El Corazon Sangrante/The Bleeding Heart

Organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art.

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, January, 1992)

The first thing you see in El Corazon Sangrante/The Bleeding Heart is a large 17th century altarpiece by Juan Correa called Alegoria del Sacramento/Allegory of the Sacrament. It shows Christ pierced by a grape vine, squeezing blood from a bunch of grapes clustered on a vine that is growing out of his bleeding heart.

A few steps further, and you see Frida Kahlo‘s 1940 Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, which shows Frida in a jungle, with a black monkey and a black cat perched on her shoulders and a black hummingbird dangling from a thorn necklace that pierces her neck, drawing small red drops of blood. Her face is beautiful and strong; her eyebrows arch like the hummingbird’s wings; there are flowers and butterflies in her hair; her big black eyes are deep and clear. On the next wall is an installation by Silvia Gruner, called Los Caracoles Mas Bellos/The Most Beautiful Shells, which includes a series of large photocopies of medical illustrations of a human heart, painted over with a mixture of wax and blood, and attached to tiny amplifiers playing sad Mexican love songs — boleros sung by a blind street singer on the streets of Mexico City. All three works of art are powerful images of transformation: blood into wine, body into symbol, pain into art.

Every image in the show refers in some way to the bleeding heart. For Cuban-born Ana Mendieta (1948 – 1985), the heart’s blood is the source of life, the vital connection between earth and spirit, body and soul. Her work, always centered around her own body, has the intensity of ancient sacrifice and mythic transformation. Videos and photographs document of her extraordinary outdoor sculptures and performance pieces, where she worked with sand, clay, water, mud, rock, blood, fire, and air to create symbols of her body in the living earth. Body Tracks are paintings she made by kneeling on a piece of paper, her arms covered with blood and paint. One of her treetrunk sculptures has the shape of woman’s body carved and burned into the wood. It stands near a tiny 15th century figure carved in stone: an Aztec priest wearing the flayed skin of a sacrificed man.

In David Avalos‘s Hubcaps Milagros, the bleeding heart is as one of a dozen of visual cliches about Mexican culture — the stuff that Tex-Mex restaurant decor and racist stereotypes is made of. His Combination Platters are ironic shrines composed of things like paper flowers, cactuses, hubcaps, red chile peppers, candles in bottles of Thunderbird wine, and cans of Juanita’s Mexican Style Meatball Soup, decorated with a picture of a Mexican Style woman with sultry eyes, big breasts, a low-cut blouse, and bright red lips.

El Corazon Sangrante/The Bleeding Heart traces the passage of the bleeding heart from Aztec ritual sacrifice to the Catholic icon of the Sacred Heart to contemporary Mexican, Cuban, and Chicano art.  An 18th century icon Mater Dolorosa/Lady of Sorrows hangs near Adolfo Patino’s Reliquias de artistas, Ano 33 Cana/Artist’s relics, which was made in collaboration with the artist after his death this year — a shrine made in the shape of a cross from sheets of handmade paper with gold paint, skulls cut from maps, purple cloth, tiny braids of hair, bramble bush, images of skulls and burning hearts, a Frida postcard, and Polaroids of a young man with a sad, beautiful face. Two mothers grieving for their lost sons; seeing them together enriches both the old and the new.

Juan Francisco Elso‘s Corzazon de America is made from branches, wax, volcanic sand, and jute thread; it looks like a bramblebush or a piece of tumbleweed in the shape of a giant heart. His three small clay hearts have the intensity of votive offerings; intense, vulnerable, piercingly beautiful little forms, pulled from the clay heart of the earth.

The heart of The Bleeding Heart are three small paintings and one lithograph by the legendary Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954). She began to paint at the age of 17, when she had to spend a year in bed recovering from a terrible streetcar accident where a steel handrail pierced her body and broke her collarbone, her ribs, her spinal column and her pelvis. As a result of the accident, she spent her entire life in physical pain. “My painting carries within it the message of pain,” she wrote. She underwent numerous operations, spinal fusions, long periods of wearing metal corsets or body casts, and suffered several agonizing miscarriages. Yet she lived a full, rich, passionate life as a woman and as an artist.  She said,

“My eyes are as ancient as the pyramids of Mexico.”

Frida’s persona was one of her greatest creations; her life was a form of performance art. She loved to dress up in elaborate Mexican dresses (Tehuanas) and heavy gold jewelry, with flowers in her hair. She was married to the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. (He was a big, brilliant brute of a man; she was tiny and delicate. Their friends called them the Elephant and the Dove.) She suffered from his infidelities, and then had love affairs of her own, with both women and men. And she painted. She was a great artist; her hundreds of self-portraits are an extraordinary record of a woman’s inner life.

The lithograph El Aborto/The Miscarriage shows Frida naked, divided in half, blood flowing from her womb, tears falling down her cheeks. A full moon hovers in the sky; a fetus floats in the air; she hold an easel in one pale, ghostly hand. (The print was actually begun in America. Frida suffered a miscarriage while she and Diego were living in Detroit so he could paint a mural on the theme of modern industry; she began to work on the print while she was recovering at the Henry Ford Hospital.)

Another small painted self-portrait shows Frida sitting on a chair, wearing one of her husband’s big man’s suits, holding a scissors in her hand, locks of her hair strewn all around the floor. (She painted this one after learning of one of Diego’s infidelities.) Shorn of her long black hair, stripped of her beautiful clothes, Frida is still supremely herself. She looks out of this little picture with a challenging, seductive that gaze that meets your eye and pierces your heart.

Above the image are words from a Mexican folk song: “I used to love you for your beautiful hair. Now that you are bald I don’t love you anymore.” The image is even more intense when you realize that the bald one — La Pelona — is slang for death — for the dancing skeletons that decorate festivities in the traditional Mexican Day of the Dead.  She said,

“I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”

Frida’s self-portraits always show her wounded and suffering, in heart, body, and soul.  But she is never merely a victim. Her pain is her passion and her passion is her art. Her heart’s blood is a gift to the world.

by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com


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