February 23rd, 2000

Frida Khalo’s “The Suicide of Dorothy Hale”

by Stephanie Segal • in Art

frida kahlo

Winter can cause a soul-depleting TV addiction. Recently I decided to fill’er up again by taking a trip to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts to see the Pasion collection of Mexican Modern Art: 1900-1950. I have a ‘pasion’ for Diego Rivera, whose works decorate my home and truly warm me, so the chance to see originals was one I would not let slip by.

I was mildly disappointed to find that there was only a moderate handful of Rivera’s works, though each was priceless to see first-hand. There is something exciting about seeing the original paint on the actual canvasses, like stepping back in time or becoming part of history. To my chagrin, the majority of Rivera’s displayed works were sketches and, though incredible, not my bag. So I walked on in a semi-sulk, somewhat defeated.

The disappointment would prove to be fleeting.

Catching the Frida Kahlo portion of the exhibit had barely interested me. Her self-portraits never did it for me — too harsh. My mother defends her favorite artist by saying how Kahlo’s life was one test after another (thus the harshness), so I was intending to take a close look only to report back to my mom in full detail.

My eyes fell upon Kahlo’s “The Suicide of Dorothy Hale“. It was strikingly different from her self-portraits; soft and yet, of a suicide.

At the base of the painting, Kahlo has written a message in Spanish. I tried to figure out what it said, paying little attention to the painting itself. Written is the date and place of the suicide of this woman who, in death, lies at the bottom of the painting, beautiful. It occurred to me that this may have been a real person (in fact, it was), and only then did I step back to really look at the work.

I became mesmerized by it. I stood there staring at it, taking it in, and feeling it for a very long time. I stood close to it, and took slow steps backward from it, for perspective. Then I walked toward it again. It got under my skin, but not as would a nuisance. Without meaning to sound cliché, it became part of me: in it, a part of the human experience is so vividly represented, so real and dreamlike at once. Like life itself.

I suppose it may seem strange to come across a review of a work long-considered by experts to be a masterpiece, but I think it may be the only work I’ve ever been really convinced, while standing before it, was worthy of the description.

What first struck me is how the frame is incorporated into the painting. Kahlo allows her eerie, turbulent sky to pour over the wooden frame, bleeding it beyond its canvas confines and into the viewer’s world. The effect is powerful; the viewer can’t help but be filled with the emotion of the painting, as it surrounds and engulfs. From a distance, mere clouds become instead a dance of ghosts, having haunted the subject in her life, now left to fill the viewer with a hint of the feeling of what ghosts can do to a person. We can relate, and it’s chilling.

In the sky, Kahlo has painted Hale, falling, in the faded tones of the chaotic sky itself. The chaos of that free fall is the chaos in each our lives. Life can be considered one big free fall — at some level, everything is out of our hands. The falling body represents that and, since at various times we all feel the “free-fall effect”, it prevents the viewer from judging the victim for her act.

Life is free form, the only absolute being death. Kahlo’s use of rich, dark colors on Hale’s body represent this concrete reality with brilliance. In Hale’s final rest, she is beautiful and glamorous. The blood on her face is nonviolent, somehow, and poetic. Her eyes offer no excuses. The violence of her act is almost nonexistent in the painting, reflected only in Kahlo’s use of the frame: at the bottom of the painting, the Spanish message, an obituary in blood, with trickles of it spilling over onto the frame, extending beyond the painting and forcing viewers to confront the taking of a life depicted before them. It’s a painted headline, more effective than live footage or tabloid photos.

Kahlo deliberately uses depth in the painting to separate these two aspects — the uncertainties of life and the absoluteness of death. The suicide victim is so much in the foreground, she looks to be onstage, while the building (world) she jumped from fades behind like a memory. Dorothy Hale was a failed actress in her time and it is interesting that, in painting her ‘onstage’, Kahlo has Hale achieve her dream through the taking of her life.

A tribute, perhaps. Or maybe Kahlo’s own life was filled with such pain that she admired Hale’s final act. Or perhaps Kahlo though it a desperate, last-ditch attempt to gain attention, and didnÃŒt admire it at all. The stage metaphor is clever and obvious, but its meaning is open to interpretation (a quality found in the best art).

The questions we are left with when someone takes her own life; the wonder and helplessness — these feelings reach off the canvas, overflowing right into the viewer. Looking at Suicide isn’t like looking at a picture. It’s recognizing a sad aspect of what life can do to people, and Kahlo’s method is brilliant. The painting leaks out past its boundaries and the viewer can’t help but sponge it up. Never before have I felt a painting in this manner.

Once I’d completed my tour of the exhibit, I had to go back and once more take in the Suicide of Dorothy Hale. When I got there, two women were standing before it, one of them reacting to the painting and describing what she saw to her friend. She finished speaking just as I got close enough to hear; all I caught before she walked away was, “C’est magnifique.”

I guess this could have been a two-word review.

Frida Kahlo’s “The Suicide of Dorothy Hale”, 1939; Oil on hardboard with painted frame; Phoenix Art Museum


gabriella said:

Brilliant review, very interesting.
Also its Kahlo, not Khalo

September 22nd, 2011 at 7:16 am

the author said:

wow gabriella thank you so much! first for the compliments and then for pointing out the spelling error in the review title! i’m horrified! but was relieved to see it spelled correctly throughout the review, at least. i’ll fix it! thanks.

December 7th, 2012 at 6:02 pm

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