To many artists, art is derived from pain. Be it mourning, suffering, illness, mental, all pain has the ability to be expressed in art. Legendary surrealist artist Frida Kahlo was no exception to this. Her life was full of pain starting from a young age, and this pain followed her until her death.
Frida Kahlo was born on July 6th, 1907 in Mexico City, Mexico. Her family has roots in places all across the world, her father being German and her mother being Native American. This set up the backbone that would become the cultural influence in Kahlo’s artwork. When Kahlo was just six years old, she contracted polio, and had to be confined to a bed for the greater part of a year. While she didn’t become permanently unable to move, or even lose her leg, Kahlo’s left leg was thinner and more frail due to the illness, and she walked with a limp after recovery.
In 1922, Kahlo attended the National Preparatory School in Mexico. From the young age of fifteen, Kahlo was known for being very opinionated and outspoken, especially for a girl in this time. It was at her school where she met the muralist Diego Rivera. It was the same year that she would get into her second great physical tragedy.
While riding on a trolley with her partner, Alejandro Gomez Arias, Kahlo got into an accident that almost took her life. The trolley they were riding hit a streetcar, and Kahlo suffered from a few slipped disks in her back, as well as a shattered pelvis as a steel handrail pierced her. She was restricted to a full body cast for three months, during which she painted her first self portrait, Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress (1922).
In 1928, the muralist entered her life again. Kahlo asked Rivera to review her work: to critique her and to see if she should pursue this art. Rivera was smitten with Kahlo as well as her art, and the two soon began a relationship. For a while, her parents were very opposed to this, because Rivera was much older than Kahlo, having a 20 year age difference between them. Additionally, Rivera had been married before, and had two daughters of his previous marriage.
However, they made it work. The couple did not have a traditional marriage, especially when considering the era. Their relationship was undoubtedly open, as evident by the many known affairs on both sides of the relationship. It seemed to grow too much for Rivera, however, as the couple divorced in 1939, only to get remarried in 1940. Kahlo and Rivera still held a fairly open relationship, living in different houses and painting in different studios.
Rivera helped Kahlo to become successful in art. He had the connections that Kahlo needed to make her start. Soon, Kahlo would be featured in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. Additionally, he helped support her financially while she gained connections and commissions. As Kahlo was incredibly ill and in fragile health, she consistently had medical bills that needed to be attended to, and as a struggling artist, that was impossible.
Most of her pieces came out of her pain. Henry Ford Hospital (1932) is perhaps one of the most graphic examples of this. The piece shows Kahlo herself in a twisted position on an upturned bed laying in a pool of blood. Floating around her and tied to her with red ribbons are six objects, one of which is a small male fetus. This painting came from her second miscarriage. Kahlo wanted children very badly, however her injuries in the trolley accident made it impossible for Kahlo to ever bear children. Still, she did try. And outside of miscarriages, Kahlo also had to have life saving emergency abortions on a few occasions.
Another example of her pain in art through Thinking About Death (1943) which is one of her gorgeous self portraits. In the center of her forehead, there is a small circle which contains a skull that appears to be sitting on the ground on a dirty, grey sky. This is such a simple metaphor for the depression that Kahlo felt, however it is captivating. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, however this piece doesn’t even need five hundred to get across its’ meaning. When depression takes over a person, all they can think about is death, the end of the road. Kahlo captures this very simply and elegantly, and creates a very morbid piece with a very aesthetically pleasing facade.
A whole essay could be written about her numerous affairs, perhaps even an entire book. However as many would see Kahlo and Rivera’s relationship as broken and flawed, one could also see their relationship as one that is open. They lived in separate houses, after all. But the notability behind Kahlo’s affairs wasn’t necessarily that she was having them, but that she was having affairs with both men and women. Notable partners include Leon Trotsky, a Russian communist leader; fellow painter Georgia O’Keefe; and Paulette Goddard. Kahlo was powerful, influential, and charming, and she knew it. Her affair with Goddard came about because Rivera first had an affair with Goddard. And Kahlo, being the powerful woman that she was, seduced Goddard in turn and slept with her in retaliation.
Kahlo passed away seven days after her birthday in 1954. There is quite a bit of mystery surrounding her death, seeing that her extended periods of depression may have led to her to not take her medicine, or to complicate her healing so that it wouldn’t happen. What isn’t a mystery is the lasting effect Frida Kahlo had on this world. Kahlo was a woman who was unafraid to be proud of her heritage as a Mexican, unafraid to be a woman in a time where women were second-rate, and unafraid to love and be loved, in a time where some love was absolutely abhorrent. And even today, Frida Kahlo is known as much for what she stood for as well as her art. The way she embraced her femininity and her love of women as well as men makes Frida Kahlo somewhat of an icon to many people of today. And her art brought something to surrealism that others didn’t. She gave the viewer a cultural attachment to the art. She gave surrealism color. She played with symbolism as to best fit her purposes. She painted her emotion.