Frida Kahlo (July 6, 1907 – July 13, 1954) was a Mexican painter who depicted the indigenous culture of her country in a style combining Realism, Symbolism and Surrealism. An active communist, she was married to Mexican muralist and cubist painter Diego Rivera. She was known for her self-portraits, often expressing her physical pain and suffering through symbolism. In the last three decades she has gained admiration in Europe and the US. In 2002, Julie Taymor directed a biographical movie about Kahlo (Frida; Salma Hayek starred). The film sparked even further interest in Kahlo’s life and work. Her house in Coyoacán, Mexico is a museum and visited by a large number of tourists every year.
Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird – 1940
Childhood and family
Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón, as her name appears on her birth certificate, was born in 1907 in her parents’ house, known as La Casa Azul (The Blue House), in Coyoacán, which at the time was a small town on the outskirts of Mexico City. Her father, Guillermo Kahlo (1872-1941), was born Carl Wilhelm Kahlo in Pforzheim, Germany, the son of painter and goldsmith Jakob Heinrich Kahlo and Henriett E. Kaufmann. Kahlo claimed her father was of Jewish and Hungarian ancestry, but a 2005 book on Guillermo Kahlo argued that he was descended from a long line of German Lutherans. Wilhelm Kahlo sailed to Mexico in 1891 at the age of 19 and, upon his arrival, changed his German forename Wilhelm to its Spanish equivalent, ‘Guillermo’. Until the late 1930s, in the face of rising Nazism in Germany, Frida acknowledged her German heritage by spelling her name “Frieda” (an allusion to “Frieden”, which means “peace” in German).
Frida’s mother, Matilde Calderón y Gonzalez, was a devout Catholic of primarily indigenous descent mixed with Spanish. Matilde frowned upon the wild games Frida and her younger sister Cristina played. Frida’s parents were married shortly after the death of Guillermo’s first wife during her second childbirth. Their marriage was largely unhappy. Guillermo and Matilde gave birth to four children (where Frida was the third of their four girls) and having two older half sisters, Frida grew up in a world surrounded by females. Throughout most of her life, Kahlo was close to her father.
The Mexican Revolution began in 1910 when Kahlo was three years old. In her writings, she recalled that her mother would usher her and her sisters inside as gunfire echoed in the streets of her hometown which was extremely poor at the time. Men would occasionally leap over the walls into her backyard and her mother would sometimes prepare a meal for the hungry revolutionaries. Later, Kahlo would claim that she was born in 1910 so people would directly associate her with the revolution.
Kahlo contracted polio at age six, which left her right leg looking thinner sometimes than the other (a deformity Kahlo hid by wearing long skirts). As a girl, she participated in boxing and other sports. In 1922, Kahlo was enrolled in the Preparatoria, one of Mexico’s premier schools, where she was one of only 35 girls. Kahlo joined a gang at the school and fell in love with the leader, Alejandro Gomez Arias. During this period, Kahlo also witnessed violent armed struggles in the streets of Mexico City as the Mexican Revolution continued.
In September of 1925, Kahlo was riding in a bus when the vehicle collided with a trolley car. She suffered serious injuries in the accident, including a broken spinal column, a broken collarbone, broken ribs, a broken pelvis, eleven fractures in her right leg, a crushed and dislocated right foot, and a dislocated shoulder. An iron handrail impaled her abdomen, piercing her uterus, which seriously damaged her reproductive ability. Though she recovered from her injuries and eventually regained her ability to walk, she was plagued by relapses of extreme pain for the remainder of her life. The pain was intense and often left her confined to a hospital or bedridden for months at a time. She would undergo as many as 35 operations in her life as a result of the accident, mainly on her back and her right leg and foot.
Career as painter
Frida Kahlo with Diego Rivera in 1932
After the accident, Frida Kahlo turned her attention away from the study of medicine to begin a full-time painting career. The accident left her in a great deal of pain while she recovered in a full body cast; she painted to occupy her time during her temporary state of immobilization. Her self-portraits became a dominant part of her life when she was immobile for three months after her accident. “I paint myself because I am often alone and I am the subject I know best” reflects her inner feelings about both her art and her psychological state. Frida’s mother had a special easel made for her so she could paint in bed, and her father lent her his box of oil paints and some brushes. Drawing on personal experiences including her troubled marriage, her painful miscarriages, and her numerous operations, Kahlo’s works are often characterized by their stark portrayals of pain. Of her 143 paintings, fifty-five are self-portraits, which frequently incorporate symbolic portrayals of her physical and psychological wounds. While Kahlo’s paintings have a distinct unrealistic quality, she insisted “I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.” It is evident that her paintings reveal a personal truth about her life, her experiences, and her inner personal emotion. Kahlo was deeply influenced by indigenous Mexican culture, which is apparent in her paintings’ bright colors and dramatic symbolism. She frequntly included the symbolic monkey: in Mexican mythology it was a symbol of lust, yet Kahlo used them as tender and protective, even nurturing symbols. Christian and Jewish themes are often depicted in her work as well; she combined elements of the classic religious Mexican tradition with surrealist renderings. While her paintings are not overtly Christian they certainly contain elements of the Mexican Christian style of religious paintings.
As a young artist, Kahlo approached the famous Mexican Diego Rivera, whom she had previously admired, and asked him for his advice on pursuing art as a career. He immediately recognized her talent and her unique expression as truly special and uniquely Mexican. He encouraged her development as an artist, and began an intimate relationship with Frida. They were married in 1929, to the disapproval of Frida’s mother. They were often referred to as “The Elephant and the Dove.” The nickname originated when Kahlo’s father noticed their extreme difference in size.
Their marriage was often tumultuous. Both Kahlo and Rivera had notoriously fiery temperaments and both had numerous extramarital affairs. The openly bisexual Kahlo had affairs with both men and women (including Leon Trotsky); Rivera knew of and tolerated her relationships with women, but her relationships with men made him jealous. For her part, Kahlo was outraged when she learned that Rivera had an affair with her younger sister, Cristina. The couple eventually divorced, but remarried in 1940; their second marriage was as turbulent as.
La Casa Azul
Active communist sympathizers, Kahlo and Rivera befriended Leon Trotsky as he sought political sanctuary from Joseph Stalin‘s regime in the Soviet Union. Initially, Trotsky lived with Rivera and then at Kahlo’s home, where he and she reportedly had an affair. Trotsky and his wife then moved to another house in Coyoacán where he was later assassinated.
A few days before Kahlo died on July 13, 1954, she wrote in her diary: “I hope the exit is joyful – and I hope never to return – Frida.”. The official cause of death was given as pulmonary embolism, though some suspected that she had died from overdose that may or may not have been accidental. An autopsy was never performed. She had been very ill throughout the previous year and she had had her right leg amputated at the knee (owing to gangrene). She had also had a recent bout of bronchopneumonia that had left her quite frail.
In Diego Rivera’s autobiography, he later wrote that the day Frida died was the most tragic day of his life, adding that, too late, he had realized that the most wonderful part of his life had been his love for Frida.
The pre-Columbian urn holding her ashes is on display in her former home La Casa Azul (The Blue House) in Coyoacán, today a museum housing a number of her works of art and numerous relics from her personal life.
In her lifetime and for most of the 20th century her work was not recognized with the value and appraisal it is now given, she was largely remembered just as Diego Rivera’s wife. It was not until the early 1980s when in Mexico the main artistic movement known as the Neomexicanismo started, that actual stardom began. In this -ismo the note was in the recognition of all the values of contemporary Mexican culture; it was the moment when artists like her, and Abraham Angel, Angel Zárraga or Helguera’s classical calendar paintings and others, went into full household name status. During the same decade appeared several different vehicles – helping to establish her success. The movie Frida, Naturaleza Viva (1983), directed by Pablo Leduc and with Ofelia Medina and Juan Jose Gurrola as Frida & Diego, which would be a huge success even to the point where the actual protagonist remained for the rest of her life in a sort of Frida’s spell even now into the 21st century still depicting her character. Also during the same time appeared Haydeen Herrera’s determinant and influential biography: Frida: The Biography of Frida Kahlo, a worldwide bestseller. In addition Raquel Tibol’s – (the most influential Mexican art critic for the second half of the 20th century, and a personal friend of Frida’s) own effort: Frida Kahlo: una vida abierta; and a biography by Teresa del Conde, and texts by other Mexican critics and theorists like Jorge Alberto Manrique. Fridomania started and many artists particularly the Mexicans: Adolfo Patiño aka ‘Adolfrido’, Marisa Lara, Arturo Guerrero, Lucia Maya and Nahum B Zenil took Frida’s imaginings into their own work and transported her interests and obsessions into the 1980s. Ironically at the beginning of the 21st century Diego Rivera is now partially remembered as Frida Kahlo’s husband.