Everyone knows Frida Kahlo. After all, she’s the woman with all the monkeys and the unibrow right? Her face is everywhere from bags to coasters to Barbie dolls. But Frida Kahlo symbolizes much more than a doll or a pillowcase to people around the world.
Born on 6th July 1907 in Coyoacán, a suburb of Mexico City, Frida Kahlo’s full name was Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón. She was the daughter of photographer Guillermo Kahlo and Matilde Calderón y González. The Kahlo’s lived in La Casa Azul (The Blue House), the brilliantly colored family home where Frida would live for most of her life.
Later, Frida would reflect on the aura in her childhood as “very, very sad.” Both Guillermo and Matilde struggled with health issues and had fallen out of love with each other. The Mexican Revolution (1910 – 1920) had seriously damaged Guillermo’s photography business, making finances tight. Frida had a fraught relationship with her mother, later describing her as both “kind, active and intelligent, but also calculating, cruel and fanatically religious.”
At six years old, Frida contracted polio, which affected her for the rest of her life. While lucky to survive, Frida’s right leg was now shorter and thinner than the left. The polio forced her into isolation for months, causing her to become introverted. This experience brought her closer to her father. She commended him for making her childhood “marvelous… he was an immense example to me of tenderness, of work (photographer and also the painter), and above all in understanding for all my problems.” He taught her photography, and when Frida was old enough she helped him retouch, develop, and color photographs. Guillermo’s profession as a portrait photographer had a lasting impact on Frida. As most Kahlo’s work is of self-portraits, her early years assisting her father no doubt helped her understand the fundamentals of portraiture.
Due to her bout of polio, Frida started school late. She was removed from several schools and even expelled from one her father insisted she attend. Regardless of her patchy educational history, at 15 the elite National Preparatory School accepted her. This was no mean feat as the school had only 35 girls out of 2,000 pupils. She made friends quickly and was soon part of clique dedicated to mischief and socialist thought. To hide that she was older and to tie herself with the Mexican Revolution, she said she was born in 1910 instead of 1907. Frida maintained this “fact” throughout her life.
On 17th September 1925, Frida was on her way home from school when the wooden bus she was riding in collided with a streetcar. The accident killed several people while Frida suffered severe injuries. An iron rail impaled her through the pelvis, fracturing her bone. She displaced three vertebrae and fractured her ribs, collarbone, and both legs. She spent three months confined to her bed, wearing a plaster corset. Despite Frida’s immense pain, she was lucky to survive.
It shattered Kahlo’s dreams of becoming a doctor, at only 18 years old. While resting from her trauma, Frida painted to pass the time. She had a custom-made easel created and placed a mirror on it so she could paint herself. Frida considered becoming a medical illustrator, to combine her love of art and science, but she found a way through the self-portrait to explore the questions of her own identity and existence. She also painted her sisters and school friends, showing an affinity for capturing the human figure.
By 1927, Frida’s bed rest was over and she could socialize with her old friends. There, she met Diego Rivera, one of Mexico’s successful artists. He had met Frida briefly in 1922 when he painted a mural at her school. Always direct, Frida showed him her paintings, and asked him if she was talented enough to become a professional artist. It impressed Diego, and they began a relationship. He was 42; she was 21. He had been married twice before and was a self-professed womanizer. Nonetheless, he was attractive to Frida. He did not outwardly display machismo (unlike many Mexican men of the time), making him a unique catch. The two married in 1929, despite Frida’s mother opposing the match. Frida’s father however, knew Rivera was wealthy, and could care for Frida alongside her costly medical bills.
Meanwhile, Frida was developing her own artistic and personal identity. Taking inspiration from pre-Columbian Mexican artifacts and history, she changed both her artistic style and her self-image. Frida stopped plucking and shaving her body hair to declare she would not conform to Western standards of beauty. She wore long, colorful skirts in the indigenous peasant style, to reflect her mother’s ancestry. In particular, she favored the look of the women from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. As Tehuana society was matriarchal, this look allowed her to express her feminist and anti-colonialist ethos. Frida’s nationalistic pride of the Mexican people was a prominent motif in nearly all of her work.
In 1930, the Kahlo’s traveled to San Francisco for six months. Frida not only painted several works but took part in her first exhibition. Afterwards, the couple travelled to New York City in 1931, followed by Detroit in 1932. Frida’s time in Detroit was a difficult time for her, as she struggled with aspects of American culture. First, many of the hotels in Detroit did not accept Jewish guests. This angered her. Second, the amount of poverty amid the Great Depression disturbed her. Writing to a friend she confided she had; “a bit of a rage against all the rich guys here, since I have seen thousands of people in the most terrible misery without anything to eat and with no place to sleep, that is what has most impressed me here, it is terrifying to see the rich having parties day and night whiles thousands and thousands of people are dying of hunger.”
Despite Frida’s experiences in Detroit, her artwork blossomed. She became increasingly influenced by retablos, small religious works created by ordinary people to give thanks or invoke god’s divine will. Retablos often referenced health issues and hung on the walls of churches. With its connection to the ordinary people of Mexico and their direct but surreal imagery, it’s no surprise Frida identified with this style. Frida collected retablos, most of them concerning traffic accidents.
Her struggles to conceive and carry a child also affected her and influenced her artwork. She focused in on pain and suffering, creating many works in the retablo manner, such as Henry Ford Hospital (1932); My Birth (1932); and Self-Portrait on the Border of Mexico and the United States (1932). Reflecting sexist attitudes of the era, the Detroit News entitled an interview with her “Wife of the Master Mural Painter Gleefully Dabbles in Works of Art.” After a short stay in New York in 1933, the Rivera’s moved back to Mexico.
Between 1934-1935 Frida slowed down her creative output, mainly due to complicated health issues. Her marriage to Diego had broken down, ultimately beginning an affair with her sister, Cristina. Despite this betrayal deeply hurting Frida, she eventually forgave them. Ever political, Frida successfully petitioned the Mexican government to grant asylum to Trotsky and his wife, and even offered La Casa Azul for them to live in. The couple stayed with the Rivera’s from 1937 to 1939, with Frida and Trotsky having an affair.
Frida painted more during 1937-1938 than in all her previous years of marriage. She sold her work to the rich and famous while attracting the attention of major international artists. She impressed the famous French Surrealist André Breton when they met. Through his connections, Frida held her first solo exhibition in New York. At the opening, Frida caused a sensation with her wonderful Mexican dress. Many famous figures such as Georgia O’Keeffe attended, but many adopted a condescending tone in their reviews. Time magazine wrote that “Little Frida’s pictures … had the daintiness of miniatures, the vivid reds, and yellows of Mexican tradition and the playfully bloody fancy of an unsentimental child.” Despite the media’s patronising spin, and the effects of the Great Depression, Frida sold nearly half of the paintings in her exhibition.
Deciding to follow up on Breton’s offers to stage an exhibition in Paris, Frida left for the French capital in 1939. The exhibition was a disaster. First, she discovered customs had not cleared her paintings and Breton no longer owned a gallery. Although she could locate an alternative venue, the gallery refused all but two of Frida’s paintings as being too shocking. Breton insisted she display her work alongside photographs of Mexico, pre-Columbian sculptures, eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Mexican portraits. He also displayed (to her dismay) his own collection of sugar skulls, toys, and other items he had bought from Mexican markets. Frida, not one to mince words, considered these objects junk.
The exhibition received lackluster media coverage, partially due to the looming Second World War. It operated at a loss, forcing Frida to cancel an exhibition in London. Regardless, the Louvre purchased The Frame (1938), making her the first Mexican artist featured in their collection. The artistic and fashion worlds of Paris, including Pablo Picasso, also embraced her. She didn’t think highly of them though, referring to them as “this bunch of coocoo lunatics and very stupid surrealists” who “are so crazy ‘intellectual’ and rotten that I can’t even stand them anymore.”
After Frida arrived back home in Mexico, Diego requested a divorce. Supposedly, he could not take their mutual infidelities anymore. Determined to live independently, she threw herself into her artwork, creating several of her most iconic works. Namely; The Two Fridas (1939); Self-portrait with Cropped Hair (1940); and Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940). The assassination of Trotsky ended Frida’s creative streak, as the authorities held her and Cristina for questioning, despite their innocence. Plus, Frida’s delicate health had increasingly declined, influenced by her heavy alcohol use.
Although newly divorced, Frida and Diego remarried in December 1940. They had reconciled after meeting each other in San Francisco and returned to Mexico after the wedding. Frida’s happiness was short lived, as her father died in April 1941. Losing him plunged her into a deep depression, worsened by her diminishing health. From 1940 until her death, Frida wore twenty-eight supportive corsets, made from steel, leather, or plaster. She experienced pain in her legs and underwent syphilips treatments. Her poor health confined her in La Casa Azul, where she took pride in making the house a beautiful place for her friends and many pets.
Despite her ill health, Frida continued to raise interest in the international art community. Her works were being shown in prestigious galleries such as the MoMA and supported by art icons like Peggy Guggenheim. Her home country also supported Frida. Not only were her works publicly displayed, the government commissioned her to spread knowledge of Mexican culture. She received a teaching position at the National School of Painting, Sculpture, and Printmaking. Her informal and unconventional methods of teaching soon attracted a loyal group of students, known as “Los Fridos.” When Frida became too ill to commute to the school, she held lessons at La Casa Azul. Although she struggled to make a living from her work, Frida never compromised her style to fit others’ wishes. While this meant she lost lucrative work, her bread and butter was her loyal, dedicated private clients.
While Frida’s star was rising, her health declined. By the mid-1940s, her back pain was so incredible she could no longer sit or stand continuously. Despite undergoing surgery, nothing worked. Frida’s works Broken Column (1944) and The Wounded Deer (1946), from around this time show how much her ill health was affecting her. By 1950, further surgeries caused Frida to become dependent on using a wheelchair and crutches to move around her beloved La Casa Azul.
Towards the end of her life, Frida dedicated her time to political causes that mattered dearly to her. She rejoined the Mexican Communist Party in 1948. Even her artwork changed drastically, now mostly portraying still lifes such as fruit and flowers with political symbols like flags or doves. A close friend of Frida’s; Lola Alvarez Bravo, knew Frida’s days were numbered, and staged her first solo exhibition in April 1953. However, Frida’s doctors ordered her to stay on bed rest. Forever defiant, she had her bed taken to the exhibition, and followed in an ambulance. Frida stayed for the duration of the opening evening, as she wasn’t leaving her bed, just like the doctor prescribed. This event not only received attention in Mexico but caught the eye of global press.
Frida experienced further extreme health complications and had her leg amputated due to gangrene in August 1953. Her depression and anxiety spiralled out of control, and she became dependent on painkillers. After discovering Diego had another affair, she tried to overdose. In a diary entry from February 1954 Frida wrote, “they have given me centuries of torture and at moments I almost lost my reason. I keep on wanting to kill myself. Diego is what keeps me from it, through my vain idea that he would miss me. … But never in my life have I suffered more. I will wait a while…” Frida’s last paintings were the highly political Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick (c. 1954), and Frida and Stalin (c. 1954), and the still-life Viva La Vida (1954).
In mid-1954 Frida became bedridden with bronchopneumonia. She anticipated her death, often discussing it with visitors, and drew skeletons and angels in her diary. Her last drawing was a black angel, accompanied by the words, “I joyfully await the exit – and I hope never to return – Frida“. On 13th July 1954, at only 47 years old, Frida Kahlo died. While her official cause of death was pulmonary embolism, others have theorized she committed suicide. The facts seem to support it. Her nurse, who counted Frida’s painkillers to monitor her drug use, saw she had taken an overdose, and the evening before her death, Frida gave Diego his wedding anniversary present a month in advance. Frida’s ashes are on display at La Casa Azul, opened as the Frida Kahlo Museum in 1958.
After her death, analysis and knowledge of Frida’s work grew. The second-wave feminism movement of the 1960s and 1970s brought her art into discussion, while the Chicano Movement raised Frida as one of their icons. By the 1980s, Kahlo’s stature had grown so much the Mexican government declared her artwork to be a national cultural heritage, banning their export from Mexico. Thus, large retrospective exhibitions of her work are rare. Even more so, to see a Kahlo work being auctioned would be like finding a needle in a haystack.
As Frida’s significance as an artist has grown she has become an icon. Her actual image, a dark-haired woman with a thick unibrow, has become far more ubiquitous than any of her paintings. The public have often brought her life and sorrows to the forefront when discussing her work, similar to Van Gogh. Through her art, Frida could try to understand her hardships, and make sense of her lot in this world. For generations of admirers, she has become a symbol of multiple causes and struggles across borders. “Fridamania,” as it is known, has been criticized for promoting a base understanding of her work and focusing too much on her personal life. However, for an artist as personal, as biographical as Frida Kahlo, it is almost impossible to separate the art from the artist.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Scarlett Grant is a young graduate trying to step into the real world. When she’s not writing for Femnista, she’s focusing on her own blog: Thoughts in 500 Words. She is also an amateur history buff, with other interests in art, film, languages, music and writing.