I’ll admit it. In the beginning, I didn’t “get” Frida Kahlo. Her paintings are often disturbing and, well, in some cases downright weird. And let’s face it, it’s a rare Frida painting that you’d look at and say, “Wow, I’d love to hang that over the sofa in the living room.”
But that’s just it. She wasn’t painting for me…or you…or for anyone else. In her relatively short life, Frida suffered a great deal both emotionally and physically. For reasons we’ll get into shortly, Frida spent long hours alone. and she began painting as a way to make sense of her life and to work through her pain.
There is already so much out there about Frida that I’ll keep this relatively brief. If it whets your interest and you want to learn more, check out some of the resources I’ve listed at the end, including the fabulous movie, Frida, starring Salma Hayek.
So here, as a Frida for Dummies book (if such a thing existed), would say is the “least you need to know”:
Frida Kahlo was born on July 6, 1907 in Coyoacan, Mexico, the daughter of a Jewish immigrant with Hungarian-German ancestry, and a mother of Spanish-Indian descent from the Mexican state of Oaxaca. As a child, Frida developed polio, a disease that left her with a slight limp.
At fifteen, she began attending a prestigious prep-school in Mexico City. The students at her school were urged to glorify Mexican culture and history and to respect their language and heritage, and Kahlo sustained this ideology all her life. It was at her school also that Kahlo first met the legendary Mexican muralist (and notorious philanderer), Diego Rivera. At least according to one story, she and her friends used to tease and torment the painter as he worked. On one occasion, they reportedly soaped the staircase at the school, hoping he would slip and fall. But for his size, Rivera was remarkably agile and he negotiated the steps without a problem. Instead, it was the headmaster who took the spill…
The Streetcar Accident
The event that would forever alter the course of Frida’s life occurred when she was 18 years old. She and her boyfriend were riding in a streetcar in downtown Mexico City when it was involved in an accident. Frida was seriously injured, literally impaled by the handrail. A long period of recuperation followed, and for some time doctors told the family she would likely never walk again, but Frida’s determination won out. Although she did walk again, the injuries she suffered would continue to plague her for the rest, requiring some 30 operations over her lifetime.
Because she had to spend so much time in bed during her initial recovery, her mother brought her some paints and a easel as a way to pass the time and her parents hung a mirror above her bed so she could see herself. Since she was often the only subject available, Frida began painting the first of many self-portraits.
When she was well enough, Friday took some of her paintings to show Diego Rivera. she asked him to look at her work and tell her if he thought she had any talent. Rivera told her to go home and paint another and he would come by on Sunday to took at it. Soon, he was visiting every Sunday…
The Wife of Diego Rivera
Frida and Diego were married in 1929 when Kahlo was 22 and Rivera was 42. Her mother was not in favor of the marriage, calling it the union of an “elephant and a dove.” But Diego was generous and helped the family keep the family home, known as “the blue house,” by paying many of Frida’s medical bills from her injury. He was serially unfaithful, however, and it was a tempestuous relationship.
The final straw came when Diego had an affair with Frida’s favorite sister. The couple separate and were divorced in 1939. It was an exceedingly difficult time for Frida and she was drinking heavily. Frida and Diego remarried in 1940, but the affairs continued, with Frida, too, now taking both male and female lovers. .
Throughout her life, Kahlo’s paintings portrayed her continued suffering from both her injured body and stormy marriage. They were a way of helping her cope with her problems. Her work also consistently showed her loyalty to Mexican folklore. Even her most personal portraits relate to the people and customs of her homeland.
Kahlo is often labeled a surrealist because of the realistic, dream-like quality of many of her paintings. Surrealism is a style of art that explores fantastic imaginary and expresses dreams or the sub-conscious mind. Kahlo denied that she was a surrealist, maintaining that she painted her own reality. Nevertheless, she was welcomed in Europe and embraced as “one of their own” by surrealists André Breton and Marc Chagall, among others. She was given successful exhibitions in New York and Paris, France, and her work was admired and accepted by many famous people and artists.
By 1950, her physical problems were grave and her right leg was amputated. In 1953, as her health continued to fail, Frida was given an exhibition of her work in Mexico. She died in her home in Coyoacan on July 13, 1954. Eight days before her death, she completed her last painting, a still life of watermelon wedges, open and juicy. On it she wrote the motto by which her art and her legend live—Viva la Vida (Long live life).
Frida Kahlo was one of Mexico’s most highly regarded and talented painters. Her work is made up of powerful personal images interwoven with Mexican designs. Today her paintings hang in museums throughout the world. But only in recent years has Frida Kahlo’s art made an impression on the world. Her art is a reminder of the way she used her strengths and talents to overcome her pain and sorrow.
So, happy birthday Frida! Despite all the pain and heartbreak you suffered, you remained passionate, joyful, irreverent and fun. Through your art you delved deep into your soul, grappled with the demons that plagued you, and have served as an inspiration to so many. And I’ll take that over a pretty picture over the sofa any day!
Fascinated by Frida and want to learn more?
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