassnett 31), the biographer must also accept the untranslatability of the historical subject into the biographical subject, for biography like fiction seems to “[prompt] judgments, not about the story’s reality, but about its believability, its plausibility” (Gallagher 346). Indeed, both Tibol and Kettenmann resort to much interpretative and imaginative work in order to translate the historical Kahlo to the biographical Kahlo. In her biography, Tibol cites Kahlo’s own words and writings extensively and interprets her writings, equating the historical Kahlo to the autobiographical Kahlo of her writings. For instance, she cites some of the letters Kahlo wrote while in the hospital after an accident she suffered in 1925:

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 13, 1925: You, more than anyone, must know how sad it’s been in this filthy hospital; you can imagine it and besides, the boys must have told you. They all say I’m not so hopeless, but they don’t know what three months of staying in bed—which is where I have to be—means to me, having been a first-class gadabout all my life. But what can a person do; they don’t even let me die, right? [She draws a skull here.](45)

Although Tibol allows Kahlo to narrate part of her own story, the historical figure “is not the ‘I’ that we gain access to in an autobiographical narrative” (Smith and Watson 59). Even though the historical ‘I’ is indeed the “person producing the autobiographical ‘I’ (59), the autobiographical ‘I’ cannot be equated to the historical ‘I,’ for the autobiographical ‘I’ is the product of a specific time and context. Autobiographical narrators “become readers of their experiential histories, bringing discursive schema that are culturally available to [him or her] to bear on what has happened” (Smith and Watson 27). As a result, “the memory… invoked in autobiographical narrative is specific to the time of the writing and the contexts of telling” (Smith and Watson 18). Despite Tibol’s extensive citation of Kahlo’s words and writings, the discursive Kahlo can only ever posit an incomplete self-represented identity of Frida, for we can only access fragments of Kahlo’s self-referential writings, which in turn are written at specific times and under specific contexts. In addition to citing her writings, Tibol is further able to make interpretations about Kahlo’s life and relationships based on Kahlo’s autobiographical writings. For example, she interprets Frida’s choice of clothing as a reflection of her relationship with Rivera when she says,

the Tehuantepec dress made her shine with the greatest elegance. But in the language of clothing, and true to the couple relationship, she considered her apparent nativism as a concession to Rivera—a kind of lover’s knot… The singular relationship between Diego and Frida is better understood when we read the expressions of intense tenderness appearing occasionally in the diary she kept without discipline but with passionate sincerity. (25)

            The biographer also makes inferences about Kahlo’s overall writings. She says, for instance, that “the affectionate letters [she wrote after her accident] were a moving testimony of those times when Frida began to accept, with a sadly playful spirit, her irreversible tragedy” (44-5), thereby attempting to fill in the gaps left by the autobiographical ‘I’ based on her own interpretative work on Kahlo’s autobiographical material. Although Tibol draws mostly on Kahlo’s autobiographical writings, she also interprets some of her autobiographical paintings. For example, she says, “Frida’s self-portraits come from a pitiless immersion in the subconscious, perhaps to find the answers that daily life could not give her, filled as it was with the odor of medicines and narcotics” (127). Tibol, thus, imagines what might have motivated Kahlo to start painting herself and tries to provide us with a possible explanation of her artistic initiation. Moreover, the biographer also imagines Kahlo’s pain when she states that she had met Kahlo in “a time of extreme pain… The pain exploded like sequences out of a stubborn and capricious bag of tricks” (29). As suggested by Lloyd Ambrosius, the biographer “requires empathy to recognize both the external and internal influences, both the psychological dimensions and the environmental circumstances that shaped a person’s life” (viii). Indeed, Tibol’s empathy for Frida Kahlo allows her to imagine and theorize the possible external and internal influences as well as the psychological and environmental circumstances that might have shaped her life, thereby offering us a plausible life narrative of Kahlo. Besides relying on Kahlo’s own autobiographical material, the author also draws on her own personal recollections of Kahlo, which in turn affect the way she is portrayed. The biographer met and developed a friendship with her, for which reason she treats her as a close friend in her biography:

I met Frida one May afternoon in 1953, and for some brief and intense days I lived in her world, where sincerity was so evident… Serenely spirited in the midst of her distress, she told me fragments of her life, a story disconcerting and difficult to understand in the sense of my fully identifying with her. (29-30)

            As opposed to Kettenmann, Tibol uses a personal tone when referring to Kahlo, reflecting the author’s focus and treatment of Kahlo as a friend. Because of her close relationship to Kahlo, she “tended to concentrate on the parts of the life [she] had witnessed” (Lee 9), drawing on her own experiences to describe Kahlo’s life. In fact, she interprets certain aspects of her character on the basis of her own experience living with her, treating her “personal memories of [her] subject as reliable evidence” (Smith and Watson 6). She says, for example:

Once I had begun to frequent that room without equal in the world…her bedroom was no accident; it was orderly. The order she put there showed her hopes and feelings; it indicated that the one who imposed it found comfort in the grotesque candidness, was affected by the innocent workmanship, and revered the objects arising from her habit of collecting beautiful things. (159)

            Like in translation, Tibol also undertakes a process of interpretation and analysis in order to construct her biographical subject. Although Tibol allows the subject to narrate part of her own story, she also interprets Kahlo’s autobiographical material and reimagines her life on the basis of her own personal recollections of Kahlo. Like Tibol, Kettenmann also relies on and interprets Kahlo’s autobiographical material to construct her biographical subject. However, unlike Tibol, Kettenmann seems to equate the historical Kahlo to Kahlo the artist, and the artist is, in turn, equated with the painted object. For example, she says:

in order to express her ideas and feelings, Frida Kahlo developed a personal pictorial language employing its own vocabulary and syntax. She used symbols which, once decoded, offer insights into oeuvre and the circumstances surrounding its creation. Her message is not hermetic: her works should be viewed as metaphorical summaries of concrete experiences. (20)

            She suggests that her paintings are representations of actual life events in the form of pictorial symbols. Moreover, in explaining her self-portraits, the author says “the artist looks out at the viewer with almost always the same mask-life face, in which feelings and moods can be read only with difficulty” (20). Instead of referring to “the object” as the one looking at the viewer, she refers to “the artist” as the one who is looking at the viewer, equating the painted object to Kahlo the artist. Similar to the translator, who analyzes and interprets the context, the communicative intentions as well as the author’s thoughts, and the conventional meaning of the source language text, among others (Bühler 61-2), Kettenmann interprets the biographical content in Frida Kahlo’s work by analyzing the symbolism, the style, the pictorial language of her autobiographical paintings. For example, when describing her self-portraits, the author says:

her full-length portraits… presented in a scenic setting, are predominantly linked to real biographical events: the artist’s relationship with her husband Diego Rivera, her physical condition—her ill health following the accident, her inability to carry a child through a full term pregnancy—as well as her philosophy of nature and life and her view of the world. (19)

            Her biographical method, hence, consists on the imposition of Kettenmann’s interpretation of Kahlo’s paintings onto the biographical subject, whereby the painted object is projected onto the historical figure. Like Tibol, Kettenmann also uses imaginative and interpretative methods to explain Kahlo’s life and art. For example, when interpreting Kahlo’s The Broken Column, she says:

She had to wear a steel corset, which reappears in her self-portrait of 1944, The Broken Column. The straps of the corset seem to be all that is holding the artist’s rent body together and upright. An Iconic column, broken in several pieces, takes the place of her damaged spine. The yawning cleft in her flesh is taken up in the furrows scarring the bleak, fissured landscape behind, which thereby becomes a symbol both of her pain and her loneliness. (67)

            Kettenmann ultimately constructs Kahlo on the basis of her own artistic interpretation of her. As stated by Rosalind Barber, “the interpretation of the subject’s [works]… depend upon the life narrative already imagined for the author of those works” (Barber 166). Both Tibol’s and Kettenmann’s representation of Kahlo are possible readings of Kahlo’s own works and writings based on the life narrative already imagined for her by the biographers.

            Moreover, similar to translators who undertake a process of “transfer… from language A to language B” (Nida 3) and reorganization of meaning whereby the translator transfers the significance of the content in the source language text to the receptor language text, and reorganizes it in order to convey meaning (Nida 3), biographers also transfer and transform the historical subject into the biographical subject by fitting Frida Kahlo into certain identity frameworks. While both Tibol and Kettenmann “emphasiz[e] traits and provid[e] ‘exempla’ of types of behavior” (Lee 25), the authors mold the historical subject’s identity according to their biographical focus. Tibol writes an “affectionate, venerating biography” (Lee 59) of Kahlo, whereby Kahlo is presented as an exemplary woman with an exemplary private life. Kettenmann, on the other hand, depicts her as an exemplary artist, whose artistic mastery and development is emphasized and celebrated. Although Tibol examines different aspects of Kahlo’s private life, she, nevertheless, portrays her in a rather idealized way. For example, she says:

She was a tremendously powerful reactor who constantly spoke her mind. She knew the deepest vivacity of what we call enthusiasm, and needed the exaltation that is braided into love, joy, and truth. She decorated truth, shredded it, drew it out and provoked it, but she never misrepresented it. (9 and 179)

            The repetition of said description on pages 9 and 179 and her poetic tone indicate Tibol’s deeply-felt admiration for Kahlo and her insistent attempt on portraying Kahlo as an exemplary woman. The author further portrays Kahlo as a strong woman who actively reaffirmed her strength and femininity through her physical presentation when she says:

flirtatious and extremely sentimental, if circumstances prevented her from exploiting her feminine charms, she would challenge her fate by dressing like a man to reaffirm her strength and hide her physical defects and orthopedic appliances. (24-5)

            The author, thus, constructs Kahlo as a strong woman who overcame many hardships, constantly emphasizing her positive aspects. Moreover, she also excuses her negative personality traits when she says:

She made of herself an object of admiration. If there was vanity, caprice, or insolence in that, it was never foolish or arrogant, and she did not know humility because she did not know resignation. (9-10 and 179)

            Tibol’s portrayal of Kahlo is, hence, the product of Tibol’s affectionate remembrance of her friend. Sara Pinto suggests that historical novels should be studied by historians, for they allow us not only to gain insight into the past, but “they [also] use rhetoric to constitute the way the past is felt, as well as seen” (201), whereby the “past is consequently made and told emotionally” (193). Likewise, Tibol’s biography is also made and told emotionally, allowing us to understand how she was perceived by her friend as well as the feelings of affection and admiration Kahlo evoked. Similar to the way in which “the translator’s discursive presence, as distinct voice and subject position… is always there, in the text itself” (Hermans 11), the biographer’s perception of and interpretation of the biographical subject is likewise visible in the text, which suggests that the reconstruction of a life is inextricable to the biographer´s perception of and emotional investment on the subject. While Tibol’s biography does portray Kahlo in a rather idealized way, her highly empathic and affective biographical account allows us to approach Kahlo from a more personal and emotional point of view.

            While Tibol celebrates Kahlo’s private life, Kettenmann, on the other hand, celebrates her artistic life. Kettenmann “work[s] to conform [Kahlo] to a particular identity frame” (Smith and Watson 35). Similar to the way in which:

[historical] events are made into a story… Whether [historical events] find their place finally in a story that is tragic, comic, romantic, or ironic… depends upon the historian’s decision to configure them according to the imperatives of one plot structure or… another. (White 84)

            Kettenmann also configures Frida Kahlo’s life to fit the “standard pattern [of a great Life] beginning with early signs of character revealed in childhood incidents, followed by a rising trajectory” (Lee 23). In focusing mostly on her artistic self and artistic formation, Kettenmann uses a specific plot structure to narrate Kahlo’s life. For example, she cites Frida Kahlo’s own words in order to hint at her ‘artistic destiny’:

For many years my father had kept a box of oil paints and some paintbrushes in an old jar and palette in the corner of his photographic studio…Ever since I was a little girl, as the saying goes, I’d had my eyes on that box of paints. (18)

            The author then explains the start of her artistic career and provides the readers with a survey of her paintings, which she relates back to her life. For example, she explains that during her recovery from the bus accident:

[her] bed was… given a canopy with a mirror covering its entire underside, so that Frida could see herself and be her own model. This saw the start of the self-portraits which dominate Frida Kahlo’s oeuvre and which provide a virtually unbroken record of every stage of her artistic development. (18)

            Furthermore, she suggests that art itself is Kahlo’s means for self-understanding; that is, her identity is established through her art, and she in turn shapes her art. For example, she says, “Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits helped her to shape an idea of her own person; by creating herself anew in art as in life, she could find her way to an identity” (20). While Tibol emphasizes Kahlo’s own control over her physical presentation, Kettenmann explains her physical changes through her paintings. For example:

[in the] Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, in place of the very feminine clothes seen in most of her self-portraits, she here appears dressed in a large, dark-coloured man’s suite. She has just cut off her long hair—we see the scissors still in her hand… Frida Kahlo, who felt she was loved… only for her female attributes, decided to put these aside and renounce the feminine image demanded of her… as she had done during her previous separation from Rivera in 1934/35… [This indicates] a connection between the act of cutting off her hair and her divorce from Rivera. (55)

             The author once more equates the painted object with the painter and the historical subject. Finally, Kettenmann gives the artist a “good death” (Lee 25) and immortalizes her, further fulfilling the trope of the artistic destiny. She says:

by the afternoon of 14 July, more than six hundred people had come to pay their last respects. Followed by a procession made up of some five hundred people, Frida Kahlo’s body was then carried through the town to the crematorium. After several speeches, and to the accompaniment of songs she was cremated according to her own wishes… One year after her death Diego Rivera bequeathed [their] house to the Mexican nation as a museum. (85)

            By ending the biography with a description of Kahlo’s well-attended funerary ceremony and by referring to the transformation of her house into a museum, Kettenmann concludes the biography with a sense of celebration and immortalization of the artist, who will forever live through her paintings, her house, and her things. According to Lawrence Venuti, translation often represents the “domestication of the foreign text, often in highly self-conscious projects where translation serves an appropriation of foreign cultures for agendas in the receiving situation” (14). Similarly, in biography, both Tibol and Kettenmann domesticate Kahlo by attempting to mold her identity into certain identity frameworks, “convey[ing] the impression that lives are lived in orderly and coherent ways” (Evans 134). While Tibol narrates the story of an exemplary woman who overcame many hardships and had an impact on her society, Kettenmann traces the story of a born-to-be artist.

            In addition to fitting Frida Kahlo to certain identity frameworks, both Tibol and Kettenmann tend to focus on either Kahlo’s private or public life, deliberately ignoring or omitting certain aspects of her life and focusing on others in order to construct the desirable Kahlo they wish to put forth. Like in “the act of translation, whether considered as literal or figurative, [which] frequently [implies] detailed restructuring and strategic resequencing” (Chew and Stead 4), biographers also restructure the subject’s life narrative in order to fit their biographical purposes. Mary Evans further states that auto/biography “has an implicit structure which organises content in a way that can marginalise or ignore significant aspects of the individual experience” (135). Although Tibol does comment on Kahlo’s artistic career and interprets some of her paintings, she does not elaborate on the significance and impact of her paintings, which is major aspect of Kahlo’s public life. Moreover, Tibol does not talk about Kahlo’s or Rivera’s romantic affairs and disregards major psychologically traumatic events, such as her divorce with Rivera. Furthermore, the author shortens the letters and the material she cites, and she excises some parts of the letters and diary entries that she includes in her biography. Furthermore, she only refers to negative aspects of Kahlo’s life if they are meant to highlight a positive characteristic of Kahlo. For example, she includes Kahlo’s writings on her physical and psychological pain in order to emphasize her strength and endurance for pain. However, Tibol fails to mention that Rivera had a romantic affair with Kahlo’s sister. This is particularly relevant, for Tibol was a close friend of Rivera, which again suggests that Tibol intended to portray both Kahlo and Rivera in a positive light. Kettenmann, likewise, seems to deliberately omit certain aspects of Kahlo’s life. While Kettenmann presents a concise survey of Kahlo’s paintings in connection to her life, her portrayal is oversimplified in that she is presented only as an artist, disregarding her other selves as well as her personal uniqueness. She fails to capture her private life (i.e. her things, her house, and her sexuality). There is too much emphasis on the public part of her life (her paintings, her exhibitions, and her life and her art, etc.). In fact, Kettenmann’s omissions mislead us into perceiving the historical Kahlo as the artistic summary of her paintings. Both Tibol’s and Kettenmann’s omissions present us with a biographical Kahlo, who has being molded to suit a selected framework of identity. Evans further states that although “autobiography [and biography] invites expectations of revelation and “knowing all” (40), they are often “readable exercises in concealment rather than revelation” (40). In omitting certain aspects of her life, the biographers further adjust the biographical subject to their biographical purposes.

            In conclusion, biography, like translation, is ultimately “a process of change or passage from one state to another” (Chew and Stead 2). Like translators, both Raquel Tibol, author of Frida Kahlo: An Open Life, and Andrea Kettenmann, author of Frida Kahlo, 1907-1954: Pain and Passion, undertake a process of interpretation, transfer, and reorganization of meaning in translating the historical subject to a biographical subject. Both biographers engage in imaginative and interpretative work in order to construct her identity. In fact, their use of evidence and their biographical methods seem to postulate at best a plausible portrayal of Kahlo. Additionally, the biographers mold and organize Kahlo’s life to suit their biographical purposes. While Tibol portrays Kahlo as an exemplary woman, Kettenmann uses the narrative framework of the “destined to be a great artist” to portray Kahlo’s life. Lastly, the authors omit certain aspects of her life, further contributing to the fictionalization of Kahlo. Neither of them successfully portrays the “true” or “complete” self of Kahlo. Kettenmann’s and Tibol’s biographies, as a translation of life, enter a process of gain and loss, whereby the portrayal of Frida Kahlo is partly truthful, partly lost, and partly invented. As stated by Walter Benjamin, the translation of Kahlo’s life into a life-narrative functions as the afterlife of Frida Kahlo, “for in its afterlife—which could not be called that if it were not a transformation and a renewal of something living—the original undergoes a change” (Benjamin 73). In biography, likewise, Frida Kahlo also becomes transformed and renewed. Despite the biographical genre’s attempt to divorce itself from fiction, the biographical genre seems to draw upon fictional methods, such as the imaginative act of constructing plots and characters. Like fictional characters, the biographical subject can only be understood as a provisional subject. Tibol’s and Kettenmann’s biographies, hence, provide us with the opportunity of rethinking the relationship of non-fiction and fiction as one that allows us to imaginatively recreate historical subjects.

Barbara Guerrero
Western University
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