By: Victoria Yates
Frida Kahlo was born Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderon on July 6th, 1907 at her parents home (known as La Casa Azul or ‘The Blue House’) in Coyoacan, a small town on the outskirts of Mexico City. She was not the only family member born with a different name. Her father, Guillermo Kahlo, was a photographer born in Pforzheim, Germany as Carl Willhelm Kahlo. He had changed his name to its Spanish equivalent when he arrived in Mexico at the age of 19. There, he met Kahlo’s mother Matilde Calderon y Gonzalez, and Kahlo was the third of the pair’s four daughters.
When she was six, Kahlo contracted polio and was bedridden for nine months. Although she recovered, the marks of the illness continued into adulthood: the damage to her right leg left Kahlo with a limp. Her father pushed her towards traditionally male arenas of swimming, soccer, and wrestling in an effort to help her recover.
In 1922, Kahlo enrolled at the National Preparatory School, one of Mexico’s most renowned schools, as the one of only thirty-five girls. That same year, the well-known artist Diego Rivera worked on a mural in the school’s lecture hall, where Kahlo would often watch him work.
Since 1910, the Mexican Revolution had been ongoing, and while at school Kahlo witnessed violent armed struggles in the streets of Mexico City. Kahlo fell in with a group of intellectual and politically engaged peers, forming a romantic relationship with Alejandro Gomez Arias.
On September 17th 1925, Kahlo was travelling with Arias on a bus when it collided with a streetcar. She was impaled on a handrail and suffered severe injuries including to her spinal column, collarbone, ribs, and pelvis. The rail also pierced her abdomen and uterus. The pain would intermittently return throughout her life.
Initially intent on studying medicine, Kahlo instead started to paint during her long recovery, finishing her first self-portrait the following year and gifting it to Arias. To accommodate months in bed, her mother had a special easel made. The works were mostly self-portraits or still-lifes and often took on the colors and forms of Mexican folk art.
Her political engagement also started to increase during this time, joining the Young Communist League and the Mexican Communist Party.
A few years later in 1928, Kahlo again met with Rivera, asking his advice on pursuing art as a career. He recognized her talent and encouraged her to continue painting. They started seeing each other and were married the year after, despite her mother’s disapproval.
The pair moved around according to Rivera’s commissions, spending time in San Francisco in 1930 where Kahlo showed one of her paintings at the 6th Annual Exhibition of the San Francisco Society of Women Artists. They went on to live in New York and Detroit for short periods.
In 1932, Kahlo started to use more graphic and surrealistic elements in her works, creating a painting Henry Ford Hospital that spoke of her most recent miscarriage. In New York the following year, the couple’s political leanings caused a controversy. While painting a mural for Nelson Rockefeller, Rivera included a portrait of Vladimir Lenin. The work was stopped and it was later painted over. A few months later they returned to live in San Angel, Mexico.
Their marriage was fraught with difficulties and infidelities on both sides. Kahlo, a bisexual, had affairs with women and men, the latter sending Rivera into jealous rages. For his part, Rivera had several affairs, including with Kahlo’s younger sister Cristina, a particularly devastating blow for Kahlo.
Despite the betrayals and miscarriages that plagued their union, the pair were united in their political support of communist causes, helping the exiled Leon Trotsky and his wife in 1937 by letting them stay in their home for a time as they sought asylum in Mexico. The pair later moved to another house in Coyoacan.
Trotsky and Kahlo are believed to have had an affair during this time.
Although her art remained largely unknown outside of Mexico, Kahlo’s work continued to develop. She had her first major exhibition in New York in 1938. During the show, nearly half of the 25 paintings shown were sold. The success also translated into two commissions, including one to paint a portrait of the late Dorothy Hale for her mother. The finished work The Suicide of Dorothy Hale portrayed the actresses’ suicidal jump from a high-rise and, while a critical success, horrified its patron.
The following year the influential Andre Breton invited Kahlo to France where her paintings were featured in an exhibition at the Louvre, who bought one of her paintings. It was the first artwork by a twentieth-century Mexican artist to be bought by such an esteemed museum. While living in Paris, she extended her circle of friends to include Marcel Duchamp and Pablo Picasso.
Kahlo and Rivera divorced that same year, the hallmarks of which are visible in one of her most famous pieces The Two Fridas, also created in 1939. The portrait shows two versions of Kahlo sitting side-by-side, both with their hearts exposed.
However, the couple remarried in 1940. Despite the reunion, they continued to live largely independent lives and to sustain relationships with other people.
Her popularity surged at home, and while health problems and the death of her father prevented its completion, Kahlo was commissioned by the Mexican government in 1941 to produce five portraits of important Mexican women.
Although she continued to show and create, including works that visualized her physical struggles in self portraits, her health deteriorated such that by 1950 she was diagnosed with gangrene in her right foot and spent almost a year in hospital. Several more operations followed. Her first solo show in Mexico came about three years later, with Kahlo arriving by ambulance to the opening night where she celebrated from a four poster bed set up in the gallery. A few months later, part of her right leg had to be amputated.
The loss pushed Kahlo into a depression, and she was hospitalized again in April 1954 (some suspecting it was a suicide attempt) then again several months later for pneumonia. Her political engagement never abated, appearing at a rally against the US-backed removal of the Guatemalan president just weeks before she died on July 13th at the Casa Azul at the age of 47.
Debate continues over whether Kahlo died from a pulmonary embolism or suicide.
After her death, the house was turned into a museum, opening in 1958.
When feminism took hold decades later, Kahlo was heralded as an icon for the movement and for female creativity. Her real fame started to spread in the 1980s with the neomexicanismo style and her first international retrospective held at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in May 1982. The exhibition traveled to Sweden, Germany, Manhattan, and Mexico City.
The acclaim continued in different forms, spurred by Hayden Herrera’s biography Frida: The Biography of Frida Kahlo, a worldwide bestseller. In 2001, Kahlo became the first Hispanic woman to be featured on a U.S. postage stamp, and numerous artists and musicians have honoured Kahlo with compositions or homages. In 2002, Kahlo was even the subject of the biographical movie Frida starring Salma Hayek in the title role.
Kahlo continues to be a leader after her death; her paintings fetch record-breaking prices both as a female artist and a Latin American one. She is seen as one of Mexico’s most shocking artists, pushing art towards the avant-garde and helping to bring the Mexican folk style that influenced her work to the international stage. Her candor in utilizing her physical and emotional pain to create brutally honest work continues to build a legacy of followers to this day, including the Mexican government that decreed her art to be national patrimony.