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November 16, 2006

Claudia Schaefer on Apocalypse and Rebirth: Pain as Filter for the Observation of Reality

Frida Kahlo

From ‘Frida Kahlo’s Cult of the Body: Self-Portrait, Magical Realism, and the Cosmic Race’

As Frida Kahlo is a sufferer (of the trolley accident, of polio and scoliosis), Claudia Schaefer identifies her in this essay with Samuel Taylor Coleridge who suffered rheumatism all his life. Here is what Schaefer believes they have in common:
• the experience of ‘a physical apocalypse’ that effected their art;
• and the relation to drugs and addiction (Coleridge’s theorisation about drugs and art and Kahlo’s alcohol and morphine abuse).

Schaefer quotes from Coleridge’s letters when he writes about illness and pain as a ‘Storehouse of wild Dreams for Poems, or intellectual Facts for metaphysical Speculation’ (qtd. by Appleyard, 72). Schaefer remembers the figure of the Ancient Mariner who is figured as a wandering Jew. In telling his tale over and over, the mariner recreate moments of pain in the hope that they will be recognized by the listener. Schaefer relates this to the trials of pilgrims.

For Kahlo, her permanently open physical and mental wounds are displayed as communication of that pain to the viewer and to engage in dialogue with her own dilapidated body and mind. Schaefer notices that Kahlo’s body is never alone but usually amongst people, animals, objects or characteristics of the landscape, yet it is the body that performs ‘the shared spectacle of suffering’ (15).

This self-consciousness confirms and substantiates (…) that Kahlo has extended the passive biological aspect of human existence to the active remembrance and consideration of human biological functions in the context of sexual activity and the ever-narrowing sphere between life and death. It might even be concluded that Kahlo creates an aesthetic of pain in which eroticism and death, or suffering and pleasure, are as closely entwined as she and Rivera, or as she and nature, are represented in her paintings. (15)

In painting the suffering Frida, ‘she’ is brought into existence and Schaefer sees this in terms of Bataille’s theorizing about acts of substitution where the individual is reconnected to a feeling of continuity (see Erotism: Death and Sensuality). Life-force is close to the threat of death in this figuring apparently. Schaefer thinks that Kahlo’s accident brings sex and death together.

Schaefer notes, however, that the pain for Kahlo is real and the physical pain enacts mental pain at her burdening with a disabled body (?!). Kahlo paints as an outlet for this pain: ‘The suffering image […] is narcissistic in its self-examination and exhibition, yet it is also cathartic in its public display of self-affirmation’ (16). Schaefer refers here to paintings that show Kahlo’s despair at the failures to repair her wounded body. In these works, Kahlo’s body is both a passive object of scientific study and a subjective, autonomous being: ‘The eyes – being both observer and observed, looking outward yet into a mirror – are always gazing at themselves, as does the artist for the creation of her self-portrait, to discover the identity being presented to the public and to look simultaneously at the observer, possibly attempting to analyze the reaction to their appearance or solicit complicity in consideration of this dilemma. (16)

In parallel with the viewer/object binary are juxtapositions between the US and Latin America. Schaefer refers to “Self-Portrait on the Border Between the US and Mexico”http://employees.oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/Images/ARTH200/Women/kahlo/border_Mexico_US.jpg (1932) and My Dress Hangs There (1933). Schaefer’s interpretation of My Dress Hangs There is rather predictable: ‘the abandoned native costume (an empty tradition)’ (17). What makes her think that it is abandoned? Schafer concludes sensibly though that there is ‘no bedrock on which to foster the construction of cultural, political, or personal equilibrium’ (17).

Schaefer compares Kahlo’s art with the theory of Susan Sontag suggesting that both offer ‘science and technology as vehicles for opening up, for opening what has been a closed wound’ in women’s bodies and social bodies (17). Schaefer lists relevant works here including:
Frida and the Abortion (1932),
Remembrance of an Open Wound (1938),
My Birth (1932),
The Two Fridas (1939),
The Broken Column (1944),
Tree of Hope (1946),
• and Viva la Vida (1954).

These paintings reflect the illness that Kahlo suffered and the loss of people in her life, apparently. Schaefer imagines authorities suggesting that Kahlo gives up her body to pain and that her paintings resist this by recreating herself in her paintings as visible in society. Schaefer quotes Elaine Scarry who suggests that the body in pain must always be self-obsessed. Schaefer sees this in What the Water Gave Me (1938/39) and My Dress Hangs There.

There is also the presence of violence towards the body. Kahlo tried to attempt suicide and Schaefer sees such attempts as a means to be free of the burden of the body (!?). However, they can also be seen as affirmative of existence and proof of life. Schaefer here notes the speculation that Kahlo ‘demanded or submitted to more surgical procedures than absolutely necessary’ (19) (!?). Schaefer believes that Kahlo wanted to prolong her role as victim and/or martyr. Schaefer continues in this speculative, biographical vein noting that the frame of Kahlo’s self-portraits reflect her view of the world as an invalid.

Thankfully, Schaefer now returns to Coleridge noting that Stephen Bygrave in an essay on that poet describes Coleridge’s egotism as active and asserting the self rather than passive. Schaefer believes that this is true of Kahlo also.

Schaefer now turns to the influence of ex-voto paintings , storytelling Mexican murals and Michoacan ceramics . Somehow she now turns to the cult of celebrity that influences Kahlo and then to her paintings as images of vulgar and earthy topic.

Schaefer believes that Kahlo splits her personality in two: ‘I’ and ‘she’. Once more she descends into biographical detail trying to guess when this first ‘happened’ as if it is not an artistic conceit. She comes to the boring conclusion that one half is male, the other female etc. etc. The self of the outer world allows Kahlo to step out of her pain. She cannot escape herself, but she can study it.

Kahlo also paints with consciousness of the viewer and the painting’s effect on him or her. Schaefer even goes as far as to suggest that Kahlo wants ‘healing or acceptance’ from the viewer (21). The paintings can:
• ‘punish or self-punish’ (identifying with Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (21);
• ‘evoke sympathy’ (21);
• ‘reconcile lovers’ (21);
• ‘seduce the public’s gaze’ (21);
• ‘express some kind of public repentance or visible reflection of her grief (guilt)’ (21);
• represent ‘pain as a salable product in society’ (22);
• and perform ‘the reification of her own image’ (22).

Schaefer, Claudia. Textured Lives: Women, Art and Representation in Modern Mexico. Tucson and London: The University of Arizona Press, 1992. 3-36.


November 14, 2006

Claudia Schaefer on Kahlo in Context

Writing about web page http://www.weta.org/pressroom/frida/

The body is a site where the political and the aesthetic interpret the material. — Elizabeth A. Meese (Crossing the Double Cross)

Kahlo in Context

Frida KahloFrom ‘Frida Kahlo’s Cult of the Body: Self-Portrait, Magical Realism, and the Cosmic Race’

Schaefer begins by pointing out that Kahlo is in a tradition of artists concerned with medical imagery including ‘wounds, operations, abortions, birth, and amputations’ (3). Schaefer believes that this emerges from the period of examination following the Mexican Revolution in which Kahlo lived. Schaefer also notes ‘the use of the personalized point of view of the female victim/patient’ rather than imagery of objective science. The body is not an object for the male gaze, but ‘a physically and psychologically naked, conscious presence seen through her own eyes and functioning as a valid focal point of artistic “narrativisation” ’ (4).

None of Kahlo’s paintings, whether overtly ‘autobiographical self-portraits or only indirectly self-referential, portray possessive/possessed, dominated objects of pornography (clothed or unclothed, as befits the scopophilic perspective of the viewer), nor do they reinforce the codified myths of Mexican society’s reverence for the virginal woman. On the contrary, what they show is a centered [sic] or framed series of real, aging, often inform, almost palpable, wounded or mutilated bodies, thus reversing a process of “silencing,” “banishment,” and “marginality generally imposed on the female body is modern discourse. (4).

Kahlo also creates a desiring “I” which Schaefer sees in terms of Jean-Pierre Guillerme’s nineteenth century article on art and medicine and his epigraph which demands self-consciousness for the whole human being:

On a beaucoup trop oublié les deux éléments qui s’ajoutent à la biologie pour que l’HOMO BIOLOGICUS devienne un être humain. C’est-à-dire la conscience de la sexualité et de la mort.

It has been too often forgotten that there are two elements that are added to biology in order that HOMO BIOLOGICUS BECOME A HUMAN BEING. Namely, the consciousness {both} of sexuality and of death.

Sexuality and death are two of Kahlo’s major concerns according to Schaefer. Kahlo deals with these themes by ‘ studying [the body] piece by piece within the context of the concurrent expression of life functions and death functions’ (5). The body is both ;an object of scientific interest’ and ‘an intimate object of sacrifice’ (5). Schaefer believes that after her accident on a trolley in Mexico City in 1925, Kahlo developed ‘a hypersensitivity to or hyperconsciousness of life as constantly inhabited by remainders of death’, such as the Mexican Day of the Dead festivities (5). Sexuality is a means of communicating and breaking through this deadening hyperconsciousness. Yet quoting Frederic Jameson in …, Schaefer also affirms that such personal narratives also represent the situation of the country of Mexico as a whole and as a third-world country.

Thinking historically for a moment, Schaefer notes the feudal morals that dominated the pre-revolutionary Mexico of Porfirio Díaz. This society had ‘the natural right of possession of women and land (both as property)’ (5). After the revolution, a new society was being constructed but there was conflict between the influences of ‘the United States immediately to the north, and the pull of its own historical tradition’ (6). Schafer refers to Juan García Ponce who sees in Mexico’s search for identity a romantic quest in which the protagonists try to unite tradition and economic revolutions. Although nation-makers in Mexico believes in progress and democracy, their attitudes to women did not change radically. Women were stuck firmly in tradición rather than revolución . According to Schaefer, women were thought of in three categories: ‘the doll-like beauty, the subjugated wife and mother, and the prostitute’ (7). Women who spoke up for themselves were a threat to the male-ordered society that dominated Mexico.

In the art world, women were often silent playing the role of discreet wife, while the men were the professionals. Women who did dabble maintained their art ‘at the level of a trivial, private hobby’ (7). The subject for their art was the private sphere. In relation to Kahlo, Schaefer writes: ‘Kahlo’s dolls and abortions can be seen as a dramatic and tragic parody of this cultural prescription for women’s art’ (7). Schaefer believes that Kahlo’s paintings would have been all the more fascinating for her contemporaries, because the intimacy of women’s bodies was not represented in the public sphere. The stuff of everyday life is reproduced in a tabloid-esque style and Kahlo exploits ‘the public’s ambiguity towards such representations’ (8). Like Posada, Kahlo asks the viewer to confront his or her own fear and the trick is in the way that she forces us to realise how fascinated we are by the grotesque.

Schaefer refers here to Mexican morbid curiosity and the mummified corpses of Guanajuato. I visited Guanajuato in 2004 and saw these ‘mummies’, which are actually bodies upturned by a mudslide and preserved by the minerals in the soil. The people of Guanajuato decided to put the bodies on display because they were so surprised by how well they had been preserved and they are still on display today, including the mummy of a foetus. Yet Schaefer notes that even these mummies are hidden in tunnels below the city and one enters by invitation.

Schaefer compares this to Kahlo and our knowledge of her ‘life-and-death struggles’ as well as our awareness that her body is on display in much of her work. However, Schaefer states: ‘It is not the object itself that is consumed by the spectator/intruder but an interpretation of it based on her own vision and point of view, which are conditioned by cultural values’ (9). Kahlo’s work shocks with its exposure of the body and although it uses domestic subjects, it is in no way domestic.

From the 20s to the 40s, there was a strong interest in indigenous Mexicans and ‘lo mexicano’, but women’s rights were not being extended. There were new activist groups and projects:
• the Ateneo de la Juvetud (Young People’s Athenaeum) which sought liberal ideals in literature and philosophy;
• and the book La raza cósmica circulated José Vasconcelos’ ideas who organized the mural projects as education secretary.

Schaefer argues against the interpretation of Kahlo’s work in relation to the Surrelaist movement of Breton et al and prefers to consider Kahlo in the category of magical realism.

Schaefer gives a brief outline of the genre of magical realism making the following points:
• that Franz Roh invented the term in relation to the visual arts in Europe;
• that American continental narratives appropriated the term (Arturo Uslar Pietri, Angel Flores, Carpentier);
• that the genre ‘glosses over social and economic discrepancies in favor [sic] of promoting an “exotic” artistic whole’ (11);
• and that the split between pre-Columbian culture and European ideas in Mexico meets Jameson’s criteria for production of magical realism.

So Kahlo’s work has a number of tensions: death and sexuality, nation-making and the woman problem, pre-Columbian culture and European capitalism, the real and the imaginary.

But what about her work as an autobiographical discourse? Schaefer mentions her self portraits of the 1930s and 40s and she notes that they were painted during a period when Mexican society was ‘cultivating the individual, bourgeois personality through the movie-star network with its wide-screen projection of illusions for vicarious social fulfillment’ (12). Schaefer mentions stars like Emilio Fernández, Mario Moreno, María Félix and Dolores del Río and she suggests that ‘Kahlo’s self-portraits utilize and play on consumer society’s reification of the face as the icon of feminine beauty’ (12).

The mask, whether literal or figurative, covers the ‘shadowy’ space behind it, which is composed of an uncharted and unconquered terrain that she suggestively exploits and explodes. This tantalizing lure of the ‘exotic’ or the Other is represented by Kahlo through the cracks and fissures in the mask that promise insight or revelation but that neither exhaust nor ever completely reveal, leaving intact a certain element of the unknown – a Hollywood –type mystique, as it were – after the viewer’s gaze has been enticed to draw nearer. On this surface, then, Kahlo unites cultural and individual fantasies of knowledge/self-knowledge in one problematic space of attraction and concealment (masquerade) in a perpetual cycle of gaze and counter-gaze. Her self portraits reproduce this point of confrontation and re-evoke its enticing closure with only the cracks for the observer to peer voyeuristically through, perhaps simultaneously conjuring up an image of the outsider’s looking at Mexico through the spaces of the so-called cortina de nopal (cactus curtain). (12-13)

Schaefer, Claudia. Textured Lives: Women, Art and Representation in Modern Mexico. Tucson and London: The University of Arizona Press, 1992. 3-36.


November 02, 2006

A Frida Kahlo Glossary

‘ “All Art is at Once Surface and Symbol” ‘: A Frida Kahlo Glossary’ by Tanya Barson

Dexter Emma and Tanya Barson eds. Frida Kahlo. London: Tate Publishing, 2005. 54-79

Androgyny
• ‘a sign of Kahlo’s early desire to confront and subvert the strict gender roles assigned within Mexican society and to be involved in the active, public and professional spheres traditionally dominated by men’;
• ‘symbolic of rebellious sexuality’;
• ‘an expression of a defining experience [seduction by her teacher when she was thirteen]’;
• ‘a way perhaps of aligning herself with images of physically robust Tehuana women’;
• ‘a gesture of retaliation for Diego’s affairs’ (56).

Frida Kahlo - My Birth

Birth
• ‘related […] to her experiences of miscarriage and abortion’;
• ‘ideas of fertility and the cycle of life and death’;
• ‘an examination of origins’;
• ‘self birth or creation’ (56);
• ‘her often difficult relationship with a distant and devoutly Catholic mother’;
• ‘ambivalent view of motherhood’;
• ‘fundamental taboos governing the female body’;
• Tlazolteotl: ‘an Aztec goddess of fertility associated with concepts of filth and purification’;
• the butterfly: ‘a symbol of the eternal soul in both Christian and Aztec belief’ (57).

Blood
• ‘metaphysical suffering’;
• Christ’s Passion;
• ‘[t]he sacred or bleeding heart’;
• Catholicism: ‘blood is a symbol of life and redemption through Christ’s sacrifice and red is therefore the symbolic colour of martyrdom’;
• Aztec belief: ‘blood was man’s most precious possession, a source of vital energy and nourishment for the gods and regeneration of the cosmos’;
• Aztec sacrifice;
• uterine blood: ‘ambivalent attitudes towards womanhood, fertility and childbirth’;
• ‘ambivalence of abjection’;
• ‘magenta symbolises blood’;
• ‘red ribbons stand in for umbilical cords or family blood ties’;
• blood heritage.

Chingada
• to be chingada: ‘wounded, broken, torn open or deceived’;
• chingado/a: a recipient of abuse;
• chingon: perpetrator of abuse;
• chingada: associated with motherhood, La Llorona, ‘the violated mother’ (60).

Cosmology
• Eastern mysticism, Hinduism and Buddhism;
• the third eye.

Difuntitos
• a day in the Day of the Dead festival is dedicated to difunitos or deceased children;
• post-mortem portraiture;
• ‘portraits of “dead angels” ’ (63).

Dualism
• Kahlo and Rivera, male and female;
• life and death, divine and mortal;
• light and dark, sun and moon (Teotihuacan culture), night and day;
• interior and exterior, body and mind;
• Yin and Yang.
• conch and shell = male and female sexual organs;
• doppelgänger or mirror image;
• Aztec animal counterparts or alter-egos (64).

Hummingbird (Huitzilopochtli)
• ‘Kahlo identified herself with the hummingbird’;
• ‘a symbol to suggest her successive experiences of loss through love’;
• the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli, “hummingbird on the left”, ‘guided the Aztecs on their epic journey to the site of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City)’ [?] (67).

In Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, she wears a dead hummingbird around her neck, thus reversing its traditional meaning to bad luck, injury and death. The painting was made following her remarriage to Rivera but was given to her former lover Nickolas Murray. The frontal composition of the painting bears a strong relationship to the photographs that Murray had taken of Kahlo, but also gives it a hieratic grandeur and beauty. In 1946 she made a drawing in which her eyebrows transform into a hummingbird. (67)

Masks
• Kahlo was called ‘La Gran Oscultadura (the great concealer)’ by friends;
• ‘Through her work there is a constant oscillation between masking and unmasking, self-concealment and self-exposure’;
• ‘there remain levels of disguise and camouflage in the obscure symbolism’;
• ‘Masks feature as intimations of death’ (70).

In one self-portrait painting, The Mask 1945, she wears a weeping Malinche mask, identifying herself with the anti-heroine and Mexican ‘Eve’. The emotion of the fake face perhaps conceals Kahlo’s habitually inscrutable expression, thus by adopting a mask, she paradoxically reveals more feeling than she does unmasked. (70).

Monkey
• ‘substitutes for the children Kahlo was unable to have’;
• ‘Since the Middle Ages they have symbolised the devil, heresy and paganism, later coming to represent the fall of man, vice and the embodiment of lust’ (used by Brueghel in this way who Kahlo admired);
• ‘the agent of licentious temptation’;
• ‘a symbol cautioning against excessive love, referring most often to parental love’;
• ‘flattery or blind love’;
• ‘In Mesoamerican culture monkeys represented sexual intercourse but in this context it was viewed as natural rather than sinful’;
• ‘the artist and imitative arts of painting and sculpture’ (71).


‘Reflecting on Kahlo: Mirrors, Masquerade and the Politics of Identification’ by Oriana Baddeley

Dexter Emma and Tanya Barson eds. Frida Kahlo. London: Tate Publishing, 2005. 47 – 53.

Underlying our responses to Frida’s art is a recognition of the projected Frida who stares out of the canvas. Here is a woman whom we think we know; her emotional ups and downs; her tastes for the unusual and symbolic; her complex love life, all remind us of elements of our own emotional lives. Her world is both known yet unknowable, like photographs of an aged parent with whom we can feel intimate yet separate. (50)

Kahlo, Frida - Fulang Chang and I at MOMA

Baddeley discusses Fulang Chang and I (1937) which was hung in the 1990s in MOMA alongside a mirror, so: ‘The spectators of the work were not only confronted by the face of the artist but also by their own, a curatorial decision that emphasised the later theoretical work above that of its initial content’ (50). Baddeley notes that Kahlo’s resurgence is related to cultural shifts in the United States, but also to the sense of the tragic that is associated with her life. For some artists Kahlo has become a symbol of ‘North American fascination with icons of minority culture’ (50).

Baddeley notices the synthesis in Kahlo’s work of indigenous cultures and Western fashions, of the body and the landscape in paintings like The Two Fridas (1939) and Tree of Hope Keep Firm (1946).

There is no more one true Frida than there is one true Mexico. The denial of absolute identity is the key to an understanding of Kahlo, her love of dressing up a rejection of the idea of the fixed or unchangeable. Knowledge and recognition of history can transform the present and in a sense, become the ultimate makeover. (52)


May 15, 2006

Parallels Between Frida Kahlo and Pascale Petit: the Problem of Confession

Writing about web page http://www.fridakahlo.it/

Frida Kahlo

Next Monday (22nd May) I am going to be part of a panel at the Arts Faculty seminar talking about women and life-writing. I will be talking specifically on the Welsh-French poet, Pascale Petit, and her poems on the Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo, in The Wounded Deer: Fourteen Poems After Frida Kahlo . I am going to talk about the problem of confession and how Petit turns to writing ‘biographical’ poems about another woman.

I think that Deryn Rees-Jones’ comment in Consorting with Angels may have some relevance here:

The woman who confesses is frequently read as testifying only to her anguish and her own “weakness”; she is simply revealing the awfulness of femininity which was known to be there all along, and which, in the most simplistic terms has led to her oppression in the first place. And it is here that we see the exact nature of the problem: for if the woman poet does remain silent, if the awfulness of her confessional truth is such that it will only oppress her further, she is left where she started and cannot speak at all. Alternatively, she can speak a version of self which also confirms a certain kind of femininity – that of beauty passivity, orderliness and self-control – but which nevertheless fails to “tell it like it is”. (Deryn Rees-Jones, 25)

Petit suffers this problem and interestingly so does Kahlo. Some have and do say that to craete a mythical version of oneself in one’s writing will inevitably lead to an audience seeing that version as one and the same as the ‘authentic’ self and that artists that follow this route should be prepared to face the consequences.

At the recent Frida Kahlo exhibition (Tate Modern 9th June – 9th October 2005), the curator’s commetary began with the question ‘Who was Frida Kahlo?’, a question that revealed more about the cult of personality that has grown up around Kahlo than her art. (1) This biographical slant remained an integral part of the commentary:

  • ‘Certainly the biographical details of her remarkable life inflect many aspects of her work’. (1)
  • Commenting on The Bus : ‘The modern young woman at the end of the bench could be taken for Frida herself.’ (5)
  • Commenting on Khalo’s watercolours: ‘An unassuming sketch in thsi room records the accident that was to change Kahlo’s life so dramatically.’ (7)
  • Commenting on Kahlo’s ex-voto paintings: ‘rather than being tokens of gratitude, Kahlo’s ‘ex-votos’ are unflinching images of traumatic events drawn from her own experience, in which life and death coalesce.’ (7)
  • Commenting on Henry Ford Hospital : ‘The link to sterility probably relates to Kahlo’s sense of her own infertility.’ (10)
  • Commenting on Two Nudes in a Forest : ’’The painting also touches on Kahlo’s bisexuality – the pair are watched by a spider monkey, a symbol of lust – and could equally be interpreted as Kahlo herself and a woman she loved.’ (20)
  • Commenting on Kahlo’s death: ‘Doctors reported a pulmonary embolism, relating to a bout of pnuemonia, though it has also been suggested that she committed suicide.’ (29-30)
  • Commenting on Surrealism: ‘This dream-like imagery may owe something to Surrealism, of which, despite her statements to the contrary, Kahlo was very likely aware.’ (15)

I list the curator’s comments here to show how much room is made for speculation and how often confessional, self-driven art gives the viewer (or reader) such a sense of knowing the artist that statements like the lats one on Surrealism appear. The interpreter knows more about the intentions behind the art than the artist.


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