Frida Kahlo was one of the most admired women of the 20th century who has left a deep imprint on the history of art and culture. With her strong personality, she was able to overcome the numerous misfortunes of her life, and her paintings reflect the tremendous optimism with which she lived her life. Native Mexican background, foreign influences, revolutionary ideas, and affairs with some of the most outstanding men of the epoch all found reflection in the artist’s work. Her painting, a mysterious Surrealist world in which the principles of contemporary art are expressed through the artist’s personal vision and history, is one of the most significant legacies of 20th-century Latin American artwork.
Frida Kahlo was born in Coyoacán on 6 July 1907, in the family of Guillermo Kahlo, a photographer, and Matilde Calderón. The event that was to shape her whole life and artwork happened six years later when she contracted poliomyelitis. Later on, in 1925, she was injured badly in a road accident that affected her health for a lifetime, causing her to have sixteen surgeries over the years (Farris 1999:152). After this accident Frida first learned painting that distracted her from the pain. She began to paint “lying fiat on her back confined in a plaster cast” (Wolfe 1963:394). The exposure to pain and suffering from her early years left Frida with a dramatic perception of reality and human life that were demonstrated in all of her later work. When Frida was recovering from polio, spending nine months in one room, she invented herself an imaginary girlfriend that later appeared in her work “The Two Fridas.” Revealing her logic in her writings, Frida explained the idea of “The Two Fridas” in the following way:
I experienced intensely an imaginary friendship with a little girl more or less the same age as me … I followed her in all her movements and while she danced, I told her my secret problems. (Beck 2005).
The fact that most of Frida’s work is self-portraits is also attributed to the peculiar circumstances under which she started her artistic career (Mencimer 2002). Confined to the bed, she was forced to paint that which reflected in the mirror above, which made herself the only available model for her painting.
Love and Romance
The great love of her life was Diego Rivera, a great Mexican painter who left an indelible imprint on her life and work. They were married on August 21, 1929, moving to Cuernavaca, Mexico (Farris 1999:152). Although their relationship had its ups and downs, it continued for a long time, impacting Frida’s work through the influence of her outstanding husband. Their married life included numerous affairs by both spouses that nevertheless stayed together. Thus, in 1934 Diego’s mistress was Frida’s own sister, Christina. Frida retaliated by starting an affair with Ignacio Aguirre in 1935 and later with Isamu Noguchi (Farris 1999:152). In 1939 Diego and Frida divorced only to remarry in 1940.
Frida’s married life did not give her one of the greatest female joys – children. Her health thwarted her attempts to give birth. In 1932 she had a miscarriage after over three months of pregnancy while her husband Rivera was painting murals in Detroit, which brought her to Henry Ford Hospital for thirteen days. During this time, she painted some of her major works, Henry Ford Hospital, Self-Portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States, and My Birth, inspired by the accident with the baby. In particular, My Birth paints a terrifying picture of a woman in blood with Frida’s head sticking out of her vagina. This and other works were highly appreciated by Frida’s husband, Diego Rivera, who praised her for “of masterpieces which had no precedent in the history of art–paintings which exalted the feminine qualities of endurance of truth, reality, cruelty, and suffering” (Mencimer 2002). The “agonizing poetry on canvas” was the direct reflection of her sufferings resulting from her feminine misfortunes (Mencimer 2002). The suffering for her child that she was not destined to give birth to was mirrored in her serious face in the miniature double portrait Diego y Frida (Diego and Frida) that she painted for their fifteenth wedding anniversary (Randall, Tibol 1993:5).
Exhibitions, Travels and Political Activity
Another important influence on Frida’s art was the impact of her foreign travels, contacts with other important personalities, and political involvement. While her art is deeply rooted in the native Mexican tradition, it also absorbed trends that were pervasive in the early 20th century painting in the US and Europe. Since Frida appears on most of her paintings, turning her colourful appearance into an even more impressive sight with native Mexican jewels, folk costumes, memorable braids with colored wool in them, and artfully applied make-up, contributed to the special ethnic flavour of her paintings. This look, prompted by Diego Rivera, could also have been used by Frida to compensate for her physical deficiencies and underscore her feminine attraction.
Her meeting with the famous Surrealist André Breton at some point between the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War could have left an imprint on her works that often have been described as revealing a surrealist trend (Randall, Tibol 1993:4). Frida spent a long time in the US, living in both the eastern and western states. In 1939 she made a trip to Paris, visiting the Bretons and seeing Marcel Duchamp organize her ‘one-woman show’, demonstrating her paintings in Paris before they were exhibited in Mexico (Farris 1999:152).
Frida’s political sympathies turned to Communists, perhaps under the influence of her husband Diego. At one time, they hosted the exiled Communist leader Leon Trotsky with whom Frida was rumoured to have an affair. At the time of Frida’s meeting with Rivera, he was an active member of the Mexicanidad movement that “rejected Western European influences and the “easel art” of the aristocracy in favor of all things considered “authentically” Mexican, such as peasant handicrafts and pre-Columbian art” (Mencimer 2002).
Frida immediately took to the idea, defying the contemporary ideals. Thus, instead of plucking her moustache or eyebrows, she underscored them by making them look even darker, which created her trademark. Her painting was also deeply grounded in the Mexican art, including the 19th-century miniatures and pre-Columbian primitive art. Frida’s paintings were a new wave in Mexican art, breaking away with the popular tradition of mural paintings that marked the work of her husband Diego Rivera. Kahlo’s heritage is for the most part composed of “small, intimate paintings” with a deep philosophical message (Mencimer 2002).
Frida Kahlo, with her innovative painting and her intriguing life story, left a memorable influence on modern art in Mexico and all over the globe. The world continues to admire the story of a brave woman who defied injuries that were once thought incompatible with life. Although her life proved to be only 47 years in length, Frida filled it with exciting creative work and intense social life that were only possible because of her strong spirit and irrepressible vitality. Both her life and painting demonstrate the new type of femininity that broke through obstacles as serious as illness and death, making her an attractive woman and an artist who skilfully captured on canvas the depth of feminine emotion.
Beck, Jennifer. Artist Hero: Frida Kahlo. 22 Mar. 06 <http://myhero.com/myhero/hero.asp?hero=f_kahlo>.
Farris, Phoebe. Women Artists of Color: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook to 20th Century Artists in the Americas. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.
Mencimer, Stephanie. “The Trouble With Frida Kahlo: Uncomfortable truths about this season’s hottest female artist.” Washington Monthly (June 2002). 22 Mar. 06 <http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2001/0206.mencimer.html>.
Randall, Elinor and Raquel Tibol. Frida Kahlo: An Open Life. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993.
Wolfe, Bertram D. The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera. New York: Stein and Day, 1963.
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