Small pins pierce Kahlo's skin to reveal that she still 'hurts' following illness and accident, whilst a signature tear signifies her ongoing battle with the related psychological overflow. Frida Kahlo typically uses the visual symbolism of physical pain in a long-standing attempt to better understand emotional suffering. Prior to Kahlo's efforts, the language of loss, death, and selfhood, had been relatively well investigated by some male artists (including Albrecht Durer, Francisco Goya, and Edvard Munch), but had not yet been significantly dissected by a woman. Indeed not only did Kahlo enter into an existing language, but she also expanded it and made it her own. By literally exposing interior organs, and depicting her own body in a bleeding and broken state, Kahlo opened up our insides to help explain human behaviors on the outside. She gathered together motifs that would repeat throughout her career, including ribbons, hair, and personal animals, and in turn created a new and articulate means to discuss the most complex aspects of female identity. As not only a 'great artist' but also a figure worthy of our devotion, Kahlo's iconic face provides everlasting trauma support and she has influence that cannot be underestimated.
Kahlo made it legitimate for women to outwardly display their pains and frustrations and to thus make steps towards making sense of and understanding them. It became crucial for women artists to have a female role model and this is the gift of Frida Kahlo.
As an important question for many Surrealists, Kahlo too considers: What is Woman? Following repeated miscarriage, she asks to what extent does motherhood or the absence of this impact on female identity. She alters the meaning of maternal subjectivity irreversibly. It becomes clear through umbilical symbolism (often shown by ribbons) that Kahlo is connected to all that surrounds her, and that she is still a 'mother' without children.
Finding herself often alone, she worked obsessively with self-portraiture. Her reflection fuelled an unflinching interest in identity. She was particularly interested in her mixed German-Mexican ancestry, as well as in her divided roles as artist, lover, and wife.
Kahlo uses religious symbolism throughout her oeuvre. She appears as the Madonna holding her 'animal babies', and becomes the Virgin Mary as she cradles her husband and famous national painter Diego Rivera. She identifies with Saint Sebastian, and even fittingly appears as the martyred Christ. She positions herself as a prophet when she takes to head of the table in her Last Supper style painting, and her accident when impaled on a metal bar (and covered in gold dust when lying injured) recalls the crucifixion and suggests her own holiness.
Women prior to Kahlo who had attempted to communicate the wildest and deepest of emotions were often labeled hysterical or condemned insane - while men were alinged with the 'melancholy' character type. By remaining artistically active under the weight of sadness, Kahlo revealed that women too can be melancholy rather than depressed, and that these terms should not be thought of as gendered.
Most Important Art
Frida Kahlo Artworks in Focus:
The Two Fridas (1939)
This double self-portrait is one of Kahlo's most recognized compositions, and is symbolic of the artist's emotional pain experienced during her divorce from Rivera. On the right, the artist is shown in modern European attire, wearing the costume she previously donned prior to her marriage to Rivera. Throughout their marriage, given Rivera's strong nationalism, Kahlo became increasingly interested in indigenism and began to explore traditional Mexican costume, which she wears in the portrait on the left. It is the Mexican Kahlo that holds a locket with an image of Rivera. The stormy sky in the background, and the artist's bleeding heart - a fundamental symbol of Catholicism and also symbolic of Aztec ritual sacrifice - accentuate Kahlo's personal tribulation and physical pain.
Frida Kahlo Overview Continues Below
Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo Calderon was born at La Casa Azul (The Blue House) in Coyoacan, a town on the outskirts of Mexico City in 1907. Her father, Wilhelm Kahlo, was German, and had moved to Mexico at a young age where he remained for the rest of his life, eventually taking over the photography business of Kahlo's mother's family. Kahlo's mother, Matilde Calderon y Gonzalez, was of mixed Spanish and Indian ancestry, and raised Frida and her three sisters in a strict and religious household (Frida also had two half sisters from her father's first marriage who were raised in a convent). La Casa Azul was not only Kahlo's childhood home, but also the place that she returned to live and work from 1939 until her death. It later opened as a National Museum dedicated to Kahlo.
Aside from her mother's rigidity, religious fanaticism, and tendency toward hysteric outbursts, several events in Kahlo's childhood affected her deeply for the rest of her life. At age six, Kahlo contracted polio; a long recovery isolated her from other children and permanently damaged one of her legs, causing her to walk with a limp after recovery. Wilhelm, with whom Kahlo was very close, and particularly so after the experience of being an invalid, enrolled his daughter at the German College in Mexico City and introduced Kahlo to the writings of European philosophers such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, and Arthur Schopenhauer. All of Kahlo's sisters instead attended a convent school so it seems that there was a thirst for expansive learning noted in Frida that resulted in her father making different decisions especially for her. Kahlo was grateful for this and despite a strained relationship with her mother, always credited her father with great tenderness and insight. Still, she was interested in both strands of her roots, and her mixed European and Mexican heritage provided life-long fascination in her approach towards both life and art.
Kahlo had a horrible experience at the German School where she was sexually abused and thus forced to leave. Luckily at the time, the Mexican Revolution and the Minister of Education had changed the education policy, and from 1922 girls were admitted to the National Preparatory School. Kahlo was one of the first 35 girls admitted and she began to study medicine, botany, and the social sciences. She excelled academically, became very interested in Mexican culture, and also became active politically.
When Kahlo was 15, Diego Rivera (already a renowned artist) was painting the Creation mural (1922) in the amphitheater of her Preparatory School. Upon seeing him work, Kahlo experienced a moment of infatuation and fascination that she would go on to fully explore later in life. Meanwhile she enjoyed helping her father in his photography studio and received drawing instruction from her father's friend, Fernando Fernandez - for whom she was an apprentice engraver. At this time Kahlo also befriended a dissident group of students known as the "Cachuchas", who confirmed the young artist's rebellious spirit and further encouraged her interest in literature and politics. In 1923 Kahlo fell in love with a fellow member of the group, Alejandro Gomez Arias, and the two remained romantically involved until 1928. Sadly, in 1925 together with Alejandro (who survived unharmed) on their way home from school, Kahlo was involved in a near fatal bus accident.
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Kahlo suffered multiple fractures throughout her body, including a crushed pelvis, and a metal rod impaled her womb. She spent one month in the hospital immobile, and bound in a plaster corset, and following this period, many more months bedridden at home. During her long recovery she began to experiment in small-scale autobiographical portraiture, henceforth abandoning her medical pursuits due to practical circumstances and turning her focus to art.
During the months of convalescence at home after her bus accident Kahlo's parents made her a special easel, gave her a set of paints, and placed a mirror above her head so that she could see her own reflection and make self-portraits. Kahlo spent hours confronting existential questions raised by her trauma including a feeling of dissociation from her identity, a growing interiority, and a general closeness to death. She drew upon the acute pictorial realism known from her father's photographic portraits (which she greatly admired) and approached her own early portraits (mostly of herself, her sisters, and her school friends) with the same psychological intensity. At the time, Kahlo seriously considered becoming a medical illustrator during this period as she saw this as a way to marry her interests in science and art.
By 1927, Kahlo was well enough to leave her bedroom and thus re-kindled her relationship with the Cachuchas group, which was by this point all the more political. She joined the Mexican Communist Party (PCM) and began to familiarize herself with the artistic and political circles in Mexico City. She became close friends with the photojournalist Tina Modotti and Cuban revolutionary Julio Antonio Mella. It was in June 1928, at one of Modotti's many parties, that Kahlo was personally introduced to Diego Rivera who was already one of Mexico's most famous artists and a highly influential member of the PCM. Soon after, Kahlo boldly asked him to decide, upon looking at one of her portraits, if her work was worthy of pursuing a career as an artist. He was utterly impressed by the honesty and originality of her painting and assured her of her talents. Despite the fact that Rivera had already been married twice, and was known to all to have an insatiable fondness for women, the two quickly began a romantic relationship and were married in 1929. According to Kahlo's mother, who outwardly expressed her dissatisfaction with the match, the couple were 'the elephant and the dove'. Her father however, unconditionally supported his daughter and was happy to know that Rivera had the financial means to help with Kahlo's medical bills. The new couple moved to Cuernavaca in the rural state of Morelos where Kahlo devoted herself entirely to painting.
By the early 1930s, Kahlo's painting had evolved to include a more assertive sense of Mexican identity, a facet of her artwork that had stemmed from her exposure to the modernist indigenist movement in Mexico and from her interest in preserving the revival of Mexicanidad during the rise of fascism in Europe. Kahlo's interest in distancing herself from her Germanic roots is evidenced in her name change from Frieda to Frida, and furthermore in her decision to wear traditional Tehuana costume (the dress from earlier matriarchal times). At the time, two failed pregnancies augmented Kahlo's simultaneously harsh and beautiful representation of the specifically female experience through symbolism and autobiography.
During the first few years of the 1930s Kahlo and Rivera lived in San Francisco, Detroit, and New York whilst Rivera was creating various murals. Kahlo also completed some seminal works including Frieda and Diego Rivera (1931) and Self-Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and The United States (1932) with the latter expressing her observations of rivalry taking place between nature and industry in the two lands. It was during this time that Kahlo met and became friends with Imogen Cunningham, Ansel Adams, and Edward Weston. She also met Dr. Leo Eloesser while in San Francisco, the surgeon who would become her closest medical advisor until her death.
Soon after the unveiling of a large and controversial mural that Rivera had made for the Rockefeller Centre in New York (1933), the couple returned to Mexico as Kahlo was feeling particularly homesick. They moved into a new house in the wealthy neighborhood of San Angel. The house was made up of two separate parts joined by a bridge. This set up was appropriate as their relationship was undergoing immense strain. Kahlo had numerous health issues while Rivera, although he had been previously unfaithful, at this time had an affair with Kahlo's younger sister Cristina which understandably hurt Kahlo more than her husband's other infidelities. Kahlo too started to have her own extramarital affairs at this point. Not long after returning to Mexico from the States, she met the Hungarian photographer Nickolas Muray, who was on holiday in Mexico. The two began an on-and-off romantic affair that lasted 10 years, and it is Muray who is credited as the man who captured Kahlo most colorfully on camera.
While briefly separated from Diego following the affair with her sister and living in her own flat away from San Angel, Kahlo also had a short affair with the Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi. The two highly politically and socially conscious artists remained friends until Kahlo's death.
In 1936, Kahlo joined the Fourth International (a Communist organization) and often used La Casa Azul as a meeting point for international intellectuals, artists, and activists. She also offered the house where the exiled Russian Communist leader Leon Trotsky and his wife, Natalia Sedova, could take up residence once they were granted asylum in Mexico. In 1937, as well as helping Trotsky, Kahlo and the political icon embarked on a short love affair. Trotsky and his wife remained in La Casa Azul until mid-1939.
During a visit to Mexico City in 1938, the founder of Surrealism, André Breton, was enchanted with Kahlo's painting, and wrote to his friend and art dealer, Julien Levy, who quickly invited Kahlo to hold her first solo show at his gallery in New York. This time round, Kahlo traveled to the States without Rivera and upon arrival caused a huge media sensation. People were attracted to her colorful and exotic (but actually traditional) Mexican costumes and her exhibition was a success. Georgia O'Keeffe was one of the notable guests to attend Kahlo's opening. Kahlo enjoyed some months socializing in New York and then sailed to Paris in early 1939 to exhibit with the Surrealists there. That exhibition was not as successful and as she became quickly tired of the over-intellectualism of the Surrealist group. Kahlo returned to New York hoping to continue her love affair with Muray, but he broke off the relationship as he had recently met somebody else. Thus Kahlo traveled back to Mexico City and upon her return Rivera requested a divorce.
Later Years and Death
Following her divorce, Kahlo moved back to La Casa Azul. She moved away from her small tin paintings and began to work on much larger canvases. In 1940 Kahlo and Rivera remarried and their relationship became less turbulent as Kahlo's health deteriorated. Between the years of 1940-1956, the suffering artist often had to wear supportive back corsets to help her spinal problems, she also had an infectious skin condition, along with syphilis. When her father died in 1941, this exacerbated both her depression and her health. She again was often housebound and found simple pleasure in surrounding herself by animals and in tending to the garden at La Casa Azul.
Meanwhile, throughout the 1940s, Kahlo's work grew in notoriety and acclaim from international collectors, and was included in several group shows both in the United States and in Mexico. In 1943, her work was included in Women Artists at Peggy Guggenheim's The Art of This Century Gallery in New York. In this same year, Kahlo accepted a teaching position at a painting school in Mexico City, 'La Esmeralda', and acquired some highly devoted students with whom she undertook some mural commissions. She struggled to continue making a living from her art, never accommodating to clients wishes if she did not like them, but luckily received a national prize for her painting Moses (1945) and then The Two Fridas painting was bought by the Museo de Arte Moderno in 1947. Meanwhile, the artist grew progressively ill. She had a complicated operation to try and straighten her spine, but it failed and from 1950 onwards, she was often confined to a wheelchair.
She continued to paint relatively prolifically in her final years while also maintaining her political activism, and protesting nuclear testing by Western powers. Kahlo exhibited one last time in Mexico in 1953 at Lola Alvarez Bravo's gallery, her first and only solo-show in Mexico. She was brought to the event in an ambulance, with her four-poster bed following on the back of a truck. The bed was then placed in the center of the gallery so that she could lie there for the duration of the opening. Kahlo died in 1954 at La Casa Azul.
Frida Kahlo, drawing to illustrate her bus crash (1926)
Frida Kahlo photograph by Guillermo Davila (1929)
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in 1929. Photograph by Tina Modotti
Frida Kahlo painting Self-Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and The United States (1932)
Frida in Pink and Green Dress, Coyoacan, photograph by Nickolas Muray (1939)
Frida in a Blue Dress in New York City (1939) photograph by Nickolas Muray
Frida Kahlo and her doctor, Juan Faril, 1951, photograph by Giséle Freund
As an individualist who was disengaged from any official artistic movement, Kahlo's artwork has been associated with primitivism, indigenism, Magic Realism, and Surrealism. Posthumously, Kahlo's artwork has grown profoundly influential for feminist studies and postcolonial debates, while Kahlo has become an international cultural icon. The artist's celebrity status for mass audiences has at times resulted in the compartmentalization of the artist's work as representative of interwar Latin American artwork at large, distanced from the complexities of Kahlo's deeply personal subject matter. Recent exhibitions, such as Unbound: Contemporary Art After Frida Kahlo (2014) at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago have attempted to reframe Kahlo's cultural significance by underscoring her lasting impact on the politics of the body and Kahlo's challenge to mainstream aesthetics of representation. Dreamers Awake (2017) held at The White Cube Gallery in London further illustrated the huge influence that Frida Kahlo and a handful of other early female Surrealists have had on the development and progression of female art.
The legacy of Kahlo cannot be underestimated or exaggerated. Not only is it likely that every female artist making art since the 1950s will quote her as an influence, but it is not only artists and those who are interested in art that she inspires. Her art also supports people who suffer as result of accident, as result of miscarriage, and as result of failed marriage. Through imagery, Kahlo articulated experiences so complex, making them more manageable and giving viewers hope that they can endure, recover, and start again.
Frida Kahlo with her family (1927). Whilst her sisters wear the typical and fashionable dresses of the day, Kahlo (approximately 20 years old) wears a man's suit and positions herself as a rebel. She confronts convention and reveals that her identity extends beyond the confines of young womanhood.
Frida Kahlo, 1932 photographed by Imogen Cunningham
Frida Kahlo Essay
By: Heather Waldroup
Frida Kahlo was a female Mexican painter of mixed heritage, born on July 6, 1907 and lived 47 painful years before passing away on July 13, 1954. Within her short life, Frida was slightly crippled from polio, suffered from a serious streetcar accident that left her infertile, married famous muralist Diego Rivera, divorced, remarried Rivera, became a political activist and rose to fame through her oil paintings all before succumbing to her poor health. She was an intelligent female in a society that wanted women to be pretty, submissive wives and mothers. She struggled with cultural demands of her gender in a time when women were demanding a change in their role. All these aspects of her life, and more, affected her art. She was a modern woman but her art had an indigenous background. Her most common genre was self-portrait and through a dramatic views of herself, she was capable of showing her view of the world. Frida was an active member of global society and was a powerful speaker for her beliefs through her art. Her art was controversial and attracted attention. She gained global recognition of her work because it’s complex and provocative, demanding discussion.
Frida Kahlo’s art seems very closely tied to the ups and downs of her marriage and her health. Her and her husband, Diego Rivera, had an unconventional, rocky relationship. There was a lack of fidelity on both parts. Diego was a well-known womanizer and it is thought that Kahlo reacted in kind as vengeance. A struggle exists between an artist and their work, I can only imagine the battles that occur when two artist marry. Within the beginning of their marriage, Frida painted Frida and Diego Rivera (Figure 1). At the time, Rivera was already a well known muralist twenty years her senior and her painting was thought to be no more than a hobby for a quiet wife. Throughout the years they knew each other, they continually painted the other. Frida overlaid his face on her forehead in Diego on my Mind (Figure 2) within which she also wears a dramatic, traditional Mexican headdress. Often times, in her self-portraits she’s wearing traditional Tahuana dress, as in Figure 1. Their marriage seemed to deteriorate in time with Kahlo’s rising success (Lindauer, 1999) until they divorced in 1939. Often times she has been criticized for focusing too much on her work instead of being the docile wife expected of her. The two remarried later that year but it was a financial arrangement and they did not share a marital bed.
While her husband is a common theme so are issues of her health. She often depicted her physical pain and struggle with graphic self-portraits. She “usually located narrative impact . . . directly onto her own body.” (Zavala, 2010) During her accident, she was impaled by a metal pole in her torso that exited through her vagina, breaking her pelvis in the process. She had extreme pain and struggled with the aftermath of her accident. The Broken Column (Figure 3) shows Kahlo’s nude torso with nails in her skin and her torso torn open to reveal a cracked column. The cracked pillar could be representative of the “broken column” of her spine. She was told she would most likely never carry a pregnancy to full term and this turned out to be true, unfortunately. After one of her miscarriages, Kahlo painted Henry Ford Hospital (Figure 4). It depicts the once again nude Kahlo on a bloody hospital bed, crying and holding images of a baby and a pelvis. She went through over 30 surgeries to try to repair the damage and she was just left in more pain. She’d started to lose faith in medicine when she painted Tree of Hope (Figure 5) where a prone, assumed Frida lies cut up and bleeding on a gurney while another Frida in a traditional dress holds a back brace. These self-portraits were a way for her to process the pain she felt. “In Frida’s work oil paint mixes with the blood of her inner monologue.” (Tibol, 1993) They are disturbing images that invoke fear in the viewer. Her pain is so blatantly displayed in her blood and nakedness that can be felt so strongly by the viewer. She demands you feel it with her direct stare.
Kahlo invoked such strong reactions to her work because they challenged traditional values with modern ideas, mixed with often violent and sexualized imagery. She used her art to bring attention to the mistreatment of women and to aid the feminist movement. A Few Small Nips (Figure 6) was painted after she read in the newspaper about a man who stabbed his cheating wife. Frida was herself a sexually promiscuous woman who’d had affairs with both men and women (Lindauer, 1999) so she would feel invested in how such women are viewed. She fought against the expectation of the meek female dressed up in lace and bows. She painted Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (Figure 7) in which she’s wearing a man’s suit and has sheared her hair off. Men felt extremely threatened by this and took it as an assault on all males after her divorce from Rivera. They insinuated her to be a fallen woman and their fury further showed the social imbalance (Lindauer, 1999).
There was an excess of disparity in her art between the traditional and the modern. This is shown most clearly in two of her pieces: My Dress Hangs There (Figure 8) and Self-Portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States (Figure 9). Both paintings have clear American references, as well as other global iconography, as drastic comparisons to traditional Mexican culture. In Figure 8, the US capitol is centered and the Statue of Liberty is in the background. Capitalist iconography is represented by the billboard of a well-dressed woman and the gas pump, all placed in a metropolitan setting with the populous barely noticeable at the bottom of the painting. The artist’s Tehuana dress hangs in the center, offering the juxtaposition of the two. Figure 9 shows the inequality between the two nations with the artist straddling the line separating them. On the Mexican side there are symbols representing ancient Mexican religion and flowers are growing out of the dirt. The American side is completely urbanized. The paintings are considered her most politically explicit because they “portray the corruption, alienation and/or dehumanization” of Americans (Lindauer, 1999). Both of these pieces would’ve sparked discussion in the early 1930’s when they were painted. Nothing makes a topic more well known than controversy.
Frida Kahlo’s harsh life produced provocative images that challenged society. She was wise beyond her years and was a fiery, rebellious spirit. She was a member of las pelonas in college, a group of young, Mexican women who cut their hair, learned how to drive cars and wore androgynous clothing. While consulting a specialist on another serious spinal surgery, she told her physicians to send him every, to write him letters describing her character, so he would understand that she’s a fighter (Lindauer, 1999). She taught painting to youth across Mexico, affecting hundreds of lives with her mentorship. In her final days she left the hospital, despite doctors’ orders, to participate in a political protest. She was in a wheelchair, having lost a leg to gangrene, sickly thin, with colorful yarn tied into her hair. The things she saw and experienced led to the dramatic works that flowed from her brush. She hadn’t planned to follow in the artistic footsteps of her photographer father and grandfather. Yet, look at the silver lining of the tragedy of her accident. Instead of becoming a doctor, she painted pictures that made people talk and discuss. She is now recognizable worldwide for her unique self-portraits.
Zavala, Adriana. Becoming Modern, Becoming Tradition: Women, Gender, and
Representation in Mexican Art. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State UP,
Lindauer, Margaret A. Devouring Frida: The Art History and Popular Celebrity of Frida
Kahlo. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1999. Print.
Tibol, Raquel. Frida Kahlo: An Open Life. University of New Mexico Press, 1993. Print.