Frida Kahlo: The surrealist artist and feminist who owned her adverse life story
Frida Kahlo, despite her devastating health problems, knew how to make a virtue out of adversity. Her paintings are deeply personal and contain a symbolism that narrates the story of her life.Updated: Apr 11, 2020, 16:40 IST
A coil of dark braids, usually decorated with a flower crown, a vibrant dress and her signature unibrow, were some of the distinct features that set one of the 20th century’s most celebrated female artists, Frida Kahlo, apart from everyone else. Most of Frida’s adverse life story took place at the Blue House, which became Kahlo’s base in Mexico City, where she passed away in 1954, aged 47. The house-turned-studio, where the feminist and surrealist artist was born, lived and worked, also served as a refuge for the exiled Soviet revolutionary Leon Trotsky, with whom she had a brief affair, said to be a revenge against her husband Diego Rivera’s affair with her sister.
Kahlo’s biography made way for several other literary works and also an Oscar-winning film that starred Salma Hayek as Frida. The artist’s distinct fashion, unibrow, and marriage to Diego Rivera, a man 21 years her senior, have added to the intrigue around the person she was.
Frida Kahlo, despite her devastating health problems, knew how to make a virtue out of adversity. The daughter of a German photographer and a Mexican mother, she was polio-stricken as a child which resulted in her right leg being shorter than the left. The leg was eventually amputated the year before her demise.
Kahlo wanted to portray herself as indigenously Mexican during the era of the Mexican Revolution, in which the country sought to reinforce its indigenous identity. The artist gained prominence with the publication of her biography in the early 1980s, and her popularity has only catapulted since. However, she is better known for her appearance than her work, as compared to other equally famous male artists.
Frida’s paintings are deeply personal and contain a symbolism that narrates the story of her life. Here are a few more facts about the surrealist artist that you might not know:
She dreamt of becoming a doctor
As a child, Frida dreamt of becoming a doctor and enjoyed art as a hobby. Due to her near-fatal accident at age 18, this dream ended, and Frida was hospitalised for months after. The accident also caused Kahlo to live her life in chronic pain and she frequently needed surgeries for her spinal injuries. Frida’s father created a special easel that allowed her to paint self-portraits from her bed, using a mirror.
Of the total number of paintings by Frida (143), 55 are self-portraits. Her stunning autobiographical art included heart-wrenching paintings depicting her physical ailments, miscarriages, identity struggles and several emotional battles.
She hid her real age
Frida had contracted polio as a young girl which caused her right leg to be shorter and thinner than her left. She often wore long skirts to disguise this fact. She joined the National Preparatory School in 1922, where she developed a new sense of Mexican cultural pride having become immersed in indigenismo. Hence to show her commitment to Mexico and its culture, she declared that she was born on July 7, 1910 — the year the Mexican Revolution began.
She was jailed for murder
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera were both longstanding members of the Mexican Communist Party. In 1937, the couple petitioned the Mexican government to grant asylum to former Soviet leader Leon Trotsky. Trotsky and his wife had shared the couple’s residence, La Casa Azul (the Blue House). Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky had a political falling out, post which the latter moved out from La Casa Azul. He was assassinated in 1940 and Frida Kahlo, along with her sister, was briefly jailed as a murder suspect.
Her Vogue appearance
An internet rumour says that Kahlo appeared on a 1939 cover of Vogue Paris, but her first appearance in the magazine was in the October 1937 issue of American Vogue. She was featured in an article called Senoras of Mexico, within the magazine, not on the cover. The November 2012 issue of Vogue Mexico used photographer Nickolas Muray’s photograph, making Frida a cover girl almost 60 years after her death.
Her solo exhibition, where she arrived in an ambulance
In April 1953, her first solo exhibition in Mexico opened at the Galería Arte Contemporaneo. Kahlo was on bed rest under doctor’s orders and not expected to attend at the time. However, she ensured she attended and arrived in an ambulance, ordering her bed to be moved to the gallery. Just a few months after the exhibition, her right leg was amputated at the knee due to gangrene and about a year after the opening, she was found dead.
With the Louvre Museum’s acquisition of her painting called The Frame in 1939, Frida Kahlo became the first 20th-century Mexican artist to have their work featured at a renowned international collection. At present, the 1938 self-portrait is now on display at the Pompidou Center in Paris.
The other work that she is remembered by include The Tree of Hope Stands Firm (1944) auctioned at Sotheby’s in 1977, Diego and I that sold for $1.4 million in 1990, and Two Lovers in a Forest that sold for $8 million in 2016.
Frida’s openness with her sexuality, the fact that she was bisexual, and her gender-bending dress made her an iconic figure in the LGBT community. Her fierce pride in her Mexican roots have also made her a source of pride for Chicanos. The term Fridamania has been used to describe her popularity in pop-culture which nearly overshadows her true life history that has also been explained by art historian Oriana Baddeley in the Tate Modern Frida Kahlo catalogue.
Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up
After Kahlo’s passing in 1954, at age 47, her husband Diego Rivera locked up all her belongings in a room and asked for it not to be opened until after his death. The room was only opened in 2004, revealing a treasure trove of clothes, makeup (her favourite lipstick was Everything’s Rosy by Revlon), jewellery, medicines and other intimate possessions.
These personal effects which also included a red-leather-booted prosthetic leg were displayed at The Victoria and Albert Museum in London for the first time outside Mexico, in an exhibition titled Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up.