Frida Kahlo’s art and life is something that has only recently begun to be celebrated and discovered by many people. Some hate it, and some love it, but her story is undeniably as fascinating as it is heartbreaking. During the first portion of her life, most people knew of her only as the wife of the famous Mexican muralist and painter Diego Rivera. If they knew of her painting, they knew of it vaguely as something that she did as part of her life with Rivera, as a kind of hobby.
But Frida’s painting was entirely her own, and it didn’t resemble her husband’s work, or anyone else’s, for that matter. The pair both shared a love of Mexico and of Pre-Columbian and indigenous traditions and artifacts, and they usually shared the same political and moral ideals. And of course, they definitely both shared a particular flair for the dramatic. But while Rivera’s typical works were grand, larger-than-life summaries of Mexico’s past, present and future, Frida’s paintings were typically small-scale, introspective and intimate.
Frida’s personal life was riddled with pain. As a teenager, she was severely injured in a trolley bus crash when a metal pole pierced her through her lower abdomen. Her spinal column was the source of many problems throughout her life and during her later years she wore various corsets of plaster, metal, and fabric in order to support her spine. Also as a result, one of her legs gave her continual trouble, and after it became infected, it was eventually amputated several years before she died.
Another source of pain for Frida was her longing to have a child. She miscarried several times and painted several extremely graphic and painful paintings on the subject. For this reason, throughout her life she loved other people’s children, spoiling them by buying them presents and candies. She also had an extensive collection of dolls, which she lovingly called “my children.”
Self-Portrait with Bed (Me and My Doll), 1937
Frida began a more serious interest in art after the trolley accident, confined to bed in her Coyoacan home for months. Her father, a photographer of German descent, encouraged her to paint. Later in the 40’s, when people called her a Surrealist artist, she claimed that she had no knowledge of any other art other than her own, which coincidentally is a perfectly Surrealist thing to say. Given the influences of other famous art that can be detected in some of her paintings, however, it is more likely that while bedridden, she pored over books of paintings by the Great Masters and at least had a basic knowledge of art history and painting theory.
One of the first notable paintings that Frida produced was a self-portrait, depicting herself as extremely refined and beautiful. The self-portrait was actually a gift for her boyfriend Alejandro Gomez Arias, painted as a desperate attempt to save the relationship as he began to drift away from her while she was confined to recovery in bed. It is almost as if Frida wanted him to have it in his house as a placeholder for her real self, as if the painting could be an extension of herself when she was physically unable to be there. The self-portrait is the first in a long line of self-portraits that Frida would create of herself during her life. It is as if each of them had a specific purpose, whether it was to create a talisman of sorts, a projection of her physicality intended for a specific person, or to find relief through creating a copy of herself that could take on the pain and emotions that she could not bear on her own. This idea is brought up in the book “Frida,” an excellent biography by Hayden Herrera.
Self-Portrait for Alejandro Gomez Arias, 1926
Miraculously, Frida recovered enough from the tragic accident that she was able to walk. She met Diego Rivera as a young woman in her 20’s, Diego being twice her age. They were married in 1929, much to the disapproval of her parents. Frida painted the following work in 1931 for Diego in honor of their marriage. The pair were often called “The Elephant and the Dove,” because they looked so mismatched in age and size.
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, 1931
It is around the time of her recovery and marriage to Diego that Frida began developing parts of her personality that would become famous in the years to come. Perhaps as a way to embrace her love of Mexico, to endear herself to her husband who idolized Mexican tradition, or to compensate for being crippled, she began wearing fantastic traditional costumes and collecting all kinds of colorful and traditional crafts and jewelry. She had a biting wit and developed a very characteristically Mexican sense of humor mixed with fatalism. This helped her to mask her pain in her personal relationships. This type of humor is typical in Mexico during the celebration of Day of the Dead in November, when death is laughed at, because it is fate, and it is unstoppable. Below is Posada’s famous engraving of “La Catrina,” a famous Mexican symbol of poking fun at death.
La Calavera Catrina, Cerca 1900 engraving by Jose Guadaulpe Posada
Many of the stories that both Frida and Diego tell about their lives and their art are strongly embellished into almost being mythology or legend. They had wonderful senses of humor, and often created stories or exaggerated things about their lives and their art in order to amuse people, and in a way, to immortalize themselves. However, Frida and Diego had a troubled marriage. Diego claimed to be diagnosed by a doctor as unfit for fidelity, and his many affairs caused extreme pain to Frida, even though she often told friends otherwise. The self-portraits that she created after discovering Diego’s affairs show a heart-broken Frida.
Diego and I, 1949
Self-Portrait as a Tehuana, 1943
Frida was also far from faithful in her marriage, and had affairs with both men and women, most notably with the Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky, who fled to Mexico after being exiled from Russia. Below is a self-portrait that she painted for Trotsky, depicting herself as his beautiful lover. Like her first self-portrait for Alejandro Gomez Arias, this painting was meant as a placeholder and projection of herself so that Trotsky would remember her. Trotsky was later assassinated in his home in the Coyoacan district of Mexico City.
Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, 1937
Frida and Diego were divorced and then remarried in 1940. Their second marriage was as troubled as the first, and they had separate living quarters and often went through periods of separation. However, the two did agree that neither one could live without the other. Perhaps in order to protect herself, and perhaps in order to have the child she never was able to bear, Frida’s relationship with Diego became more like that of a mother and son than that of a wife and a husband. In this later period of her life, Frida created some of her most masterful paintings, some of which are shown below. These sometimes surprisingly honest and painful images depict aspects of her physical and emotional suffering.
What the Water Gave Me, 1938
The Little Deer, 1946
The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Diego, Me and Señor Xólotl, 1949
Frida’s health declined in her 40’s, and she was again confined to corsets and to bed. Around this time she also developed addictions to alcohol and pain medication. Her paintings suffered as she exhibited a loss of brush control and color selection, but she did complete several paintings during her last few years. She also achieved the accomplishment of having her first solo art exhibition in Mexico before she died. She received everyone at the exhibition personally from her four-poster bed, which she had directed to be moved from her home to the gallery. It is arguable that Frida, in her colorfully decorated four-poster bed, was just as much an artwork in the exhibition as the paintings on the walls. She later died at the young age of 47. Her last painting was entitled “Viva La Vida.”
Viva La Vida, 1954
Frida’s “Blue House” on Londres street in the Coyoacan district of Mexico City, the location of both her birth and her death, is now a museum where various artifacts of her life and some of her paintings can be seen. Her colorful house and collections are sharply contrasted by her corsets and her painful diary pages and paintings. You can’t help but make the observation that the colorful Frida that she presented to the world was a mask for the real Frida, who was dying and hurting inside almost all of her life.
The Two Fridas,1939
Tree of Hope, Stay Strong, 1946