Artists’ Artists: Magali Lara
On Eva Hesse and Frida Kahlo
On Eva Hesse and Frida Kahlo
The body keeps its secret, this nothing, this spirit that isn’t lodged in it, but spread out, expanded, extended all across it, so much so that the secret has no hiding place, no intimate fold where it might someday be discovered. The body keeps nothing: it keeps itself as secret. That’s why the body dies and is borne away, concealed, into the grave. Of its passage, hardly a few indices remain.
Jean-Luc Nancy, Fifty-Eight Indices on the Body (2008)
Of all Eva Hesse’s drawings, there is one I find particularly moving because it appears incomplete but is not. It depicts what happens when we die, the presence of our absence. Produced on graph paper in 1967, this drawing is one of a series of four, all on the same type of paper. In them all, the idea of repetition, of system, is evident, but what is striking about this one is that Hesse left an incomplete space while also extending the structure on the right-hand side as if to bring the composition to a close. We read from left to right: left is before, right after. At stake is a decision to call a drawing finished even though it is not resolved. It is wide open and not only to interpretation.
One thing I have always liked about Hesse is how she speaks of the body without literal representation. Instead, she looks to bodily experience. Her materials and formal systems reflect endless fragility that is not confessed, but manifested. Fragile is what we are. In Eva Hesse (2002), Mel Bochner asserts that, in Hesse’s art, the series acts as a metaphor for reproduction, and I agree that it conveys a sense of proliferation, of an open and fertile organism ripe for growth. Repeating, in Hesse, is tied to vital desire: desire to endure and have a family. At the same time, some irreparable hurt from the past makes itself felt throughout her work. The breakage left by that event appears as nonsensical play. Therein lies the singularity, the impulse to affectivity. In her essay ‘Hesse’s Desiring Machines’ (1993), Rosalind Krauss declares:
Indeed, Hesse has made herself the specialist of repetition-as-absurdity, which is to say repetition recast from the minimalist projection of arithmetic, impersonal law the grids, the serial expansions, the systemic progressions into the disruptive subjectivity of an infantilized world of babble, of gurgle, of a viscerally conceived world of play.
Hesse builds images from small variations. It is through them that we find movement which stirs us. I like the thought that such a beautiful and seemingly serene drawing can incite the harrowing sensation of not being present, an ending that takes us back to incompleteness. Hesse is not obsessed with death or the battle between body and spirit, but with venturing boldly into an uncertain, sometimes even nightmarish, world for the sake of the beautiful sensuality of being here now
In On Dreams and Death (1986), Jungian psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz wrote that death is foretold in dreams. The infirm are warned with scenes of their farewell that sometimes take place in stormy landscapes. There is a voice within that knows.
Born into a Jewish family in Nazi Germany in 1936, Hesse’s entire childhood was marked by destruction – not only of her family, but also of her people. Having been sent on one of the last Kindertransport trains to the Netherlands aged just two, Hesse was reunited with her parents in 1939 and the family emigrated to the US. In 1945, however, her parents separated, causing her mother to take her own life. These tragedies make themselves felt in her work: there is grief not only for what’s been lost, but for what could have been and never was. Yet, to my pleasure, Hesse doesn’t depict anything at all, not her body nor her house. The grid, in this drawing, is the only index of that incompleteness. In Cindy Nemser’s interview with the artist, ‘A Conversation with Eva Hesse’ (1970), shortly before she died, Hesse explains:
… my idea now is to discount everything I've learned or been taught about those things and to find something else. So, it is inevitable, this is my life, my feelings, my thoughts. And there I’m very complex, I’m not a simple person, and the complexity if I can name what it consists of (and it has probably increased now because I’ve been sick this year) is the total absurdity of life …
The grid and repetition of forms are, of course, fundamental to the specific conception of contemporary drawing. Like writing, drawing can structure different times and systems of representation where the singular and the personal appear without figuration. One merit of Hesse’s work is how it conveys highly emotional content so discreetly. Another is how the physical body surfaces within such a sophisticated intellectual structure. Her choice of materials attests to a keen vision of even the most ordinary things, of what lived experience offers as witness to the passage we call life.
I have fewer books about Frida Kahlo than about other women artists because the ones I’ve seen never stop talking about her suffering and illness – and that irritates me. Both Hesse and Kahlo endured poor health: Hesse had a brain tumour and Kahlo was involved in a traffic accident as a young woman that affected her health throughout her life. Of course, the work of both artists was impacted by these events. In Kahlo’s case, her self-portraits concentrated vital experience as a whole; she held it within the confines of the small room that was her own body. During the 1970s, women artists like me found Kahlo’s way of placing the body of the artist audacious: she dared to explore the wild world of her own identity. I have been a devout fan of Kahlo since my teenage years. She mapped out the territories of secrets and of desire as told by a woman – an example for me. I started using images of her paintings and photographs in 1977, when Raquel Tibol published her first book on Kahlo. I photocopied those images to compose my own reading of the artist’s life and work. The themes she addressed and how she addressed them were a provocative way of speaking to gender. My companions in appropriation were playwright Carmen Boullosa, composer Liliana Felipe and theatre director Jesusa Rodríguez. The sets for our collaborative play, Trece Señoritas (13 Ladies, 1983), were inspired by her paintings. Kahlo gave voice to that sometimes abject and sometimes violently still body that, though not a part of Mexican muralism during the 1920s to ’50s, was part of the pre-Hispanic world.
Though in her self-portraits Kahlo presents a body where seduction and pain mingle, the settings in which she depicts herself show those ‘other voices’ that constitute her as person. In these works, there is a powerful self, where difference is enmeshed in intimacy. It is from there that, exploring an unknown path, we can speak from the broken body. Hair is a character in its own right in Kahlo’s work. Like a crown or Medusa’s locks, it is alive; it announces powerfully what is going on within. The contemporary Mexican writer Margo Glantz considers hair a fundamental part of the body and personality. In her works, such as La Cabellera andante (The Walking Hair, 2015), the scarcity or abundance of hair always means something, whether as personal style or social custom. The Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes contains clear rules on how hair should be worn, which still today undergird women’s relationships to their hair in many parts of the world: Catholic nuns cut their hair when they enter the convent; Muslim and Orthodox Jewish women must keep theirs covered. In Kahlo’s work, hair is part of her, but also has a life of its own; it is bound to the sexual. It is not only that on her head, but also her eyebrows and moustache, masculine and feminine at once.
My favourite work is Autorretrato de pelona (Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, 1940), painted following her separation from her husband Diego Rivera. I first saw it as a poster in West Berlin in 1981. I had gone there to participate, along with 34 others, in the first exhibition of Mexican women artists in the city, organized by a group of feminists. I later saw the actual painting at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In this small but powerful work, Kahlo stares out at us from her chair. She is wearing men’s clothes and still holding the scissors she has used to cut her hair, which is scattered about the painting like a dismembered monster. The hair is at once beautiful and hostile. My obsession with the dark side of femininity began with the hair in this painting.
The poem ‘Yo soy mi propia casa’ (I Am my own Home, 1946), by the Mexican writer Pita Amor, reminds me of what Kahlo is after in her portraits:
I am concave and convex;
two half worlds at once:
the murky one I show outside,
and the one all my own I carry within.
My two half-curves
so authentic in me,
that to depth and lightness
my entire essence I did give.
These two artists showed me how to represent the body in different ways, sometimes through objects and sometimes through grids and repetition. In Hesse’s work, the body seems to reside in the fragility of the materials, whereas in Kahlo’s it lies in the ambiguity between inside and out.
Main image: Eva Hesse in New York,1969. Courtsy: The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images; photograph: Henry Groskinsky