When she was first rendered as an engraving by Thomas Stothard, in the late eighteenth century, and later painted, in 1801—and still today—“The Voyage of the Sable Venus” was considered a visual travesty, an inversion of order. “How, at the height of slavery, could a black woman be drawn by dolphins through the primordial seas, adored and attended by the gods of Classical Greece?” goes the purist response, meaning the gods would never be seen in the company of a black female body, not to mention serve as her attendants. Others, recognizing immediately the atrocious irony, still question whether the painting was a satire. For, in 1801, her scallop shell could only be a metaphorical slave ship. Did the Sable Venus enjoy her trip across the Atlantic, gliding along the Middle Passage, guided by a white male celestial harem, destined for slavery?
The concise yet lyrical story follows Frida from her polio-scarred childhood in Mexico, to the nearly fatal accident that inflicted on her a lifetime of physical pain but also sparked her foray into painting, to her intense and complicated romance with Diego Rivera, to her spirited politics, to her creative and critical success as one of the most original and influential artists of the twentieth century. The call-and-response of pain and beauty emerges as the constant chorus of her life while she transforms, again and again, trauma into transcendent art.
At six, Frida fell ill with polio. She was confined to her room for nine months and her right leg withered. To help her gain strength, her father encouraged her to take up sports that were usually reserved for boys.