The miracle of Dorothy Hale

ART XPRESS - ART XPRESS By Clarissa Chikiamco () - November 20, 2006 - 12:00am
In the city of New York on the 21st of the month of October, 1938, at six in the morning, Mrs. Dorothy Hale committed suicide by throwing herself out of a very high window of the Hampshire House building. In her memory, this retablo, having executed it Frida Kahlo."

This testimony, inscribed in Spanish at the bottom of the painting "The Suicide of Dorothy Hale," is part of a retablo ex-voto (meaning "the promise of" or "the miracle of"), a Mexican votive painting portraying the scene of a miracle. Ironically, Frida Kahlo used this style to paint the various states of suicide of Hale, a society woman. Yet, Kahlo did the piece without any malicious intention and it possibly suggests her own thoughts on suicide, rather than being a portrayal of actual events.

The first state is of Dorothy Hale leaping from her suite at a Manhattan high rise. The figure is quite small yet distinguishable enough for the viewer to see the shape of her head, her arms lightly outstretched and her knees slightly bent under a black dress. Rather than legs awkwardly split apart or arms closely drawn to the body or widely flailing about, such a position is quite gentle for a fall to death.

The second state shows Dorothy Hale midway through her fall. Her figure is much larger and more evident. She is in an inverted position, head to the ground. Her right leg is slightly bent while her left casually stretches out to the side. It seems she is very relaxed, which is affirmed by the expression of her face. Her forehead does not furrow and her lips are neither pressed tightly against each other nor open in a paralyzing scream. She looks directly at the viewer without a trace of animosity, accusation, despair, horror, determination or anxiousness. Like her arms submitting to the pull of gravity below her head, her gaze is more of a submission – an acceptance of her fate as she descends to her death in graceful composure.

It is in this state where attention is called to the clouds, with curved, thin trunks and tapered ends. They lean on the opaque, even obscuring the color of the dress to a sheer blue, yet become more indistinct when relegated to the sides of the canvas. As they swirl around and envelop her in fall, the ghostlike clouds circle above Hale’s dead body and mimic vultures about to devour prey. It is this haunting rhythm which attests to the surrealist style of Kahlo.

The dead body of Hale is the largest of the three states and undeniably gruesome. The building looms and acts like a tombstone. Hale’s left leg, with the use of shadow, horrifyingly pokes out of the painting in a trompe l’oeil effect. Spattered on the cheek and left arm, blood sickeningly stains the ground. Expanding to the frame, the blood seeps into the cracks and seems to drip. The lower portion of the frame is tinged with golden yellow, the color of bodily fluids like bile. And though dead, Hale manages a penetrating, if unsettling, stare.

It is no wonder then that upon seeing the painting, Clare Booth Luce, a former managing editor of Vanity Fair magazine and a close friend of the deceased, was aghast. She had commissioned the painting, thinking that Kahlo would paint a portrait of Hale from memory and it would make a nice present for Hale’s mother. To her horror, it was of the suicide! Hale was even painted in the "Madame X" black velvet dress Luce had advised her to wear in her farewell party (Hale held the party for herself, supposedly for a "long trip" she was taking). A part of the painting reads in fine blood-red script, "The Suicide of Dorothy Hale, painted at the request of Clare Booth Luce, for the mother of Dorothy." After being persuaded not to destroy the painting, Luce succeeded in having this blotted out.

While this painting is admittedly grisly, it was surely not a cruel prank on the part of the artist. Instead of irony, perhaps Kahlo did believe that the suicide of her friend Hale was actually a miracle, an act of grace.

A beautiful former showgirl, Hale had one tragedy after another after her husband’s death. Left with little money and accustomed to a rich lifestyle, Hale attempted a career as an actress and hoped to marry the political advisor to President Roosevelt, Howard Hopkins. She was rejected in both. And so with $1,000 that someone had given her to buy the "most beautiful dress in New York" (with which to snare a husband), she bought her dress and plunged to her death in it after her farewell party.

Hale’s flight from tragedy, though the end result be death, was perhaps envied by Kahlo. Kahlo herself had dealt with extremely excruciating pain, having constantly to go through operations since an accident at age 18. She was also addicted to painkillers, alcohol and her philandering husband Diego Rivera, the Mexican muralist. In what may have been a suicide, she died in 1958 and, however one perceives it, it was an end to a life of unusual bodily and emotional pain.

This can be attested to by the peaceful look on Hale’s face despite the gore. For lack of movement in brows and lips, the expressive eyes tell of a certain willing acceptance of fate and of death. A symbol in the original artwork of this painting also affirms the belief that Kahlo saw a miracle in her friend’s death. In true retablo style wherein a saint or a deity is invoked upon the act, an angel appears on top, perhaps being ready to carry the appeased soul of Hale to heaven. This angel was unfortunately taken out due to Luce’s furious reaction to the work.

While seemingly insensitive at first, "The Suicide of Dorothy Hale" tells us how in Kahlo’s eyes, suicide may not be such a tragedy after all.
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