Who was Frida Kahlo?

Frida Kahlo

“I paint self-portraits because I am the person I know best. I paint my own reality.” – Frida Kahlo

In 2007, the 100th birthday of one of the most revered artists of the 20th century was commemorated at the Palacio de Bellas Artes. It was the first comprehensive exhibit of the artist’s work in Mexico and the largest exhibit of her paintings. The exhibit, which ran from June 13 to August 12, transcended the museum’s previous attendance records.

The artist’s name was Frida Kahlo.

Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderón was born on July 6, 1927, in Coyocoán, Mexico City, in the house of her parents, known as La Casa Azul (The Blue House). Her father, Guillermo Kahlo (born Carl Wilhelm Kahlo), was German and her mother, Matilde Calderon y Gonzalez, was a native Mexican of Spanish/Indian descent. Frida was the third of four daughters born to Guillermo and Matilde Kahlo: Matilde, Adriana, Frieda and Cristina. She later changed the German spelling of her name from ‘Frieda’ to ‘Frida’. “She is the most intelligent of all my daughters and the most like me” Guillermo Kahlo would say of her (www.fridakahlofans)

Frida was 3 years old when the Mexican Revolution began in 1910 and at the age of 6 she contracted polio, which caused her to be bedridden for 9 months. She did not recover and the illness left her right leg thinner than the left, and her foot stunted in its growth. Kahlo attemped to hide the deformity by wearing trousers, long skirts and two pairs of socks on her right foot.

Kahlo attended the Colegio Alemán Alexander von Humboldt, a German elementary school, where she was cruelly nicknamed “peg-leg Frida” by her classmates. In 1922, she was enrolled at the prestigious Preparatoria, where she was one of 35 girls. That same year, the prominent Mexican artist and her future husband, Diego Rivera, went to work on a mural titled ‘The Creation’ in the school’s lecture hall. A 15-year-old Frida Kahlo is said to have informed her classmates that she would one day have the artist’s baby. Kahlo joined a gang of politically and intellectuality like-minded students and became romantically involved with its leader, Alejandro Gomez Arias.

On September 17, 1925, 18-year-old Frida and Gomez Arias were riding on a wooden bus when it collided with an electric trolley. Gomez Arias told writer Hayden Herrera: “The bus … burst into a thousand pieces.” (www.vanityfair.com) He was fortunate to have sustained relatively minor injuries. Frida was not so fortunate and, perhaps compromised by her bad leg, was pierced by the trolley’s metal handrail, which penetrated her abdomen and uterus, entering her lower body on the left side and exited through her vagina. Her spinal column and pelvis were each broken in three places; she also broke her collarbone and suffered two broken ribs. Her right leg, which was already deformed in three places, was fractured in 11 places, and her right foot was dislocated and crushed. Somehow during the impact, Frida’s clothes had been pulled off, leaving her naked, and, odder still, a house painter had been carrying a packet of powdered gold, which broke and showered Frida’s bleeding body with gold.

Years later, Frida recalled : “The accident happened … My first thought was for a pretty colourful Balero, which I had bought that day. I wanted to look for it in the belief that all of this would not have any consequences.” (www.fridakahlostory.com) The accident left Kahlo in extreme pain, and after several weeks at the Red Cross Hospital in Mexico City she returned home. Frida spent three months convalescing in a full body cast. She would experience recurring bouts of intense pain for the rest of her life and undergo 35 operations. The internal damage Frida had suffered from the accident and medical complications prevented her from having a child. Although she conceived three times, each of her pregnancies had to be terminated.

During her recovery, Frida began painting again and bombarded Gómez Arias with love letters. She created her first self portrait, ‘Self-Portrait in a Velvet Dress’, which she hoped would win back her lover’s waning attentions. She would continue to paint for the next 28 years of her life, in spite of her deteriorating health. “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best,” Kahlo was to say of her self-portraits (www.fridakahlo.com). And, in typical uncompromising fashion, she also stated: “I was born a bitch. I was born a painter.” (www.wikipedia.org)

Frida Kahlo was 5’3” and striking, with dark skin and dark eyes, courtesy of her Mexican-Indian roots. In her self-portraits, Kahlo often appears enigmatic with her famous unibrow and moustache, of which she was rather proud. Yet she loved a slick of red lipstick, Revlon nail polishes and Shalimar perfume by Guerlain. She was also fond of cats-eye sunglasses and flower crowns, and wearing gorgeous Tehuana-style floor length dresses. According to artist Lucienne Bloch, Frida always carefully groomed her unibrow and moustache with a little comb. Frida told Olga Campos: “The most important part of the body is the brain. Of my face I like the eyebrows and eyes. Aside from that I like nothing. My head is too small. My breasts and genitals are average. Of the opposite sex, I have the moustache and in general the face.” (www.vanityfair.com)

Kahlo became more politically active and joined the Young Communist League and the Communist Party of Mexico (PCM) in 1928. She communicated with Diego Rivera, who encouraged her art, and they began an intimate relationship. Kahlo was to say: “I suffered two grave accidents in my life. One in which a streetcar knocked me down… The other accident is Diego.” (www.diego-rivera.org)

In 1929, 22-year-old Frida Kahlo married the older Rivera, much to the disapproval of her parents. Her mother did not approve of Diego’s atheism or his Communism and referred to it as being: “the marriage of an elephant to a dove” (www.fridakahlofans.com). Frida did not enjoy a close relationship with her mother and referred to her as “El Jeffe” (The Boss).

The marriage proved to be a notoriously stormy one, marked by infidelities on both sides. According to a biographer, Kahlo once said, “I do not think the banks of a river suffer by letting the water run.”(www.kcur.org) Rivera even had an affair with her younger sister Cristina, while the bisexual Frida had an affair with dancer Josephine Baker. Among Kahlo’s lovers were Leon Trotsky and Christina Hastings – the wife of one of Diego’s assistants.

Diego’s artistic career was expanding and on November 10 1930, the couple left for a three-year sojourn in the States. In 1930, they lived in San Francisco, California, where Kahlo showed her painting ‘Frieda and Diego Rivera’ at the Sixth Annual Exhibition of the San Francisco Society of Women Artists. In early September 1932, Frida returned to Mexico because her mother was gravely ill. She died on September 15 and Frida returned to the US. In spite of Diego’s success in America, Frida had never been happy there and referred to it as”Gringolandia”.

On December 20 1933, she and Rivera returned to Mexico. In 1934, Frida learned of her husband’s affair with her sister and said she felt “murdered by life” (www.fridakahlofans). She began painting herself wounded and bleeding, and embarked on a series of affairs, although she could not break the bond with Rivera. A friend described Frida and Diego’s turbulent union as “heightened torture and heroism” (www.vanityfair.com). In 1938, the leading Surrealist André Breton championed her work; both he and Marcel Duchamp were influential in arranging for some of the exhibits of Kahlo’s work in the United States and Europe.

On November 6 1939, the couple were divorced, and by 1940 Frida’s health was deteriorating. She was suffering the effects of alcoholism and not only agonising pain in her spine, but she was also suffering from infected kidneys, a trophic ulcer on her right foot and recurrent fungus infections on her right hand. She had two sets of dentures made when her teeth rotted out – one was in gold and one was studded with diamonds.

In 1940, Dr Leo Eloesser, a friend of the couple, convinced Diego Rivera to be reconciled with Frida and on December 8, Diego’s 54th birthday, the couple were remarried. But Diego and Frida’s second marriage was to prove just as turbulent as the first. In the 1940s, Kahlo produced a series of striking self-portraits. Child psychiatrist Dr. Salomón Grimberg suggests that Frida had trouble being alone: “Even in her self-portraits, she is usually accompanied – by her parrots, monkeys, dogs, or a doll,” Grimberg says. “She kept mirrors in every room of her house, her patio included, as if she needed constant reassurance of her very existence.” (www.vanityfair.com)

In 1946, orthapedic specialist Dr. Philip Wilson performed a major surgical intervention on Kahlo’s spinal chord. Dr. Wilson performed a spinal fusion using a metal plate and a bone graft taken from her pelvis. Large doses of morphine were prescribed for the pain and Frida’s health worsened. In 1949, gangrene was apparent on Kahlo’s right foot, and in 1953, her right leg was amputated at the knee. According to researchers, Frida wrote in her diary: “They amputated my leg six months ago, they have given me centuries of torture, and at moments I almost lost my reason. I keep on waiting to kill myself.” (www.cbsnews.com)

Kahlo had been suffering from a bout of bronchopneumonia, which left her frail and unwell throughout 1954, and increased her morphine consumption. A few days before her death, she participated in a demonstration against the CIA’s invasion of Guatemala.

“I hope the exit is joyful,” Kahlo wrote in her last diary entry. “And I hope never to come back.”

Frida Kahlo died on July 13, 1954, a week after her 47th birthday. The official cause of death was given as a “pulmonary embolism”, although some suspected that she died from an overdose that may or may not have been accidental.

Kahlo was cremated according to her wishes, and her ashes remain on display today in a pre-Colombian urn in her former home in Coyoacán. Since 1958, La Casa Azul (The Blue House) has been maintained as a museum in her memory, housing a number of her works of art.

“They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”(www.craveonline.com) She created 140 paintings, along with numerous drawings and studies. Of her paintings, 55 were self-portraits.

It would not be until the late 1970s and early 1980s that Frida would be celebrated with the emergence of artists such as Abraham Angel, Angel Zárraga and others. Feminism, the Chicano movement and multiculturalism conspired in part to turn Kahlo into an international cult figure. In May 1982, the first retrospective of Kahlo’s work outside of Mexico opened at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. The exhibit travelled to Sweden, Germany, Manhattan and Mexco City. In 2002, Mexican-American actress Salma Hayek played Kahlo in a movie of her life, directed by Julie Taymor. ‘Frida’ also starred Alfred Molina as Diego Rivera.

“She clicks with today’s sensibilities – her psycho-obsessive concern with herself, her creation of a personal alternative world carry a voltage. Her constant remaking of her identity, her construction of a theater of the self are exactly what preoccupy such contemporary artists as Cindy Sherman or Kiki Smith and, on a more popular level, Madonna – who, of course, collects her work. Kahlo, incidentally, is more a figure for the age of Madonna than the era of Marilyn Monroe. She fits well with the odd, androgynous hormonal chemistry of our particular epoch,” reflects Kirk Varnedoe, chief curator of the Museum of Modern Art (www.vanityfair.com).

Time has not dimmed the revolutionary spirit of Frida Kahlo. The last words belong to her:

“Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?” (www.mamiverse.com)

Words: Alex Karas
Image: Hatiye Garip

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