Frida Kahlo: life and works
Frida Kahlo de Rivera (July 6, 1907 – July 13, 1954), born Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderón was a Mexican painter known for her self-portraits.
Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderon, as her name appears on her birth certificate was born on July 6, 1907 in the house of her parents, known as La Casa Azul (The Blue House), in Coyoacan. At the time, this was a small town on the outskirts of Mexico City.
Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderon was born on July 6, 1907 in Mexico City, Mexico. She was the seventh daughter of Guillermo Kahlo (born Carl Wilhelm Kahlo), a successful German photographer who emigrated to Mexico from Pforzheim, and of a Mexican-Indian mother, Matilde Calderón y González. Her father encouraged her interest in art, photography and archaeology; her mother was not so well educated, and also very religious.
Frida Kahlo biography
At the age of 6, Frida suffered an attack of poliomyelitis, which left her with a deformed leg, although exercise and determination helped her to make a good recovery. At 14, she enrolled into one of Mexico’s best schools hoping to forge a career in medicine; however, on September 17, 1925, she suffered serious injury in a traffic accident in Mexico City, breaking her spinal column and pelvis in three places, as well as her collar bone and two ribs. Her right leg, already deformed by polio, was shattered and fractured in 11 places and her right foot was dislocated. Frida spent the next month in hospital, and another 2 months at home recuperating, followed by 32 operations during her life-time. Her first prolonged hospitalization gave her the opportunity to rethink her life and become a painter, in spite of constant pain and discomfort.
She met her future husband, painter Diego Rivera, when he painted a mural at her school in 1923; they re-met in 1927 and began an affair. Although her mother objected to Frida dating Diego mostly because of their age differences (he was exactly 20 years older) and their awkward appearance together (she was 5′ 3″ tall and weighed only 100 lbs, he was 6′ and weighed nearly 300 lbs), they were married in a traditional Catholic civil ceremony in 1929.
Melancholia, illness, separation, divorce, and re-marriage marked their relationship; Diego Rivera was a womanizer and their marriage was stormy. Frustrated by his philandering, Frida (a closet lesbian/bisexual) had affairs with both men and women, including a fling with exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky in 1938. Her career as an artist was highly successful and took her around Mexico, New York and Europe.
Frida and Diego divorced early in 1940, and soon after, Frida’s health deteriorated. Her moderate to heavy drinking, chain-smoking, and a steady diet of candy exacerbated her infirmity. In the early 1930s, she developed an atrophic ulcer on her right foot, from which several gangrenous toes were amputated in 1934.
Frida and Diego Rivera reconciled and were re-married on his 54th birthday, in December 1940, in San Francisco, California. Following the amputation of her right leg in 1953, Frida became a recluse and more deeply depressed, finally losing the will to live. She was found dead at home in Mexico City on July 13, 1954, allegedly from kidney, liver and heart failure, although some believe she committed suicide by taking an overdose of pills.
Frida Kahlo art
Frida Kahlo, Mexico’s greatest female artist, painted brutally honest self portraits that reveal her psychological response to adversity. She was born on July 6, 1907, in Coyoacan, a suburb of Mexico City. When she was six years old she contracted polio which left her with a deformed right foot and the cruel nickname, “Peg-leg Frida”. Her original ambition was to be a doctor but a streetcar accident in 1925 left her disabled and changed the path of her life. It was after this accident that Kahlo began to paint in order to relieve the boredom during her convalescence.
Frida Kahlo underwent more than thirty operations in the course of her life, and most of her paintings relate to her experiences with physical and psychological suffering. They also chronicle her turbulent relationship with Diego Rivera, Mexico’s most famous painter, whom she met in 1928 and married in 1929. Rivera was frequently unfaithful to her, even starting an affair with her sister, Cristina. Kahlo retaliated with her own affairs. Eventually they divorced in 1939 but remarried a year later, only to resume hostilities where they left off. She is quoted as saying about the relationship,
“There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst.”
Frida Kahlo underwent more than thirty operations in the course of her life, and most of her paintings relate to her experiences with physical and psychological suffering. They also chronicle her turbulent relationship with Diego Rivera, Mexico’s most famous painter, whom she met in 1928 and married in 1929. Rivera was frequently unfaithful to her, even starting an affair with her sister, Cristina. Kahlo retaliated with her own affairs. Eventually they divorced in 1939 but remarried a year later, only to resume hostilities where they left off. She is quoted as saying about the relationship,”There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst.”
A FUSION OF STYLES
One of Kahlo’s early works, the ‘Self-Portrait in a Velvet Dress’ suggests an influence and knowledge of European art. The elongation of the hands and neck recalls the Mannerist portraits of Bronzino, while the turbulent waves in the background suggest the deep emotional turmoil that can be found in the ice blue self portrait by Van Gogh in the Musée d’Orsay.
Kahlo began to deny quite obvious European influences such as Surrealism, as she, along with Rivera, became a driving force of the ‘Mexicanidad’ movement which sought to increase the status of Mexican culture and decrease the Spanish influence from Europe. She started to wear traditional Mexican costumes and braided her hair with ribbons, flowers and jewellery to identify with indigenous Mexican culture. The imagery and colours in her paintings were also changed to reflect this national pride.
Although initially a self-taught painter from a humble background, she was, through her relationship with Diego Rivera, moving in the most fashionable and influential social circles. However, between 1930 and 1934, Kahlo and Rivera moved to the USA to escape political persecution due to their Communist sympathies. During that time she fell pregnant twice and lost the child on both occasions, ultimately due to complications resulting from her streetcar injuries. The subjects of her paintings from this point onwards deal increasingly with her feelings about loss, infertility, pain and alienation.
The fusion of Christian and Aztec imagery is common in Mexican culture. In her ‘Self-Portrait’ above, Kahlo portrays herself as a Christ like victim where the crown of thorns is replaced by a necklace of thorns with a hummingbird ‘medallion’. The Aztec god ‘Huitzilopochtli’ is often depicted as a hummingbird.
WRITTEN IN ‘BLOOD’
‘The Suicide of Dorothy Hale’ was commissioned by Clare Booth Luce, the publisher of the fashion magazine ‘Vanity Fair’ and a friend of both Dorothy Hale and Frida Kahlo, as a memento for the deceased woman’s mother. Dorothy’s husband, the artist Gardiner Hale, was killed in a car crash and left her without support. Overwhelmed by financial problems, Dorothy took her own life by jumping from her apartment building.
Kahlo paints the suicide with three consecutive stages of the fall in one image: first, a small figure of Dorothy leaps from a window high in the building; then a larger figure is portrayed plummeting through the clouds towards the ground; and finally the largest figure, the bloodied and broken body of Dorothy, lies prostrate on the sidewalk.
At the bottom of the picture, a trompe l’oeil inscription is written in ‘blood’, “In the city of New York on the 21st day of the month of October, 1938, at six o’clock in the morning, Mrs. Dorothy Hale committed suicide by throwing herself out of a very high window of the Hampshire House building. This ‘retablo,’ (a painted wooden relief) was executed by Frida Kahlo.” To add to the horror of the image, the frame is painted to look like it has been splattered with bloodstains as a result of the fall.
On receipt of the painting Clare Booth Luce commented in her diary, ‘I could not have requested such a gory picture of my worst enemy, much less of my unfortunate friend’. Although she wanted to destroy the picture, she was persuaded to keep it.
Only someone like Kahlo, who had personally endured and understood the effects of physical and psychological suffering could empathise with and respectfully address this distressing subject without appearing insensitive or sensational.
A SELF PORTRAIT OF SUFFERING
‘The Broken Column’ (1944) is a metaphor for Kahlo’s own pain. Her spine is represented by a shattered stone column. This is visible through her broken body which is only held together by a harness. She is naked and the surface of her flesh is punctured by sharp nails, recalling the painful effect of flogging on the body of Christ in Matthias Grünewald’s Crucifixion Panel from the Isenheim Altarpiece. Silent tears drop from her eyes as she stands alone in a desolate wasteland without any sign of hope on the horizon. This is a bleak self image but her endurance heroically prevails in this barren landscape of despair.
“THE MESSAGE OF PAIN”
In the 1950’s, Kahlo’s health seriously declined and the technical quality of her work suffered. Several spinal operations left her crippled with pain and she was confined to a wheelchair. ‘Self-Portrait with the Portrait of Dr. Farill’ (1951) is typical of this final period of her work. This double portrait, where she sits in her wheelchair holding her brushes and palette adjacent to her painting of her surgeon Dr. Farill, is a statement about the nature of her art.
“My painting carries with it the message of pain … Painting completed my life.”
A section of her heart replaces the palette on her lap, while her paintbrushes drip with blood, leaving the viewer in no doubt about their importance to her existence.
Frida Kahlo facts
1. She had Polio as a child.
Kahlo struggled with many types of illnesses throughout her life. When she was six years old, she contracted the virus which consequently left her right leg much thinner than her left. She disguised the bottom half of her body in full long colorful skirts (see examples above).
2. The artist was not able to bear children.
Due to a terrible bus accident when she was 18, Kahlo suffered severe injuries, including a broken spinal column, a broken collarbone, broken ribs, a broken pelvis, 11 fractures to her right leg, and a dislocated shoulder. During the accident, an iron handrail pierced her abdomen and her uterus, causing injury that would make it impossible for her to reproduce.
3. She arrived at her first solo exhibition in an ambulance.
During the early 1950s, Kahlo was in and out of the hospital, having been diagnosed with gangrene in her right foot. In 1953, still bedridden, the artist arrived at her first solo show in Mexico in an ambulance. Her foot later had to be amputated to prevent spread of the gangrene.
4. Her home (Casa Azul) was turned into a museum after her death
The artist was born in the home in 1907 and it had remained in her family throughout her life. Known as Caza Azul, or the Blue House (it’s painted cobalt blue), it was turned into a museum after she died. It now sees over 25,000 visitors monthly. Each of its 10 rooms are organized by theme; one room houses pieces by Kahlo as well as other artists including Paul Klee, Jose Maria Velasco, and Celia Calderon Orozco.
5. Kahlo was bisexual.
Although she was married to artist Diego Rivera, their relationship was tumultuous and they both had extramarital affairs. Kahlo had a well-known tryst with female artist Josephine Baker. Diego Rivera supposedly had an affair with Kahlo’s sister, Cristina.
6. The artist has lived in Mexico City, New York, San Francisco, and Paris.
She followed Rivera to San Francisco and New York City where he traveled for work. In 1939, Kahlo moved to Paris for some time, where she became friends with Marcel Duchamp and Pablo Picasso. During her time in Paris, she painted The Two Fridas (1939), one of her most famous self-portraits that depicted two versions of the artist, holding hands, sitting side by side, with both their hearts connected and exposed.
7. Actress Salma Hayek portrayed the artist in a 2002 biopic directed by Julie Taymor.
Mexican-born actress Salma Hayek played Kahlo in the 2002 Julie Taymor-directed film Frida, a role for which she was nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Best Actress. The film went on to win in the categories of Best Makeup and Best Original Score.
Frida Kahlo quotes
“Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?”
“There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst.”
“I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.”
“I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me, too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.”
“You didn’t understand what I am. I am love. I am pleasure. I am essence. I am an idiot. I am alcoholic. I am tenacious. I am. I simply am. You are a sh*t my love.”
“They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I paint my own reality.”
“Nothing is absolute. Everything changes, everything moves, everything revolves, everything flies and goes away.”
“I drank because I wanted to drown my sorrows, but now the damned things have learned to swim.”
“I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.”
“I think that little by little I’ll be able to solve my problems and survive.”
“At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can.”
“I love you more than my own skin.”
“How can I call him my Diego? He never was and never will be mine, he only belongs to himself.”
“Nothing is worth more than laughter. It is strength to laugh and to abandon oneself, to be light.”
“Take a lover who looks at you like maybe you are magic.” ~ Marty McConnel (about Frida Kahlo)
“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.”
“I cannot speak of Diego as my husband because that term, when applied to him, is an absurdity. He never has been, nor will he ever be, anybody’s husband.”
“I leave you my portrait so that you will have my presence all the days and nights that I am away from you.”
“I want to be inside your darkest everything.”
“I hope the exit is joyful and I hope never to return.”