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Frida Kahlo: Painting the Stories of Her Life

Frida Kahlo was born on July 6, 1907 in Coyoacan, Mexico. Her father was a Jewish immigrant with Hungarian-German ancestry, and her mother was 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 age 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 famous Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera.

Kahlo was seriously injured in a streetcar accident when she was 18 years old. She began painting as a way to relax and express herself while she recovered from the accident, which caused her to have more than thirty operations over the years. She asked Diego Rivera to look at her work and tell her if he thought she had any talent. Rivera encouraged her and especially liked her self-portraits. They began spending a lot of time together and were married in 1929 when Kahlo was 22 and Rivera was 42. It was a tempestuous relationship however. They separated and were divorced in 1939, but were remarried in 1940.

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 includes fantastic imagery, often expressing dreams or the subconscious 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.

Discussion Questions:
Adapted from questionArte posters by Marilyn Stewart PhD, published by CRIZMAC

What are the artworks about?

What are Frida Kahlo’s paintings about? Feelings or moods? Ideas or themes? The artist herself? Her culture?

Do Frida Kahlo’s paintings seem to be a record of her personal experience? If so, how is this suggested?

Do Frida Kahlo’s paintings seem to be a record of her introspection (looking inside herself)? If so, how it this suggested?

From the Teacher’s Guide of questionArte
“Talking about particular works of art, as well as about art in general, can be the most satisfying activity associated with learning about art and art-makers. Students gain new insights as they examine and investigate works of art and offer possible interpretations about meaning. Students learn from each other in the process of discussing important questions about art. They learn about their own art-making as they consider what they have accomplished through their efforts.