I have a confession to make, up until yesterday I, rather embarrassingly, knew nothing about Frida Kahlo (well, apart from the fact that she had a monobrow, having seen her striking portraits on social media over the years)… I had, though, no idea just how influential Frida was/is, particularly with regards to Feminism/Women’s rights. How did I come to learn more about her then? Through one of my favourite Musician’s, Joy Crookes. Crookes, in an interview conducted prior to the UK’s prestigious awards show ‘The Mercury Prize’ (Link to interview here), explained the inspiration behind her amazing, unconventional outfit by referencing Frida and her family portrait. Because I loved Joy Crookes’ outfit so much, I wanted to see what she was referring to for myself and so, I had a quick Google of Frida’s name. The outcome of that, what turned out to be not so quick Google search? Me being completely blown away by all that she has brought to the world. This post then is a compilation of insight into the legend that is Frida Kahlo.
Frida Kahlo, born in 1907 in the Mexican Borough of Coyocoan, to a half Amerindian half Spanish Mother, and a German Photographer Father, was a Mexican Painter, arguably one of Mexico’s greatest ever Artists…
It was in fact Frida’s father, Guillermo Kahlo, who sparked Frida’s initial love of art, what with him being a photographer. Aware of the numerous self-portraits her father took, Frida began to experiment with her self-image, by adopting different ‘guises’ in front of the camera. It was therefore photography, not painting, that was Frida’s first medium of self-expression. For example, in one photo, upon being called downstairs by her Father for a family portrait, Frida appeared in a Gentleman’s 3 piece suit (photo’s shown below), much to the confusion of her sisters.
Aged just 18 when this photo was taken, Frida has evidently always been on a mission to assert her ‘differences’, in this case doing so through gender ambiguity, something which was pretty much unheard of/certainly very unusual at the time of the family portrait (1926).
Frida went against the norm throughout her whole life, from her wrestling as a child, to her attending a school which only had 35 female students enrolled. It was when she was in school however (1922) that Frida was involved in an accident when the bus she was travelling in collided with a car. A steel handrail subsequently impaled her through the hip and she was left practically bed bound for 3 months. During this time she started painting self-portraits. Why self-portraits? In the words of the woman herself;
‘Because I am often alone and I am the subject I know best.’
Despite the accident suffered during her school years, much good came from those years, too. Most notably. because it was during this period that her interest in art was ‘sparked’, but also, because it was in school where she met the man she would go on to marry in 1929, Diego Rivera, a famous Mexican Muralist.
Due to Diego’s work, the couple had to move around a lot, with them starting out in San Francisco California, moving on to New York, and, later, settling in Detroit.
In 1932, whilst living in New York City, Frida branched out from self-portraits by adding more realistic and surrealistic components in her painting style. A famous example of this can be seen in her painting, ‘Henry Ford Hospital’ (as shown below). In the painting, Frida lies on a hospital bed, naked, surrounded by things ‘floating around’- these ‘things’ included a fetus, a flower, a pelvis, and a snail- all connected by veins. This painting was an incredibly personal one- an expression of her feelings about her second miscarriage.
In 1938, regarding her new style of painting, Frida famously said-
‘I never considered myself as a Surrealist until André Breton came to Mexico and told me I was one.’
She also wrote-
‘Really I do not know whether my paintings are surrealist or not, but I do know that they are the frankest expression of myself. Since my subjects have always been my sensations, my states of mind and the profound reactions that life has been producing in me, I have frequently objectified all this in figures of myself, which were the most sincere and real thing that I could do in order to express what I felt inside and outside of myself.’
In the same year (1938), Frida, from an exhibition at New York City gallery, was commissioned by Clare Boothe Luce to paint her friend Dorothy Hale who committed suicide. This painting can be seen in her work; ‘The Suicide of Dorothy Hale (1939)’, which tells the story of Dorothy’s tragic leap (shown below). Clare Boothe Luce was reportedly horrified, however, and is said to have almost destroyed this painting when it was presented to her.
The next year (1939), after a rocky 10 year marriage which saw Diego Rivera having multiple affairs, one of which was with Frida’s own sister, Cristina, the couple finally got divorced. It was her divorce from Diego that inspired Frida’s next painting shown below, ‘The Two Frida’s.’ In 1940 though, just one year after their divorce, the couple remarried.
Still suffering from chronic health problems caused by the accident she had in school, in 1944, Frida painted ‘The Broken Column’ (below) to try to highlight her pain through her art. In the painting, another self-portrait, Frida is naked and split down the middle. Her spine is shattered like a column and there are nails all through her body, an indication of the constant pain she had to endure.
A few years later (in 1950), with her health continuing to worsen after several failed surgeries, Frida was diagnosed with gangrene in her right foot, something which left her bedridden for nine months. She did, however, continue to paint during this time. In 1953 though, part of her right leg had to be amputated. Sadly, and at an incredibly great loss to the world, about one week after her 47th birthday, Frida Kahlo passed away.
Despite being dead almost 70 years, Frida’s legacy continues to live on to this day:
- In 1958, her blue house was opened as a museum.
- In the 1970s, interest in her work and life was renewed due to the feminist movement seeing her being viewed as an icon of female creativity.
- In 1983, ‘A Biography of Frida Kahlo’ was released, serving to draw even more attention from the public to this great artist.
- And, likewise, in 2002, the release of ‘Frida’, a movie documenting her life also drew much attention to her. The movie went on to be nominated for six Academy Awards.
Frida Kahlo then is evidently just as admired today as she has ever been. Her fearlessness towards exposing the intimacy of her experiences and her pain, her willingness to blur the boundaries between her public and private self, her desire to bend social norms and express her fluid and most ambiguous self through her art form, these are just some of the things which fascinate me/which are are a source of unparalleled admiration, when I think of the iconic Frida Kahlo.
I hope that this post has been an interesting read, I have certainly found doing the research for it incredibly interesting, not least inspiring.
For more information about Frida, and to see examples of even more of her beautiful work, I encourage you to take a look at the official Frida Kahlo website which you can access here!