Frida Kahlo, the iconic painter from Mexico, was in the news recently – not for any of her works but for the insensitive question posed by the newly-installed American ambassador to that country.
While everyone would agree that insulting one of your host country’s most renown citizens is not in good form, his doing so had a somewhat positive effect. Thanks to his faux-pas, Frida is back on stage!
Of course, your Superprof has to jump on the chance to tell you all about this remarkable woman: her life and trials; the pain and tragedy she endured for much of her time...
A life cut far too short; an ability to speak volumes through brushstrokes silenced before it had properly begun.
We’re honoured to examine the life and art of Frida Kahlo.
Beginnings: Meeting Young Frida
Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón was an awfully long name for the scrap of a girl born on the 6th of July, 1907 in a small village outside of Mexico City.
Like Pablo Picasso, she was named according to the Spanish tradition of listing each parent’s last name separated by ‘y’ (and). Rather than uttering the entire name, the household’s newest member was called simply Frida.
Frida would be the youngest save one in what she described as a ‘very, very sad’ home. Her father, a photographer of some repute, was plagued with epilepsy, a condition that ended his university studies in his native Germany.
He would occasionally have seizures at home which his daughters, especially Frida, were witness to.
Frida describes her mother as kind and intelligent but also as cruel and fanatically religious. While Frida relationship with her mother was rather tense, by all accounts she and her father got along famously.
That might have been because they both lived with a disability.
When Frida was six years old, she was stricken with polio, leaving her right leg incapacitated. Her father, desperate for her to fully recover, encouraged her to run and play sports – even though, at that time, it was considered unseemly for girls to run about.
It was those months battling polio that caused her late enrolment in school; something that other students bullied her about, along with her small stature.
It’s hard to say exactly where Frida developed her fiery temper – whether it was a result of being picked on in school, feeling pressure at home or if it was simply in her nature.
Certainly, even later in life, she dissembled over seemingly inconsequential matters, for instance averring she was born at Casa Azul, the family homestead – now a museum to exhibit her life and work, when official records list her grandmother’s house as her place of birth.
Nevertheless, her talent for mischief and artifice got her expelled from the German school her father had insisted she attend. Determined to see his favourite daughter educated, Dad enroled her in a vocational school but, soon, she was back home; she had been abused by a teacher there.
With nothing but time on her hands, until she became old enough to apply to high school, Frida helped her father retouch, colour and develop photos for clients. It may have been at this time that the desire to create artworks crystallized for her.
This National Prep school, the oldest and most esteemed in Mexico, had only recently started accepting female students; when Frida applied there in 1922, there were only 35 women enroled out of a student body of 2,000.
Frida did not apply to study art; she wanted to be a doctor. She studied hard, learned well and generally fit in with the campus revolutionaries... especially after she shifted her birth year to match the year of the Mexican Revolution.
American artist Helen Frankenthaler was Frida’s opposite in just about every way!
And then, a terrible accident changed the course of her life.
While on the bus with her boyfriend, it collided with a tram. Several passengers lost their lives and many more were injured, including Frida.
With both of her legs fractured and her pelvis shattered, she stayed in hospital for one month and then endured more rehabilitation at home.
When she finally returned to active life, she was in constant agony. Her doctors ordered a new series of X-rays, discovering only then that three of her vertebrae had been displaced. Confined to her bed and wearing a plaster corset, Frida was forced to abandon her studies.
While some might rail at their fate, Frida asked for a mirror to be hung on the ceiling over her bed. She fashioned an easel to her position and, using the mirror, she painted her self-portrait, over and over again.
Till then, she’d only been playing with joining the ranks of great female artists.
Nearly three years after the accident, now fully recovered (save for the pain and discomfort she would suffer all of her life), she met Diego Rivera, a muralist of some repute, at a party. With typical directness, she asked him to appraise her work.
It was obvious to me that this girl was an authentic artist. Diego Rivera
The two began a romance that would endure the rest of Frida’s life but by no means was it blissful. There were jealousy and betrayal, and a disconnect in social and personal values that made the relationship particularly difficult.
For a time, Frida allowed her work to take a backseat to Diego’s; in fact, shortly after their wedding, they relocated to a more rural part of Mexico because he had been commissioned to paint a few murals.
It was there that Frida, till then a cosmopolitan woman, truly got in touch with her heritage. She changed her wardrobe, discarding the stylish skirts worn in the city for the more colourful skirts of the womenfolk there.
Much of her work from that point on would reflect her reverence for her culture:
- Portrait of a Girl with a Ribbon Around her Waist
- The Bus
- Self-Portrait with Necklace
- Self-Portrait with Curly Hair
- My Grandparent, My Parents and Me
Frida was not bashful about trying out different media.
The Bus was is an oil on canvas but My Grandparents is oil and tempera on zinc and Curly Hair is oil on tin. While she never tried her hand as a sculptor - likely she would have been too frail, she frescoed her likeness onto masonite, whimsically titling it 'Very Ugly'.
To some, Frida’s paintings look almost cartoonish, an appearance that belies the seriousness of the woman behind the easel.
Her early works were influenced by European Renaissance artists as well as more avant-garde painters. Later, of course, she was far more inspired by Mexican folk art.
Anyone knowledgeable about her work might wonder about the large number of Fridas she painted; she explained that her loneliness and isolation left her no other subject to paint.
Art historians still debate whether Frida was a surrealist painter or whether she was simply painting a vivid realism... or even whether she was an art movement onto herself.
Surrealist Andre Breton was an early supporter but she rejected the categorisation he put on her art. Even as she showed her work at surrealist exhibits, she averred she detested surrealism.
Compare that attitude with impressionist painter Mary Cassatt, who would have loved to have been argued over in such a way!
Frida never saw her work as figurative; to her, every oil painting she executed was representational... even if you had to reach a bit for what it was supposed to represent.
In a sense, you might compare her with another impressionistic painter, Vincent van Gogh – not for his work, certainly, but for their determination to paint what they see, against all odds. You may also note their use of bright colours...
But Impressionism does not describe Frida’s assault on your senses.
Paintings by Frida have an ‘in your face’ quality to them, almost as if she is daring you to look beyond the oil paint and behind the canvases, to see the woman with such a passion that she would bare herself and her soul for all to see.
In that sense, she was indeed a realist.
It is quite unfortunate that much of Frida’s work is lost to art history; she had a habit of making art and then destroying it if what it was depicting did not please her... or, sometimes, in a fit over Diego’s infidelities.
Still, she has made her mark, both in the ranks of female artists and as an art teacher, a position she held until her health made it too difficult.
She was the first Mexican artist to be featured at the Louvre. The Frame is now on display at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris. Although quite a few of Frida’s original paintings grace private collections, there is more than one art museum exhibiting her work: the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in the US and, of course, in Mexico City.
Frida Kahlo has done as much for western art as she has for women artists; in fact, she has recently become an icon of the feminist movement as well.
By contrast, Artemisia Gentileschi, the post-Italian Renaissance painter, did not make such an impact on the art world until centuries after her death.
Frida Kahlo’s style of painting may defy classification but one thing is certain: she takes a front-row position among women painters, not just for her painting techniques and for highlighting the Mestizo culture, but for her depiction of anguish, on canvas after canvas, perpetually hidden behind her stern, unsmiling gaze.
Now discover Georgia O'Keeffe, another of the great women who have made our world more beautiful through their art.