Frida Kahlo was born in Coyoacan, Mexico, in the house of her parents, known as La Casa Azul (The Blue House). Although Frida was born in 1907, three years before the Mexican revolution, she identified herself with her homeland so much, that she changed her birth year to 1910. She was one of four daughters born to a Hungarian-Jewish father and a mother of Spanish and Mexican Indian descent. Born amidst political chaos in her homeland, Frida would become a revolutionary artist who lived a life of passion and with a vulnerability conveyed in the explicitness of her works.
“I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy as long as I can paint.”
Frida Kahlo contracted polio at age six. This left her right leg thinner than the left, which Kahlo disguised by wearing long, colorful skirts. On September 17, 1925, Kahlo was riding in a bus when it collided with a trolley car. She suffered serious injuries in the accident, including a broken spinal column, a broken collarbone, broken ribs, a broken pelvis, eleven fractures in her right leg, a crushed and dislocated right foot, and a dislocated shoulder. An iron handrail pierced her abdomen and her uterus, which seriously damaged her reproductive ability. Although she recovered from her injuries and eventually regained her ability to walk, she was plagued by extreme pain for the remainder of her life. The pain was intense and often left her confined to a hospital or bedridden for months at a time. This is when Frida produced numerous self-portraits. Many of them painted with a mirror in front of her as she lay in bed in pain. She underwent as many as thirty-five operations as a result of the accident.
“There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst.”
As a young artist, Kahlo approached the Mexican painter, Diego Rivera, whose work she admired, asking him for advice about pursuing art as a career. He recognized her talent and her unique expression as truly special and uniquely Mexican. He encouraged her artistic development and began an intimate relationship with Frida. They were married in 1929. Their marriage was often tumultuous. Kahlo and Rivera had fiery temperaments and had numerous extramarital affairs, including an affair he had with her sister, Cristina Kahlo. The couple eventually divorced, but remarried in 1940.
“I recommend her to you, not as a husband but as an enthusiastic admirer of her work, acid and tender, hard as steel and delicate and fine as a butterfly’s wing, loveable as a beautiful smile, and profound and cruel as the bitterness of life.”
After the accident, Kahlo began a full-time painting career. Her self-portraits became a dominant part of her life when she was immobile for three months after her accident. Kahlo once said, “I paint myself because I am often alone and I am the subject I know best.” Drawing on personal experiences, including her marriage, her miscarriages, and her numerous operations, Kahlo’s works often are characterized by their stark portrayals of pain. Of her 143 paintings, 55 are self-portraits which incorporate symbolic portrayals of physical and psychological wounds.
Frida was influenced by indigenous Mexican culture, which is apparent in her use of bright colors and dramatic symbolism. She frequently included the symbolic monkey. In Mexican mythology, monkeys are symbols of lust, but Kahlo portrayed them as tender and protective symbols. She combined elements of the classic religious Mexican tradition with surrealist renderings. Kahlo’s work was not widely recognized until decades after her death. Often she was popularly remembered only as Diego Rivera’s wife. It was not until the early 1980s, that she became very prominent.
- On June 21, 2001, she became the first Hispanic woman to be honored with a U.S. postage stamp.
- In 2002 the American biographical film, Frida, directed by Julie Taymor, in which Salma Hayek portrayed the artist, was released. It grossed $58 million worldwide.
- In 2006, Kahlo’s 1943 painting Roots set a $5.6 million auction record for a Latin American work.
- In 2008, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art showcased paintings that span her career, along with a selection of her own collection of photographs, most of which have never been on public display.
- Frida’s self-portrait “The Frame” is the first work by a 20th century Mexican artist to be purchased by the Louvre museum.
“Feet, why do I need them if I have wings to fly?”
Frida loved dancing, crowds, flirtation and seduction. She was often miserably lonely, begging friends and lovers to visit, not to “forget” her. She had a black sense of humor, as well as a sharp wit. She took great pride in keeping a home for Diego and loved fussing over him, cooking for him and bathing him. She delighted in pets, taking care of mischievous spider monkeys and dogs. Frida also adored children, who she treated as equals. She loved nonsense, gossip and dirty jokes. She treated servants like family and students like esteemed colleagues. She valued honesty, especially to self. When Frida Kahlo died at the age of 47 on July 13, 1954, she left paintings, as well as a collection of letters to lovers and friends, and colorful journal entries for them to read. All are evidence that her life was nothing less than a quest to be honest to herself.