November 18, 2015

Women of Doubt: Frida Kahlo painted her alternative visions of reality

It seems like selfies are an endemic feature in our current social culture, but if there's one person that reigned truly supreme in the art of capturing her own essence, it's got to be Frida Kahlo, the Mexican painter and feminist icon.

Today, she "is remembered for her self-portraits, pain and passion, and bold, vibrant colors". 2 In her homeland, she's "celebrated in Mexico for her attention to Mexican and indigenous culture". 2 Feminists love her "depiction of the female experience and form". 2

Kahlo's life ended far too soon, but the path there was a long one, full of much pain as it twisted through her own version of reality.

Early Life

Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderón was born on July 6, 1907, in Casa Azul, a literally blue home in Coyocoán, Mexico City, Mexico. 1

Frida, as she would be known, was born to Wilhem, a German photographer who emigrated to Mexico, and Matilde. She was one of four daughters for the couple: two older sisters named Matilde and Adriana, and a younger sister Cristina.1

Frida did not often claim the year of her birth, however:

With slim sable brushes, Frida Kahlo painstakingly rendered her bold unibrow and mustache in dozens of self-portraits. This same Frida also shaved three years off her age, claiming 1910 to be the year she was born in Coyoacán, Mexico, instead of 1907.

Vanity? Hardly. Frida, always her own favorite model, was not about preserving youthful beauty so much as identifying herself with Mexico, her beloved homeland. Frida's "acquired birth year" just so happens to coincide with the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution (1910) and the overthrow of President Porfirio Diaz.4

When she was just six years old, Frida contracted polio. It would be one of many physical traumas she would endure over her life, and she was bed-ridden for nine months. She came out of her illness with a persistent limp which caused her father to "[encourage] her to play soccer, go swimming, and even help aid in her recovery." 1

In 1922, at age 15:

Kahlo enrolled at the renowned National Preparatory School. She was one of the few female students to attend the school, and she became known for her jovial spirit and her love of traditional and colorful clothes and jewelry. 1

It was here that Frida would meet Diego Rivera for the first time; however, they would not become involved until after she'd left school and he was no longer commissioned by the school to do work. She did enjoy watching him paint, though.

Love and Pain

On September 17, 1925, at just eighteen, Kahlo experienced the trauma that would define the remainder of her life. While walking with a romantic interest, a bus and a street car collided near Frida. She "was impaled by a steel handrail, which went into her hip and came out the other side." 1

Her injuries were severe:

She suffered multiple fractures of her spine, collarbone and ribs, a shattered pelvis, broken foot and dislocated shoulder. 2

However, it was while she was recovering--in a full body cast!--that Frida discovered painting. She painted her first self-portrait and gave it to the young man who she had been walking with that day. 1

The trauma of her accident would leave her facing at least 30 surgeries over the course of her life, and the pain is a thread running through much over her work, especially (understandably) her self-portraits.

Three years after her accident, in 1928, Kahlo reconnected with Diego Rivera, and they married the following year in 1929. 1

Rivera encouraged her painting. Indeed, it seems he was quite an admirer:

Diego, a social realist, actually welled up with tears of pride when Picasso once admired the eyes in a painting of Frida's. And he wrote this glowing recommendation to a friend about an early exhibition of her work: "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." 4

While Rivera was a source of support, he was also a source of contention and pain. Many of Frida's paintings focus on a preoccupation with him. His many infidelities--including one with her younger sister Cristina--vexed her greatly. 4

Both Rivera and Kahlo were committed Communists, even sheltering Leo Trotsky and his wife in their home. 1

Rising Star

In 1930, the couple moved to San Francisco, California, where Kahlo's painting was showcased at a Rivera show. The same year they moved to Detroit as Rivera was commissioned by the Detroit Institute of Arts. 1

1933 saw the couple in New York City, where Rivera caused a scandal with a mural in the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center. After this time abroad, the couple returned to Mexico, settling in San Angel. 1

In 1939, Kahlo moved to Paris, where she developed relationships with Marcel Duchamp and Pablo Picasso. She and Rivera divorced that same year. Frida continued to work:

During this time, she painted one of her most famous works, The Two Fridas (1939). The paintings shows two versions of the artist sitting side by side, with both of their hearts exposed. One Frida is dressed nearly all in white and has a damaged heart and spots of blood on her clothing. The other wears bold colored clothing and has an intact heart. These figures are believed to represent “unloved” and “loved” versions of Kahlo." 1

Oddly enough, the divorce didn't stick--the couple remarried in 1940, but continued to live mostly separate lives, even becoming involved in other relationships over the years. 1

In 1950, Frida's health issues began to usurp her independence. She developed gangrene in her right foot and spent nine months in the hospital. During this time, she continued to work and even to support the political causes she cared about. 1

In 1953, she had her first and only solo exhibit in Mexico. Despite being bedridden, she attended the opening and "spent the evening talking and celebrating with the event's attendees from the comfort of a four-poster bed set up in the gallery just for her." 1

Mere months after her solo exhibition, Kahlo lost part of her right leg, which was amputated to prevent further spread of the gangrene. April 1954 saw her hospitalized again, although it is not entirely clear whether this was because of her health in general or because of a suicide attempt. 1

On July 13, 1954, a week after her 47th birthday, Kahlo died. 1

Over the years, there's been some speculation about how she died exactly. The official report said pulmonary embolism, but she has never escaped the rumors of possible suicide. 1 Undeniably, suicide held a certain fascination for her--you can see this in her work "The Suicide of Dorothy Hale".

Politics, Religion, and Painting

A staunch Communist, Kahlo was unsurprisingly also a secularist:

Kahlo was a self-professed atheist who sometimes wove blasphemous themes into her surreal paintings. She depicted herself, for instance, as a secular, medical martyr. Unhappy with U.S. values during an extended stay there in the 1930s, she painted a montage of images that included a dollar sign wrapped across the cross on a church. She mixed Christian and Aztec images in some paintings. 3

Kahlo's paintings definitely leave an impression. People still debate whether she was a realist or a surrealist:

Although Frida's work, often fantastic and sometimes gory, has been described as surrealism, she once wrote that she never knew she was a surrealist "until André Breton came to Mexico and told me I was one." ("The art of Frida Kahlo is a ribbon about a bomb," Breton wrote, admiringly.) However, Frida eschewed labels. Diego argued that Frida was a realist. Her principal biographer, Hayden Herrera, seems to agree, writing that even in her most enigmatic and complex painting, "What the Water Gave Me," Frida is "down to earth," having depicted "real images in the most literal, straightforward way." Like much of Mexican art, Frida's paintings "interweave fact and fantasy as if the two were inseparable and equally real," Herrera adds. 4

Her personal experiences formed a common thread through her almost 200 paintings, sketches, and drawings. Fifty five of her 143 paintings are self-portraits, and "her physical and emotional pain are depicted starkly on canvases, as is her turbulent relationship with her husband." 2

Even now, her paintings enjoy a good degree of popularity:

Today, her works sell for very high prices. In May 2006, Frida Kahlo self-portrait, Roots, was sold for $5.62 million at a Sotheby's auction in New York, sets a record as the most expensive Latin American work ever purchased at auction, and also makes Frida Kahlo one of the highest-selling woman in art. 2


If you are unfamiliar with Kahlo's work, I highly recommend looking at her portraits, especially, in chronological order by when she painted them. There's a beautiful, often tragic thread that winds through each of them, pulling you along.

It's impossible, in my opinion, not to be moved by her reality.


1 "Frida Kahlo Biography". <> Accessed October 17, 2015

2 "Frida Kahlo: Paintings, Biography, Quotes". <> Accessed October 17, 2015

3 Gaylor, Annie Laurie. "Frida Kahlo". Freedom From Religion Foundation <> Accessed October 17, 2015

4 "The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo". <> Accessed October 17, 2015

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