Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) is one of Mexico’s greatest artists. Born Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderon in Coyocoán, Mexico City to a Mexican mother and German father, her early life was spent in Casa Azul (the Blue House) which today houses a museum dedicated to her life and work. She was influenced by indigenous Mexican culture as well as religious and political themes, and is most famous for her self-portraits. she once said, “I paint my own reality”.

In 1922 Kahlo enrolled at the prestigious National Preparatory School in Mexico City. One of only 35 girls, she soon gained a reputation for her outspoken nature and colourful dress sense. It was at this time that Kahlo first became politically active, joining a group of socialist students and starting a relationship with one of them, Alejandro Gomez Arias.

It was with Gomez Arias that Kahlo suffered a terrible traffic accident that impacted her health and creative world for the rest of her life. The injuries, and subsequent operations she sustained when their bus collided with a streetcar left Kahlo in chronic physical pain and inspired many of her paintings.

A steel handrail had impaled Frida through her hip, causing her spine and pelvis to be fractured. She was bedridden for months – much of it in a full body cast – and started painting to pass the time. Her first self portrait was completed in 1923 while she recovered at Casa Azul.

Once she was able, she became more involved with political activism, joining the Young Communist League and the Mexican Communist Party, as well as continuing to paint.

In 1928 she approached the renowned Mexican muralist Diego Rivera for advice on pursuing a career as artist. Immediately he recognised her talent and intelligence. They began a relationship and married the next year, nicknamed ‘the elephant and the dove’ by Kahlo’s father for their striking difference in size.

As Rivera was already an established artist, the couple travelled where his commissions took him – to San Francisco, New York and Detroit in 1930. A newspaper clipping from the time quotes Kahlo joking, “Of course he does pretty well for a little boy, but it is I who am the big artist.” She showed her first painting publicly, Frieda and Diego Rivera at the Sixth Annual Exhibition of the San Francisco Society of Women Artists.

An unconventional couple, Rivera and Kahlo lived and worked in separate but adjoining houses and both had numerous affairs. But Rivera’s affair with Kahlo’s younger sister Cristina hurt her deeply, leading her to cut off her long hair in grief and protest.

Despite her husband’s betrayal, Kahlo longed for a child. She suffered numerous miscarriages during her life, one is depicted in Henry Ford Hospital, 1932. Kahlo lost her mother the same year and her art began to take on more surrealist elements as she translated her pain and opinions into her work.

In 1938 she met and befriended the surrealist painter Andre Breton, and began to be recognised as an artist in her own right. She had shows in Paris and New York and sold many paintings.

In 1941 she received a commission from the Mexican government to paint the portraits of five important Mexican women, but she was unable to complete the project. She lost her father that year and continued to struggle with chronic health problems. Despite her deteriorating physical state, Kahlo’s success and popularity grew throughout the 1940s. She continued to paint her reality – her pain, her politics, her body – and support left-wing political causes close to her heart.

In 1953, hospitalised with gangrene but still painting, she received her first solo show in Mexico. Arriving by ambulance on the opening night, Kahlo spent the evening talking and celebrating from a specially installed four-poster bed in the gallery.

Politically active to the end, she attended her last demonstration on 2nd July 1954 – against US intervention in Guatemala – and died 11 days later, at her beloved Casa Azul, of a pulmonary embolism. Shortly before her death she wrote: “I hope the exit is joyful – and I hope never to return – Frida.”

Written for Sheroes of History by Poppy O’Neill

Find out more…

There is a huge amount of information about Frida Kahlo on the internet. A good place to start is FridaKahlo.org where you can view many of her paintings – perhaps the best way to understand her life. It also has lots of other information about her life. Another useful site is the Frida Kahlo Foundation page.

The film Frida tells the story of Frida’s life, starring Salma Hayek (available here on DVD).

You can read Frida’s own journals in The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self Portrait.

The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo is a PBS documentary you can watch on YouTube:

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