Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Crucifixes and Unibrows: A Reflection on Obsession

Once in a while (twice so far in my 26 years), I get a little obsessed.

My first obsession is so goofy it would be embarrassing if I got embarrassed about all my goofy parts. Freshman year in college, my best friend Nicole and I went totally nuts for the 1970’s musical Jesus Christ Superstar. This obsession was not born out of any obsession with J.C. himself (though I was at the very end stage of my Christian stint; Nicole never went through such a phase). My obsession had everything to do with the splendor and cheese of the music, the glowing (literally—it was made in the days when a movie’s star could get away with a slightly oily, pimply complexion), natural beauty of the woman who played Mary Magdalene, and the unabashedly exposed washboard stomachs and menacingly sexy eyes of a few choice villains, namely Caiaphas and Judas. Yum.

Every day we would watch this movie. No, really. We would watch this movie Every Single Day. Every day! Not only that, sometimes we would watch it more than once. Say for instance I came back from classes at noon. I’d sit down and—first thing—rewind the tape and hit play. Nicole might roll in about 45 minutes later, at which point she’d look at me with a knowing, I’m-asking-this-question-as-a-mere-silly-formality kind of smirk and say, “do you mind if we rewind and start over?” Music to my ears. I’d scoot over to one side of our little red, velour, thrift store special couch and sit through another round of songs with names like “What’s the Buzz?”

I don't know if it was just the comfort of the familiar that had us hooked (I mean, really, what could be more comforting than knowing that--no matter how shitty my biology field experiment was going--Jesus would have it worse than me, to the tune of 40 rhythmic lashes and a cruxifiction, every single time?). It was that: the familiar, the routine, when the difficulty of living in a tiny room 2,000 miles from my family started to get to me. Jesus Christ Superstar, to this day, takes me to a happy place that few other movies can. And to boot, I've seen it on stage 4 times, in 4 different cities. Freak!


My other obsession is not like that. It doesn't have to do with the routine or the familiar. It has to do with perpetual curiosity--the absolute inability to ever have quite enough information to sate my interest, and the slight madness that ensues at this realization.

At the suggestion of a trusted former professor, I recently picked up a book by Julian Barnes called Flaubert's Parrot. The (anti-) novel tells the story of the main character's obsession with French novelist Gustave Flaubert (known for Madame Bovary, most famously), and the said character's quest to uncover the story behind the author's life. The book is beautifully written, literary, intelligent, and--to one who's become similarly preoccupied with the desire to discover the person behind the art--familiar.

A copycat novel, if I were to undertake it, would be called Kahlo's Monkey.

I first learned about Frida Kahlo during an art unit of my junior year high school Spanish class. We had to choose from a list of famous Spanish-speaking artists, write a biography of the artist, then replicate one of his or her works of art. I chose Dali just for the challenge of it, but another girl in the class chose Kahlo. When I saw her version of one of Kahlo's famously unibrowed self-portraits, featuring Kahlo's pet monkey sitting on one shoulder, my curiosity was piqued. Our teacher told us about the artist's tragic bus accident, the countless operations that followed, and Kahlo's unique talent for bringing the pain of her reality to the surreal surfaces of her canvases. The next year, my brother bought me a book of her published diary entries (complete with colored-pencil doodles and mini watercolors, and filled with pages of her thoughts and feelings: mostly musings about, worries for, and anger toward her husband, Diego Rivera...Kahlo had something of an obsession of her own, or you could call it crazy love, or maybe just love, I don't know).

When I look at Kahlo's paintings, I understand that there are no new wounds in life, that the things that bring us happiness and the things that bring us to are knees are the same, across cultural lines and through generations. I think she was a genius. But the more I collect--books of her paintings, postcards with her image, a page of the USPS stamp with her likeness on it, and (a gift from my parents) a nightlight featuring one of her paintings--the more I want to know about her. The more I want to climb into one of those paintings and swim around in the murky and mournful melancholy that was Kahlo, the kind of melancholy that seems to haunt all the best artists (how lucky for the rest of us: for the sparing of it ourselves and for the spoils that we have the fortune to enjoy because of these tortured souls).

Last year I purchased a print of Kahlo's Self Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky as the finishing touch to my room decor (I chose this painting because I always thought her tryst with Trotsky was more interesting than her marriage to Rivera, mostly, though, because I feel a 50-year-after-the-fact-even-though-it's-totally-irrelevant-to-me-or-any-part-of-my-life sting every time I think about Rivera's having cheated on her with her own sister...grrrrrr). The problem was that I didn't have the money to have the painting framed the way I wanted to, so it sat in its packaging in the corner of my room until just last week, when I opted for the less interesting yet budget-savvy Cost Plus frame.

Kelsi laughed at me when I asked her opinion about putting some silver wall sconces on either side of the slightly gold-gilded frame. "The colors are fine," she said, "but it looks a little, I don't know, shriney."

I looked at Kahlo sandwiched between these two candle holders and realized Kelsi was right. Not only that, but my having given Kahlo that kind of status on my wall was not a fluke. I actually have even more admiration for her than I thought. If there's any woman in history whose mind, whose life I would like to wear like a costume for a day or two, it would be hers. I want to know what that kind of beautiful madness feels like. I want to know what it feels like to reach all the way into the deepest corners of my rueful soul and conjure up a masterpiece.

I had placed the portrait on the wall I face when I go to sleep. When I closed my eyes that night, I felt this kind of strength presiding over me-the strangest thing. It was a strength from which I felt I could draw. This print had achieved a Dorian Gray kind of life--even in all its lifelessness--on my wall. It made me wish I'd opted for the budget-savvy frame months ago. Who knows what I could have achieved by now?

Believe me, I know how borderline-creepy this borderline-obsession is, but, in my own defense, at least I didn't pick some kind of fictional character like Laura Croft or some really lame movie star like Keanu Reeves to immortalize and kowtow to (no actual kowtowing involved, by the way, but definitely some figurative genuflection). This was a real woman, one who survived some of the most heartbreaking sorrows and who turned that pain into beautiful art. I can only stand back and sing her praises; but on that subject, I do hope--for the preservation of her dignity--that Andrew Lloyd Webber never writes a musical about her.


Anonymous said...


Kahlo had something of an obsession of her own, or you could call it crazy love, or maybe just love, I don't know??Love is just obessions w/o restraining orders.


Jesse E. said...


Or should I say Keysha?

We need to talk about this...