What the Water Gave Me (painting)
|What the Water Gave Me|
|Spanish: Lo que el agua me dio|
|Type||Oil on canvas|
|Dimensions||91 cm × 70.5 cm (36 in × 27.75 in)|
|Location||Collection of Daniel Filipacchi, Paris|
Frida Kahlo’s What the Water Gave Me was her biography. As the scholar, Natascha Steed, points out, "her paintings were all very honest and she never portrayed herself as being more or less beautiful than she actually was." With this piece she reflected on her life. Kahlo released her unconscious mind through the use of what seems to be an irrational juxtaposition of images in her bathwater. In this painting, Frida paints herself, precisely her legs and feet, lying in a bath of grey water.
The painting was included in Kahlo's first solo exhibit at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York City in November 1938. It is now part of the private collection of Surrealist art collector Daniel Filipacchi.
About Frida Kahlo, the painter
Born Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderon in Coyoacan, Mexico on July 6, 1907, Frida was one of four daughters born to a Hungarian-Jewish father and a mother of Spanish and Mexican Indian descent. As a child Kahlo suffered from both polio and spina bifida of which she was not diagnosed until she was 23.
It was never her intention to become an artist; however, at eighteen, she was seriously injured in a bus accident in which her pelvis was smashed and a broken rail pierced her abdomen and uterus so she spent over a year in bed recovering. She always admired her father’s box of oil paints so as she lay in bed she decided to put that admiration to use. Frida’s mother had a carpenter make her an easel that stretched across the bed so she could begin painting during her convalescences, thus her paintings became her biographies. During her time confined in bed, Kahlo took the opportunity to take an intense study of herself.
Kahlo found it impossible to separate her life from her work which is what separated her from the contemporaries of her time. Despite the trouble she faced with her health that left her physically crippled, it was her marriage to famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera that crippled her emotionally. Frida once said: "I suffered two grave accidents in my life.. One in which a streetcar knocked me down and the other was Diego." Their stormy relationship survived infidelities, the pressures of careers, divorce, remarriage, Frida’s bisexual affairs, her health issues, and her inability to bear children. Of her 200 some paintings, drawings, and sketches throughout her life, she related many to physical and emotional pain.
She mirrored all of this hurt into What the Water Gave Me.
The painting references traditional and ancient iconography, mythology and symbolism, eroticism and botany all mapped out onto a scene depicting the legs of the artist herself (as signified by her wounded right foot) submerged in bath water. References to Kahlo's earlier works and influences have been noted. These include themes from her painting My Parents, My Grandparents and I (1936), allusions to fifteenth-century painter Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights in her attention to flora and fauna, and a reference to her political position by documenting the clash of the old and the new in the dramatic detail of a skyscraper burning inside a volcano. Among the various elements of macabre that are visible, a skeleton and a nude bather choked by a rope stand out.
What the Water Gave Me was Frida's memoir of her life, depicting life and death and comfort and loss. In the midst of her vision lies the way in which Frida found herself submerged by her life. Frida is quoted saying "I drank to drown my pain, but the damned pain learned how to swim, and now I am overwhelmed by this decent and good behavior." Scholar Graham Watt stated that a common feature of Kahlo's paintings is duality, as Kahlo painted "the body she lost and the body she had, her heterosexual and lesbian affairs, traditional and modern ways, Mexican and European, the closeness and treachery of those she loved, sadness and joy as well as the community of her world view and the loneliness of her position." Frida found only her hardships in her bath. In this portrait Kahlo appears lifeless as she lies in a bathtub submerged in water, her legs barely visible but her feet emerge from the water. Her right foot is bleeding and deformed, reflecting what was happening to her body while she suffered in pain.
Of the 30-plus operations she endured, most were on her back, right leg and right foot. Hence the wreckage in the painting over her right leg; between the toes of her right foot is a bleeding crack. Along with Kahlo‘s childhood polio that caused more than a slight deformity in her right leg. The spina bifida Kahlo suffered from is a congenital deformity, which results from incomplete closure of neural tube and a partially infused spinal cord. This decreased circulation to her limbs, together with polio and the 1925 streetcar accident, was the root of Kahlo’s chronic battle with neuropathic pain.
Like What the Water Gave Me, Frida’s paintings were very personal. It is written by Leticia Pérez Alonso that “in Kahlo’s painting the viewer ends up identifying with the represented object, and thus the distance between both of them is dissolved.” In order to bring her viewers as deep into her life as possible, the strong details in her painting made it so that the distance between the self and the other is obliterated so that they are to share in the same experience. Kahlo returned to the same symbols and figures that can be seen in her other paintings.
Her toes are what dominate the painting as they are all that is seen of her in this portrait as point up from the water. In the water Frida paints floating remints of her life; an island which holds a volcano that erupts a skyscraper, a dead woodpecker perched upon a tree, and small skeleton that rests upon a hill. From this island a tight rope begins which creates a diamond-like shape within the center of the tub and wraps around the neck of naked female figure who is floating, Ophelia-like. From this female figure that may in fact be Frida herself, the rope returns into the hand of a faceless man that seems to be watching the woman he strangles as he lounges on the edge of the island. Also floating in this bathtub is an empty Mexican dress, a seashell full of bullet-holes, a couple that resembles her Kahlo's parents and from her earlier paintings My Grandparents My Parents and I and two female lovers that can also be seen in her earlier painting Two Nudes in A Forest.
The Volcano itself is the cornerstone of this painting as it is a strong symbol of her no longer suppressing her feelings about her body, her relationship to her husband, Diego Rivera; the source of most of her passion pain, and her self-worth. In her diary, Kahlo described herself as “the one who gave birth to herself.” A scholar concluded that she was starting to discover and experience both her own self and the world about her at a new more conscious level.” The eruption of the volcano mirrors her inevitable eruption.
What the Water Gave Me is a symbol of its own; a symbol of self-discovery. With this painting Frida Kahlo demonstrated her ability as a surreal artist who through her method of aggressive visual imagery, rather than verbal language, can convey the trauma of her own existence by putting herself on trial all while simultaneously creating art.
On the basis of this painting, Kahlo was labeled a surrealist. Before this she never considered herself a “surrealist” she just utilized this portrait as her platform to express her hurt and expel her demons.
André Breton saw Kahlo's art as Surrealist, saying of her work, "The promises of fantasy are filled with greater splendor by reality itself!" For Breton, this work was exemplary of her Surrealism.
- What the Water Gave Me: Poems after Frida Kahlo is a collection of poems by Pascale Petit released in 2010 that were inspired by and reference Kahlo's work. With regards to the present painting, Petit makes Kahlo say that it reveals "my half-drowned thoughts bobbing around my legs". Other descriptions of various elements seen in the painting include "The Empire State Building spewing gangrene / over my shin" and a "giant / one-legged quetzal pierced by a tree".
- "What the Water Gave Me" is a song by Florence and the Machine, and the first song released from their second studio album, Ceremonials (2011). It was written by Florence Welch with Francis White and produced by Paul Epworth. Welch decided to give the name to the song after viewing a Frida Kahlo work.
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- Kettenmann, Andrea (2003). Frida Kahlo 1907-1954: Pain and Passion. Germany: TASCHEN GmbH. p. 19.
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- Breton, André (May 1939). "Souvenir du Mexique". Minotaure (12–13): 16–17.
- Padel, Ruth. "What the Water Gave Me by Pascale Petit". The Guardian. The Guardian. Retrieved 7 March 2015.