In this painting, most of Kahlo's body is obscured from view. We are unusually confronted with the foot and plug end of the bath, and with focus placed on the artist's feet. Furthermore, Kahlo adopts a birds-eye view and looks down on the water from above. Within the water, Kahlo paints an alternative self-portrait, one in which the more traditional facial portrait has been replaced by an array of symbols and recurring motifs. The artist includes portraits of her parents, a traditional Tehuana dress, a perforated shell, a dead hummingbird, two female lovers, a skeleton, a crumbling skyscraper, a ship set sail, and a woman drowning. This painting was featured in Breton's 1938 book on Surrealism and Painting and Hayden Herrera, in her biography of Kahlo, mentions that the artist herself considered this work to have a special importance. Recalling the tapestry style painting of Northern Renaissance masters, Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the figures and objects floating in the water of Kahlo's painting create an at once fantastic and real landscape of memory.
Kahlo discussed What the Water Gave Me with the Manhattan gallery owner Julien Levy, and suggested that it was a sad piece that mourned the loss of her childhood. Perhaps the strangled figure at the center is representative of the inner emotional torments experienced by Kahlo herself. It is clear from the conversation that the artist had with Levy, that Kahlo was aware of the philosophical implications of her work. In an interview with Herrera, Levy recalls, in 'a long philosophical discourse, Kahlo talked about the perspective of herself that is shown in this painting'. He further relays that 'her idea was about the image of yourself that you have because you do not see your head. The head is something that is looking but is not seen. It is what one carries around to look at life with.' The artist's head in What the Water Gave Me is thus appropriately replaced by the interior thoughts that occupy her mind. As well as inclusion of death by strangulation in the center of the water, there is also a labia-like flower and a cluster of pubic hair painted between Kahlo's legs. The work is quite sexual while also showing a preoccupation with destruction and death. The motif of the bathtub in art is one that has been popular since Jacques-Louis David's The Death of Marat (1793), and was later taken up many different personalities such as Francesca Woodman and Tracey Emin.
What the Water Gave Me (Lo que el agua me dio in Spanish) is an oil painting by Frida Kahlo that was completed in 1938. It is sometimes referred to as What I Saw in the Water.
Frida Kahlo’s What the Water Gave Me has been called 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.
Kahlo's toes point up from the water in a bathtub and are reflected back into the water. They dominate the painting, and, along with an underwater view of her thighs, are all that can be seen of her in this self-portrait. In the water float remnants of Kahlo's life. There is an island which holds a volcano erupting a skyscraper, a dead woodpecker perched upon a tree, and a small skeleton resting upon a hill. From this island a tight rope begins which creates a diamond-like shape within the center of the tub, and eventually wraps around the neck of a naked female figure, who floats Ophelia-like. From this female figure, who may represent Kahlo herself, the rope returns into the hand of a faceless man lounging on the edge of the island, who seems to be watching the woman that he is distantly strangling.
Also floating in the bathtub are an empty Mexican dress, a seashell full of bullet-holes, a couple that resemble Kahlo's parents from her earlier painting My Grandparents My Parents and I, and two female lovers who later reappear in her 1939 painting Two Nudes in a Forest.
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.
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