Frida Kahlo: the goddess of painting

Women in Art has been a column on The Art Stories for quite some time featuring Sally Mann, Carmen Herrera and more. But if you are an art lover like us here on The Art Stories, you might be thinking that there’s someone missing from the list, someone that is one of the biggest names in Art History. Well, ladies and gentlemen, we are not going to postpone it any longer. We give you the Frida Kahlo special!

Frida was born in Coyoacan in Mexico by a Mexican father and Indian mother. Guillermo Kahlo, her father was the first photographer that was commissioned by the Mexican government to photograph architecture. Even though he did not focus on portraits during his photographic career, as he “didn’t want to improve something that God created ugly”, Guillermo took some portraits of Frida one of which is included in this article. Frida was his favourite daughter. Despite the love of her father for her, the atmosphere in her house was rather bleak. Her parents were never in love; her mother had yet to fall out of love with her first partner that commited suicide when they were young. More than that, her father suffered from epilepsy. His health problems weren’t as serious as Frida but she did spent a considerable amount of time taking care of him. As for Frida, she contracted poliomyelitis which caused right leg to become shorter than the left. Her sickness resulted in being excluded from friendships at school. She cultivated a very strong relationship with her father instead; it was him that instilled her the love for art. Guillermo taught her how to take photographs and develop and retouch film. Her academic and artistic interests developed further during her teenage years, when she attended a National Preparatory School with the intention of becoming a doctor. Her interest in social issues, social justice and politics started to grow and she formed a group called “Cachuchas” with some of her classmates. All of that came to an abrupt stop when she had the accident that almost cost her her life.

It was September 27, 1925. Frida Kahlo and her boyfriend Alejandro Gómez Arias were going back home from school by bus. The bus was hit by a streetcar. The collision caused deaths and injured Kahlo, who broke her ribs, collarbones. An iron handrail went right through her pelvic bones. It was a miracle she survived from the crash. She was hospitalized for a long time and had to spend all summer in bed. This injury changed the course of her life, cutting short her dreams of becoming a doctor. During her recovery, she joined the Communist Party and continued painting. At first, her paintings were portraits of family members and friends. Gradually she started focusing a lot more in self-portraits, which became the main format of her work up until her death. Her talent was evident from a young age when a friend of her father’s taught her basic drawing technique. Even though she never received formal art education at a University, her own interest in art and her friendships with other artists were enough to increase her artistic knowledge and propel her into trying new techniques, such as etching, frescos and retablo. Another big influence in her artistic career was her husband Diego Rivera. Their tumultuous relationship that started when Frida was only 19 served as inspiration for some of her most iconic paintings. In fact, it was such a big part of her life that a lot of historians tend to focus more on her relationship with Rivera rather than her art.

Even though her marriage wasn’t a peaceful one and both parties had lots of lovers, Kahlo and Rivera had a passionate relationship and travelled a lot together. In 1930, a year after their marriage, they moved to San Francisco. Rivera was asked to do some commissions, so Frida followed him on a four year journey. In San Francisco, Frida had the chance to get to know a lot of fellow artists, such as photographer Edward Weston. Even though she formed meaningful relationships and was lathered with attention, she grew more and more homesick over time. During her stay in Detroit she had a painful miscarriage that resulted in another hospitalization. It was then that she drew Henry Ford Hospital. Her hate of capitalism often made her despise the United States. In 1934, she and Rivera moved back to Mexico City. Her painting career took off in 1938 when she travelled againto New York, this time alone. She exhibited her paintings in a gallery in Manhattan. The exhibition was a success. Frida sold 25 paintings and got a commission from the president of the Museum of Modern Art. She took off for Europe in 1938 and struggled to set up an exhibition upon her arrival in Paris. Eventually, the exhibition took place in the Renou et Colle Gallery but it was by no means a success; nothing sold. However, the Louvre bought a painting called The Frame, that you can see in Centre Pompidou. Frida Kahlo was starting to become an artist with a growing international presence.

In the 1940’s Kahlo started teaching at the National School of Painting, Sculpture and Engraving (Escuela Nacional de Pintura, Escultura y Grabado La Esmeralda). She was a passionate teacher that pushed her students to explore themes that they saw on the street. Her love of Mexican culture and folk art was passed on to some of them that were called “Los Fridos”. Her health continued to decline throughout the decade making it difficult to attend classes at the School. She held them at La Casa Azul instead. She had to go through another failed surgery on her spine. The outcome made her depressed and hopeless. Her troubled emotional state is clearly depicted in all of her paintings Kahlo spent her last few years confined in La Casa Azul. Since she could not move, her bed was brought in her exhibition and she celebrated with her friends and family around her. The fact that she had to be in bed did not faze her; she was her loud, exuberant self. This was her last exhibition before her death in 1954. Her life wasn’t ordinary. And neither was her art.

Frida Kahlo’s paintings are far from easy to the eye. Her themes revolve around suffering, pain and trauma. Frida spent a large part of her life in medical care facilities after her accident and was in a lot of pain most of the time. Many of her paintings show wounds, blood or medical facilities. A prime example of that is The Wounded Deer that she painted in 1946, the Broken Column painted in 1944 and Henry Ford Hospital which followed her miscarriage in 1932. A common theme in a lot of her paintings are her veins that connect her to an organ such as in Henry Ford Hospital and The Two Fridas were both of her hearts appear connected with each other through a vein. They are also holding hands. Frida’s visual language is powerful, full of symbols and pictures that a careful observer would link to Aztec mythology. She uses characteristics of La Llorona, the woman that drowned her children in a river according to Mexican tales, in Henry Ford, such as her open heart, her weeping and her dishevelled appearance. The pain has shrunk her so much that her body occupies only a small part of the hospital bed. This palpable grief is evident in Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair. In this self-portrait she appears sitting on a chair, wearing a suit that looks like one of Rivera’s suits and holds the scissors she used to cut her own hair which lays on her hands and all over the floor. The painting is completed by a phrase that points at Rivera: “See, if I loved you, it was for your hair, now you’re bald, I don’t love you anymore”. Kahlo is either grieving a lost child or a lover. Sometimes even her own self.

Kahlo gave herself an almost mythical presence in her paintings. Mostly standing, which remind us of her life-long health struggles that resulted in her immobility, wearing traditional Mexican dresses, surrounded by her pets, she is the theme of her work. Some would say that the choice to constantly paint oneself is vain; Frida would say that she chose to paint herself because that is the one thing that she knew best. Even though she focused on self-portraits, her work becomes universal. She defies gender stereotypes, wearing a man’s suit and painting two nude women whose relationship status remains unclear. Her own bisexuality was well-known. In a culture that worshiped men and excluded women, Frida made herself the center of a parallel universe that doesn’t abide to cultural norms. The following years after her death, her work has been more and more popular. Frida Kahlo has become a symbol of female emancipation and empowerment and rightfully so. She chose to deal with her misfortune by creating art instead of giving up. We would argue that her paintings give a value to pain as an essential part of life. Painting was a driving force for Frida Kahlo. A force that leads to a re-birth from grief, vital for perseverance.