Frida Kahlo, one of the most recognizable and iconic artists of the 20th Century, and certainly one of Mexico’s greatest painters. What a true original she was! Everything she did: from her clothes, to her art, to her lifestyle, was just so different from everyone else around her.
I think the mold must have been broken the day she was born, and who has come along to replace her? Her instantly recognizable furry eyebrow, traditional indigenous dresses and jewelry, along with her vivid and famous self-portraits make Frida one of those artists whose public image sticks in your mind as an incredibly intriguing person.
Yet like so many talented artists, her life was wracked with pain and the substance abuse that she used to dull that pain. But her torments were those of a physical nature, not so much the stereotypical “tortured artist” that many us of have come to know. Yes, Frida was tortured, but it was her own body and ailments that brought her pain, and perhaps were the drivers behind her creative genius.
An oddball eccentric from the get go, Frida Kahlo was born in 1907 in the village/suburb of Mexico City known as Coyoacán. It has now been swallowed up by the seething mass of the Mexico City, but still retains a pleasant air to go strolling around while visiting her childhood home. Her father, a photographer by trade, was originally from Germany, and her mother was of Spanish and Indigenous descent via Oaxaca.
Kahlo described her childhood home as “very sad” and her parent’s relationship as loveless. Frida was not exactly the luckiest person in the world when it came to physical health either. She contracted polio at the age of six, which, although she was able to recover, left her housebound for a great length of time along with a permanently weakened right leg. Still, her father encouraged her to pursue sports as a way to rehabilitate, as well as home schooling her in philosophy, literature and photography.
in 1922, Frida enrolled in the Elite National Preparatory School, one of only 35 women in a total student body of 2000. She excelled academically and thought about becoming a doctor. She also immersed herself in the politics of the day, surrounding herself with other left-wing student intellectuals committed to Mexican culture, political activism and social justice. It was also at school that she first watched her future husband, Diego Rivera, painting a mural in the school’s lecture hall.
Again however, luck was not with her, and a traffic accident involving a bus she was riding and a streetcar left her with severe, life-threatening injuries. The force of the collision impaled a steel guardrail through her side, exiting out her back above the thigh. Although she survived, the accident left her an invalid for several months, as well as seriously damaging her spine.
As a result of her injuries, she would continue to suffer pain and physical deterioration for the rest of her life. But, at the very least, her long period of recuperation at home left her many quiet hours to develop her budding talents as an artist. Starting with self-portraits and paintings of her family members, Kahlo soon desired to “begin again, painting things just as I saw them with my own eyes and nothing more.”
In 1928 she met Diego Rivera, already a successful muralist, and they began a relationship. They married not long after. He was impressed by her artistic talent and encouraged her to pursue a career in painting. Depictions of the two of them together always make me laugh: Diego a towering, portly, somewhat unattractive fellow, and Frida, so petite and fragile, looking like a little traditional lady from the pueblo.
They couldn’t have made a more unlikely physical match-up, but soon became Latin America’s most famous artistic power couple. They toured the USA for Diego’s mural projects in San Francisco, New York and Detroit, and Frida’s acclaim as an artist began to gain international attention.
Being that they were wild, bohemian artists, their marriage was far from a traditional one. Diego already had 2(!) common-law wives when he married Frida, and continued to have affairs on the side- including one with her own sister. I think Diego’s philandering only contributed to their already volatile relationship, here’s an except of a translated letter Frida had written her husband:
She should have sent it to him. But what a passionate woman, and I simply love people who simply don’t give a shit what the world thinks of them. And how could Diego possibly reject someone who identified herself as Love, Pleasure and Essence personified?!?
In 1939, tired of his crap, Frida divorced him, only to be reconciled and remarried 1 year later. Yet, they largely went about living their own separate lives. Frida’s health also continued to decline during these years, along with her alcoholism. Numerous surgeries, abortions, miscarriages and gangrene plagued her body and left her addicted to painkillers.
By the early 50’s, she was almost entirely bedridden and confined to her family home, but still continued to paint, hold exhibitions and work for left-wing political causes. She passed away in her bed in 1954, the last words she wrote were: “Espero alegre la salida — y espero no volver jamás” (I joyfully await the exit — and I hope never to return). No doubt…
Her paintings continue to be hugely influential and are exhibited in galleries around the world. She mixed Surrealism, Magic Realism and elements of Mexican Folk Art which in her words consisted of “fantasy, naivety, and fascination with violence and death”.
Frida’s themes always seem to be deeply personal, perhaps this is part of her long lasting appeal. You can really feel her physical pain, injuries, passions and heartaches- her paintings hold nothing back. But maybe that’s what makes great art, right? Honesty.