Born: July 6, 1907 - Coyoacan, Mexico City, Mexico
Died: July 13, 1954 - Mexico City, Mexico
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"I've done my paintings well... and they have a message of pain in them, but I think they'll interest a few people. They're not revolutionary, so why do I keep on believing they're combative?"
Frida Kahlo's work was influenced by traumatic physical and psychological events from her childhood and early adulthood, including a crippling accident and the infidelity of her husband. In addition to personal issues, Kahlo's often brooding and introspective subject matter also deals with questions of national identity. Her mixed ancestry - Mexican and German - provided a rich source of subject matter, particularly during the Second World War, when Kahlo changed the spelling of her first name to one that was less Germanic. Her works are often categorized as Surrealist because of her sometimes bizarre and disturbing themes, but unlike the Surrealists, Kahlo was not interested in subject matter derived from dreams or the subconscious - her art was almost always starkly autobiographical. In later life, she was forced to rely on painkillers that affected the quality of her output. She has now become a cultural icon and is especially revered in her home country for her focus on her Mexican identity, or Mexicanidad.
Most Important Art
More Art Works
The Two Fridas (Las dos Fridas) (1939)
This double self-portrait is one of Kahlo's most recognized compositions, and is symbolic of the artist's pain during her divorce from Rivera and the subsequent transitioning of her constructed identity. On the right, the artist is shown in modern European attire, wearing the costume she donned prior to her marriage to Rivera. Throughout their marriage, given Rivera's strong nationalism, Kahlo became increasingly interested in indigenism and began to explore traditional Mexican costume, which she wears in the portrait on the left. It is the Mexican Kahlo that holds a locket with an image of Rivera. The stormy sky in the background, and the artist's bleeding heart - a fundamental symbol of Catholicism and also symbolic of Aztec ritual sacrifice - accentuate Kahlo's personal tribulation and physical pain. Symbolic elements frequently possess multiple layers of meaning in Kahlo's pictures; the recurrent theme of blood represents both metaphysical and physical suffering, gesturing also to the artist's ambivalent attitude toward accepted notions of womanhood and fertility.
Oil on canvas - Museum of Modern Art, Mexico City, Mexico
Frida Kahlo (Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo Calderon) was born in what is now known as Casa Azul in Coyoacan, a town on the outskirts of Mexico City. Her father, Wilhelm Kahlo, was German, and had moved to Mexico at a young age where he remained for the rest of his life, eventually taking over the photography business of Kahlo's mother's family. Kahlo's mother, Matilde Calderon y Gonzalez, born of mixed Spanish and Indian ancestry, was Wilhelm's second wife, and raised Frida and her five sisters in a strict and religious household. Aside from her mother's rigidity and tendency toward hysteric outbursts, several events in Kahlo's childhood affected her psyche for the rest of her life. At age six, Kahlo contracted polio and was forced to remain in bed for nine months, walking with a limp after recovery. Wilhelm, with whom Kahlo was very close, enrolled his daughter at the German College in Mexico City and introduced Kahlo to the writings of European philosophers such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, and Arthur Schopenhauer. Kahlo's mixed European and Mexican heritage permanently affected the artist's approach to her life and artwork. Following the Mexican Revolution and Minister of Education Jose Vasconcelos's new education policy, in 1922, Kahlo was one of 35 girls admitted to the National Preparatory School, where she planned to study medicine, botany, and the social sciences. The artist befriended a dissident group of students known as the Cachuchas, who confirmed Kahlo's rebellious spirit and her interest in poetry and literature. In 1925, Kahlo was involved in a nearly fatal bus accident, where she suffered multiple fractures throughout her body and a crushed pelvis. She spent nine months in the hospital, immobile and bound in a plaster corset. During her long recovery she began experimenting in small-scale autobiographical portraiture, permanently abandoning her medical pursuits.
Kahlo's early training was drawn from an eclectic mix of influences. As a child in her father's photography studio, she learned to work in a small format with a meticulous attention to minute details. This acute pictorial realism influenced the artist's intensity of approach to psychological portraiture. During her years at the National Preparatory School, Kahlo also took drawing lessons in Fernando Fernandez's studio where she acquired training in draftsmanship. At age 15, Kahlo witnessed Diego Rivera painting the Creation mural (1922) in the amphitheater of the Preparatory School, a moment of infatuation and fascination for the young artist that she would pursue later in life. But, despite these directions, Kahlo's most influential early experimentation with painting was during the months of convalescence at home after her bus accident. Gifted with a set of paints from her father, Kahlo spent hours studying herself, and more importantly, confronting existential questions raised by her trauma such as dissociation from identity, death, and interiority. The duality of autobiographical content - both the physical experience and interiority of the person - evolved as the central qualities of Kahlo's painting practice. In 1927, slowly recovering, Kahlo was forced to contribute to her family's expenses and her medical bills. In contact with her friends from the Cachuchas group, Kahlo began to familiarize herself with the artistic and Communist circles in Mexico City, including figures such as the militant photo-journalist Tina Modotti and the Cuban revolutionary Julio Antonio Mella. In 1928, having officially joined the Mexican Communist Party, Kahlo sought out Diego Rivera in order to discuss a possible career as an artist. One year later, the two married and moved to Cuernavaca where Kahlo devoted herself to indigenous themes in painting, at times even embodying Mexican folkloric rituals wearing a traditional Tehuana costume for her spouse.
By the early 1930s, Kahlo's painting evolved to include a more assertive sense of Mexican identity, a facet of her artwork that stemmed from her exposure to the modernist indigenist movement in Mexico and her interest in preserving the revival of Mexicanidad during the rise of fascism in Europe. Kahlo's interest in distancing herself from her Germanic roots is evidenced in her change of name from Frieda to Frida. Concurrently, two failed pregnancies in the early 1930s, in addition to the revival of Mexican folkloric expression such as the ex-voto, contributed to Kahlo's simultaneously harsh and beautiful representation of the female experience through symbolism and autobiography. Throughout the 1930s, life in Mexico was tense for Kahlo: Rivera was an unfaithful husband and the revolutionary climate leading up to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War made for an explosive atmosphere. Kahlo separated from Rivera in 1935, renting a flat in Mexico City, and began a short-lived affair with the Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi. The following year, Kahlo joined the Fourth International and returned to the Casa Azul, which became a meeting point for international intellectuals, artists, and activists and where she ensured the safety of Leon Trotsky and his wife. Several of Kahlo's masterpieces, including The Two Fridas (1939), were painted in the late1930s and early 19s and reflect the difficulty of this period. In a visit to Mexico City in 1938, the founder of Surrealism, André Breton, was enchanted with Kahlo's painting, and hosted the artist's first exhibition in Paris in 1939 at Galerie Renou et Colle. The show was enormously successful; however, the Western, romanticized vision of pastoral Mexico by members of the European bourgeois disgusted Kahlo, though she would exhibit with the Surrealists in the Mexico City exhibition Apparition: the Great Sphinx of the Night in January 1940, which was considered the first international exhibition of Surrealism in the Americas.
Late Years and Death
Following Trotsky's assassination, Kahlo joined Rivera in San Francisco in September of 1940. Kahlo had fallen ill, and was treated by her private doctor, Dr. Eloesser. Kahlo remarried Rivera shortly after, and, returned to Mexico City, where the two maintained separate flats. Kahlo continued to dote on her muse, sending him love notes wherever he was working. Throughout the 1940s, the artist's work grew in notoriety and acclaim from international collectors, and was included in several group shows in Mexico. In 1946, Kahlo received a national prize for her painting Moses, and the year after she was offered a teaching position at La Esmeralda. Meanwhile, the artist grew progressively ill from from the long-term effects of her childhood traumas. By June 1946, Kahlo could no longer remain upright and underwent an unsuccessful bone-graft operation on her spine in New York. In 1950, Kahlo was again hospitalized for nine months at the English Hospital in Mexico. Kahlo continued to paint in her final years while also maintaining her political activism, protesting nuclear testing by Western powers. Kahlo exhibited one last time in Mexico in 1953 at Lola Alvarez Bravo's gallery, the artist's first solo show in Mexico. She was brought to the event in an ambulance and had her four-poster bed placed at the center of the gallery. Kahlo died on July 13, 1954 at Casa Azul, which is today the Frida Kahlo Museum.
A strong individualist who was disengaged from any official artistic movement, Kahlo's artwork has been associated with primitivism, indigenism, and Surrealism. Posthumously, Kahlo's artwork has grown profoundly influential for feminist studies and postcolonial debates, while Kahlo has become an international cultural icon. The artist's celebrity status for mass audiences has resulted in the compartmentalization of the artist's work as representative of interwar Latin American artwork at large, distanced from the complexities of Kahlo's deeply personal subject matter. Recent exhibitions, such as Unbound: Contemporary Art After Frida Kahlo (2014) at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago have attempted to reframe Kahlo's cultural significance by underscoring her lasting impact on the politics of the body and Kahlo's challenge to mainstream aesthetics of representation.
Influences and Connections
Artists, Friends, Movements
Artists, Friends, Movements
Content compiled and written by Katlyn Beaver
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Useful Resources on Frida Kahlo
| Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo |
By Hayden Herrera
| The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait |
By Carlos Fuentes
| Frida by Frida |
By Frida Kahlo and Raquel Tibol
| Why Contemporary Art Is Unimaginable Without Frida Kahlo |
By Priscilla Frank
| Diary of a Mad Artist |
By Amy Fine Collins
| The People's Artist, Herself a Work of Art |
By Holland Cotter
| Let Fridamania Commence |
By Adrian Searle
| The Trouble with Frida Kahlo |
By Stephanie Mencimer
| The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo || The Tate Modern: The Many Faces of Frida Symposium |
| The San Francisco Museum of Art: Discussion of Frida Kahlo's Self Portraits || The Museum of Modern Art: Discussion of Portrait with Cropped Hair by Frida Kahlo |