Thinking about the above photograph of Frida Kahlo taken by Gisèle Freund. Frida is in the process of painting a portrait of her dead father. By the time she created the painting, her father had been dead a decade. He died in 1941. She did the painting in 1951. A decade. Around the same amount of time my own father has been dead.
I see my dead father in every other dead father.
It feels like a very tender act to paint a portrait of a dead loved one. It feels loving. It feels sacred. To paint a face and a body that no longer exist. To substitute painted hair for real hair, painted skin for real skin. An exchange. You can’t have the flesh, so you settle for the paint.
Think of how she painted every strand of his hair, every blemish on his face. Think of how she reconstructed him as a way to say that she loved him. Painting as an act of exhumation. Of course, she had photos of him, but a painting is something very different from a photograph. It involves a certain level of labor and imagination. This is not just her father as he was but as she knew him and remembered him. By painting him, she could be with him again, be close to him, to his likeness, to the version of him that she created in paint.
I often envy visual artists. They can paint a portrait, give us a tangible representation of a person, and we can see it and know that it’s real. The writer must do something else. The writer must express the intangible, the unseen, the inner world, the textures of a person. They raise the dead in very different ways and through very different means.
I can’t paint my father’s hair or skin. I can’t re-create his face on a canvas. I can’t even look at photos of him. I know he lived, but I don’t know how he isn’t alive anymore. How can that be? I wonder all the time. How is he gone? How can it be possible? How can it be true?