Tuesday, November 8, 2016

1907-1954: Frida Kahlo, Mexican

Kahlo in 1932, photographed by her father
Guillermo Kahlo
Frida Kahlo was a Mexican painter whose work has been celebrated internationally as emblematic of Mexican national and indigenous traditions, and by feminists for its uncompromising depiction of the female experience and form. She has become a universally recognized symbol of artistic triumph and feminist struggle.

Pain and illness were the defining factors in Frida's short life. She was born in 1907 in Mexico city to a father who had immigrated from Germany and a mother of mixed Native Mexican and Spanish descent. Her father was a professional photographer and an amateur painter who had experienced serious illness in his own life. Her mother was a devout Catholic, who bore three other daughters. When Frida was six years old, she came down with polio, which caused her to be confined to her home for 9 months and deformed one of her legs. She spent a lot of time with her father, who introduced her to various cultural matters, including art history. Later she studied at a prestigious preparatory school, and also received private drawing instruction.

Frida recovered enough to return to school and to engage in sports, but when she was 18, her school bus collided with a streetcar in a crash that killed several people. Frida's pelvis was impaled by an iron handrail, fracturing the bone, and she also fractured several ribs, her legs, and a collarbone.  Her recovery required 3 months of bedrest, wearing a plaster corset.

Frida's whole life was troubled by these injuries, and she underwent over 30 corrective surgeries. One effect was that she couldn't carry a child full term, despite several attempts. Her attitude about her ordeal was complex, and she seemed to depend on illness and hospitalization as ways to get attention and sympathy. Moreover, when she became an artist, her physical trials became one of her dominant themes.

Frida's private life also included a lot of emotional pain and suffering.  When she was 20, Frida's recovery was sufficient that she was able to socialize and to hold menial jobs. She espoused and promoted all sorts of radical ideas, including Communism. In 1929, at the age of 22, she was introduced to Diego Rivera, who was well-known both as an artist and as a Communist. They were fascinated by one another, and were soon married.

Diego was a fateful choice. On the positive side, he was a genius artist, he was already rich and famous, he appreciated her talent and encouraged her to develop artistically, and he was able to pay her ongoing medical bills. On the negative side, he was 21 years older than she, he was ominously tall and heavy, and he was a self-confessed womanizer. He seems to have been willing to care for Frida and encourage her, but not to be faithful. He continued his affairs, even seducing Frida's younger sister. Frida was distraught by his disloyalty, but she also carried on notorious affairs, with women as well as men. Thus their life was an emotional roller coaster. They even divorced at one point, but they remarried the following year, 1940.

Frida began painting after the bus accident when she was confined to her bed for a couple of years. Her family rigged up a portable easel that she could use in bed. She was well grounded in art history from her preparatory school and her father's influence, and she had had private instruction in drawing, but she had no formal art training. A mirror was attached to her easel so that she could make self-portraits, since she was alone so much, and she also did portraits of friends and relatives.

Rivera was a celebrated muralist, and after their marriage Frida followed him to the US, where he painted some of his best murals. Frida made a point of taking his lunch to him up on the scaffolding every day. By watching Diego paint, she learned the fundamentals of her craft. His imagery recurs in her pictures, along with his palette—the sunbaked colors of pre-Columbian art. She also learned how to tell a story in paint. Her signature style started to emerge. She began to incorporate more graphic and surrealistic elements in her work.

Frida and Diego Rivera, 1931
SFMOMA / Jan's photo

In 1933, when she was 26, Frida and Diego returned to Mexico, and settled in an upscale district of Mexico City in a pair of houses, one for each, connected by a bridge. Despite numerous physical crises and romantic liaisons, she continue to develop as an artist, and she began to achieve recognition in the U.S. when she was 32. Around that time she traveled alone to Europe, where Marcel Duchamp arranged an exhibition of her work that was lauded by all the major artists, and the Louvre purchased a self-portrait, its first work by a 20 C. Mexican artist.

When Frida and Diego divorced, she was determined to achieve financial independence so she painted more than ever before, and she created some of her most enduring and distinctive work. In self-portraits, she pictured herself in native Mexican dress with her hair atop her head in traditional braids. Surrounded by pet monkeys, cats and parrots amid exotic vegetation reminiscent of the paintings of Henri Rousseau, she often wore the large pre-Columbian necklaces given to her by Rivera.

Despite her productivity, Frida's health deteriorated alarmingly. When Diego heard of her condition, he arranged to take care of her. The two remarried a year after the divorce and settled in Mexico City, in the Blue House where she was raised. Frida continued to paint psychological studies of herself using graphic symbolism.

During the last decade of her life, Kahlo endured painful operations on her back, her foot and her leg. She drank heavily—sometimes downing two bottles of cognac a day—and she became addicted to painkillers. In 1953, her right leg had to be amputated below the knee. During this time she painted more still lifes, often with symbolic details. She remained a dedicated leftist, and she painted Marx and Stalin. She accompanied Diego to a political demonstration just days before her death. Her official cause of death was pulmonary embolism, but there were a lot of reasons to suspect suicide, including the fact that her nurse stated that she had taken an overdose of painkillers the night before.

The fact that Frida was able to become an artist at all is awe-inspiring. She was one of the earliest artists to make explicit references to her own life story, thereby opening a whole new world of themes for painters.


Frida painted only about 200 paintings. A revealing chronological survey of 100 of them may be seen here: Frida Kahlo at Wikiart

Self-portrait in a Velvet Dress, 1926
Internet grab

Self-Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States, 1932
Internet grab
Frida painting Self-Portrait on the Borderline, 1932

Fulang-Chang and I, 1937
MoMA / Jan's photo

Self-Portrait dedicated to Leon Trotsky, 1937
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2006

Itzicuintli Dog with Me, c. 1938
Dallas / Jan's photo

The Two Fridas, 1939
Internet grab

Me and My Parrots, 1941
Internet grab

Portrait of Natasha Gelman, 1943
Internet grab

Flame Flower, 1943
Internet grab

The Love-Embrace of the Universe, 1949
Internet grab

Viva La Vida, 1954
Internet grab

Kahlo came into the news in 2016 because one of her paintings was recently rediscovered in a home in Sunnyvale, where it hung for 60 years in a dark bedroom. The owner had been an assistant of Frida's, and Diego gave it to her in 1955, one year after Kahlo's death. It was set to be auctioned at Sotheby's Latin American art sale on Nov. 22 and 23. It was estimated to sell for $1.5 to $2 million.

Frida was 22 years old, in 1929, when she painted it. Although its location has been unknown to the art world, its existence was known because a photographer who documented her early work made a photo of it.

Sunnyvale Frida

Self-portrait with Necklace, 1929