Carolyn and I have admired the work of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, who is known for her bold and vibrant self-portraits that express pain, passion, and inner strength. Kahlo is considered one of Mexico’s greatest artists, where she is celebrated for her attention to indigenous culture and her tenacity in the face of hardship, as well as by feminists for her defiance in breaking harsh gender-biased social conventions and her honest depiction of the female experience. She is a powerful inspiration to many.
Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón was born in 1907 in Coyoacán, a village on the outskirts of Mexico City. Her father was a photographer from Germany, and her mother was from Oaxaca, with indigenous and Spanish roots. Kahlo was raised with three sisters, and she described the atmosphere in her childhood home as often “very, very sad,” because both of her parents were often sick, and “their marriage was devoid of love.”
When Kahlo was six years old, she contracted polio, which made her right leg grow shorter and thinner than the left. The illness also caused her to be isolated from her peers for months, and this caused her to begin school later than her peers. In 1922, Kahlo was accepted to the elite National Preparatory School, where she focused on natural sciences with the aim of becoming a physician, and she performed well academically.
However, Kahlo enjoyed creating art from an early age. She received drawing instruction from her father’s friend, who was a printmaker, and she filled notebooks with her sketches. In 1925, Kahlo began to work outside of school to help her family. After briefly working as a stenographer, she became a paid engraving apprentice for her father’s friend.
A severe bus accident at the age of 18 confined Kahlo to bed for three months, and this caused her to live her life in chronic pain. She had spinal injuries and a broken pelvis, as well a fractured collarbone and two ribs. Her right foot was also crushed, her right leg broken in eleven places, and a piece of handrail impaled her.
While Kahlo was recovering from this terrible accident, in her bedridden state, she began to paint. Kahlo’s mother provided her with a specially made easel, which enabled her to paint in bed, and her father lent her some of his oil paints. She had a mirror positioned above the easel, so that she could see her reflection.
Painting became a way for Kahlo to reflect on her life, and to explore questions about her identity and existence. She said, “I paint myself because I am often alone, and I am the subject I know best.” She later stated that the accident and the isolating recovery period made her desire “to begin again, painting things just as [she] saw them with [her] own eyes and nothing more.” Most of the paintings Kahlo made during this time were portraits of herself, her sisters, and her school friends. They are noted as an expression of her internal struggles, and physical and mental suffering. Kahlo’s early paintings and letters show that she drew inspiration from European artists, in particular Renaissance masters, and from avant-garde movements such as Cubism.
In 1929 Kahlo moved to the city of Cuernavaca in South-Central Mexico, where she lived with her husband, Mexican artist Diego Rivera, and was inspired by the city. Here she changed her artistic style and drew inspiration from Mexican folk art. Kahlo’s identification with the people of Mexico, and her profound interest in its culture, remained important facets of her art throughout the rest of her life.
In 1930 Kahlo and her husband moved to San Francisco, where they spent six months, and she was introduced to American artists. Kahlo further developed her folk style of painting here, and she participated in a public exhibition of her work for the first time, with the San Francisco Society of Women Artists. Kahlo then moved to Detroit, where she experimented with different painting techniques, and her work was featured in several exhibitions, although she disliked the capitalist culture of the United States and experienced numerous health problems.
In 1934 Kahlo returned to Mexico City, where she focused on regaining her health, and only painted several paintings over the next three years. She began painting productively again in 1937. In 1938 she made the first significant sale of her paintings when film star Edward G. Robinson purchased four of her paintings. That same year she met French Surrealist André Breton who was impressed by her work, and he arranged for her to have exhibitions of her work at galleries in Paris and New York City. He described her work as “a ribbon around a bomb.”
That same year Kahlo traveled to New York City to attend the opening of her exhibit, which was attended by Georgia O’Keeffe and other famous figures. Kahlo received much positive attention in the press for this exhibit and sold half of her 25 paintings exhibited there. She also received commissions from A. Conger Goodyear, the president of the Museum of Modern Art, and author and politician Clare Boothe Luce.
In 1939 Kahlo sailed to Paris, to follow up on André Breton’s invitation for an exhibition, where things didn’t go quite as well. When she arrived, she found that Breton had not cleared her paintings from the customs and no longer even owned a gallery. However, with the aid of Marcel Duchamp, Kahlo was able to arrange for an exhibition at another gallery, but further problems arose when the gallery refused to show all but two of her paintings, considering them to be too shocking for audiences, and the exhibition didn’t receive much attention.
Kahlo’s paintings touched on female issues such as abortion, miscarriage, birth, and breastfeeding, things considered to be taboo and never spoken of in public back then. Nonetheless, one of her paintings, The Frame, was purchased by the Louvre, which made her the first Mexican artist to be featured in their collection. She was also warmly received by other Parisian artists, such as Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró.
During the 1940s Kahlo had more successful exhibitions in the United States, in Boston and New York, as well as in Mexico City, and her artwork gained wider appreciation in Mexico, although she struggled to make a living from her artwork. In 1943, Kahlo accepted a teaching position at the Escuela Nacional de Pintura, Escultura y Grabado in Mexico City.
In 1945, the government commissioned Kahlo and some of her students to paint murals for a Coyoacán laundry service as part of a national scheme to help poor women who made their living as laundresses. Her financial situation improved when she received a 5000-peso national prize for her painting Moses in 1946, and when her painting The Two Fridas was purchased by the Museo de Arte Moderno in 1947.
Around this time, Kahlo’s health began to fail, and during her last years, she was largely confined to her home, where she painted mostly still lifes, portraying fruit and flowers with political symbols such as flags or doves. Realizing that Kahlo did not have much longer to live, photographer Lola Alvarez Bravo staged her first solo exhibition in Mexico at the Galería Arte Contemporaneo in 1953.
Although Kahlo was initially not expected to attend the opening of her exhibition, as her doctors had prescribed bed rest for her, she arranged for her four-poster bed to be moved from her home to the gallery. To the surprise of the guests, Kahlo arrived in an ambulance and was carried on a stretcher to the bed, where she stayed for the duration of the reception. The exhibition was a notable cultural event in Mexico, and it received attention around the world.
Kahlo died in 1954 at the age of 47. During her life, Kahlo created around 200 paintings, primarily still lifes and portraits of herself, her family and her friends. She also kept an illustrated diary and did dozens of drawings. Kahlo’s reputation as an artist grew much further posthumously. She gained more recognition in the late 1970s when feminist scholars began to question the exclusion of female and non-Western artists from the art historical canon and the Chicano Movement honored her as one of their icons.
In 1984, Kahlo’s reputation as an artist had grown to such an extent that Mexico declared her works part of the national cultural heritage, prohibiting their export from the country. As a result, her paintings rarely appear in international auctions. Regardless, Kahlo’s paintings have broken records for Latin American art. In 1990, she became the first Latin American artist to break the one-million-dollar threshold when her painting Diego and I was auctioned by Sotheby’s for $1,430,000. In 2006, her painting Roots sold for $5.6 million, and in 2016, Two Lovers in a Forest was auctioned for $8 million.
Kahlo has attracted so much popular interest that the term “Fridamania” has been coined to describe the phenomenon. She is considered “one of the most instantly recognizable artists,” whose face has been “used with the same regularity, and often with a shared symbolism, as images of Che Guevara or Bob Marley.” Kahlo’s life and art have also inspired a variety of merchandise, and her distinctive look and colorful style have been appropriated by the fashion world. On Instagram, her official account has 1.2 million followers.
A Hollywood film about Kahlo’s life, Frida, was released in 2002, and it earned six Academy Award nominations, winning for Best Makeup and Best Original Score. The 2017 Disney-Pixar animation Coco also featured a character based on Kahlo that was voiced by Natalia Cordova-Buckley. Kahlo has also become an icon for several minority groups and political movements, such as feminists, Chicanos, and the LGBTQ community, as she was openly bisexual and never ashamed to talk about her sexuality. Oriana Baddeley has written that Kahlo has become a signifier of non-conformity and “the archetype of a cultural minority,” who is regarded simultaneously as “a victim, crippled and abused” and as “a survivor who fights back.”
Some of the quotes that Frida Kahlo is known for include:
At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can.
Feet, what do I need them for if I have wings to fly.
I paint flowers so they will not die.
I don’t paint dreams or nightmares; I paint my own reality.
Nothing is absolute. Everything changes, everything moves, everything revolves, everything flies and goes away.
I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.
I paint my own reality. The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to, and I paint whatever passes through my head without any other consideration.
Nothing is worth more than laughter. It is strength to laugh and to abandon oneself, to be light. Tragedy is the most ridiculous thing.