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Artists Frida Kahlo
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Frida Kahlo

Mexican Painter

Movements and Styles: Surrealism, Proto-Feminist Artists

Born: July 6, 1907 - Coyoacan, Mexico City, Mexico

Died: July 13, 1954 - Mexico City, Mexico

Frida Kahlo Timeline

Quotes

"I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone... because I am the subject I know best."
Frida Kahlo
"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
"They thought I was a Surrealist but I wasn't. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality."
Frida Kahlo
"I really don't know whether my paintings are Surrealist or not, but I do know that they are the most honest expression of myself, taking no account of the opinions and prejudices of others."
Frida Kahlo
"There is nothing more precious than laughter and scorn. Strength lies in laughing and letting oneself go. In being cruel and superficial. Tragedy is the most ridiculous feature of 'Man', yet I am sure that animals, though they 'suffer', do not parade their grief in 'theatres' either open or 'closed'."
Frida Kahlo
"My head is full of microscopic spiders, and innumerable tiny vermin... I can't get anything straight inside the big realité without moving directly onto a collision course; either I have to hang my clothes from thin air, or I have to bring distant things perilously, fatally close. You'll sort it out with your ruler and compass."
Frida Kahlo
"Respond to my love with a mighty epistle, that will cheer the saddened heart that beats for you from here, louder than you could ever imagine. Just listen to it: TIC-TAC TIC-TAC TIC-TAC TIC-TAC! Literature is hopeless at portraying things, at conveying the full volume of inner noises, so it's not my fault if instead of my heart you hear only a broken clock."
Frida Kahlo
"I am not sick... I am broken... but I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint."
Frida Kahlo
"I have suffered two grave accidents in my life, one in which a streetcar knocked me down.. The other accident is Diego."
Frida Kahlo
"I hope the Leaving is joyful - and I hope Never to return"
Frida Kahlo

"Feet what do I need them for if I have wings to fly?"

Frida Kahlo Signature

Synopsis

Small pins pierce Kahlo's skin to reveal that she still 'hurts' following illness and accident, whilst a signature tear signifies her ongoing battle with the related psychological overflow. Frida Kahlo typically uses the visual symbolism of physical pain in a long-standing attempt to better understand emotional suffering. Prior to Kahlo's efforts, the language of loss, death, and selfhood, had been relatively well investigated by some male artists (including Albrecht Durer, Francisco Goya, and Edvard Munch), but had not yet been significantly dissected by a woman. Indeed not only did Kahlo enter into an existing language, but she also expanded it and made it her own. By literally exposing interior organs, and depicting her own body in a bleeding and broken state, Kahlo opened up our insides to help explain human behaviors on the outside. She gathered together motifs that would repeat throughout her career, including ribbons, hair, and personal animals, and in turn created a new and articulate means to discuss the most complex aspects of female identity. As not only a 'great artist' but also a figure worthy of our devotion, Kahlo's iconic face provides everlasting trauma support and she has influence that cannot be underestimated.

Key Ideas

Kahlo made it legitimate for women to outwardly display their pains and frustrations and to thus make steps towards making sense of and understanding them. It became crucial for women artists to have a female role model and this is the gift given by Frida Kahlo.
As an important question for many Surrealists, Kahlo too considers, What is Woman? Following repeated miscarriage, she asks to what extent does motherhood or the absence of this impact on female identity. She alters the meaning of maternal subjectivity irreversibly. It becomes clear through umbilical symbolism (often shown by ribbons) that Kahlo is connected to all that surrounds her, and that she is still a 'mother' without children.
Finding herself often alone, she worked obsessively with self-portraiture. Her reflection fuelled an unflinching interest in identity. She was particularly interested in her mixed German-Mexican ancestry, as well as in her divided roles as artist, lover, and wife.
Kahlo uses religious symbolism throughout her oeuvre. She appears as the Madonna holding her 'animal babies', and becomes the Virgin Mary as she cradles her husband and famous national painter Diego Rivera. She identifies with Saint Sebastian, and even fittingly appears as Jesus Christ. She positions herself as a prophet when she takes to head of the table in her Last Supper style painting, and her accident when impaled on a metal bar (and covered in gold dust when lying injured) recalls the crucifixion and suggests her status as holy.
Women prior to Kahlo who had attempted to communicate the wildest and deepest of emotions were often labeled hysterical or condemned insane. Alternatively, male artists for centuries had managed to align creativity and intense reflection, claiming the character type as 'melancholy'. By remaining artistically active under the weight of sadness, Kahlo revealed that women too can be melancholy rather than depressed, and that these terms should not be thought of as gendered.

Most Important Art

Frida Kahlo Famous Art

The Two Fridas (1939)

This double self-portrait is one of Kahlo's most recognized compositions, and is symbolic of the artist's emotional pain experienced during her divorce from Rivera. On the right, the artist is shown in modern European attire, wearing the costume she previously 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. Although both women have their hearts exposed, the woman in the white European outfit also seems to have had her heart dissected and the artery that runs from this heart is cut and bleeding. The artery that runs from the heart of her Tehuana costumed-self remains intact because it is connected to the miniature photograph of Diego as a child. Whereas Kahlo's heart in the Mexican dress remains sustained, the European Kahlo, disconnected from her beloved Diego, bleeds profusely onto her dress. As well as being one of the artist's most famous works, this is also her largest canvas
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Frida Kahlo Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Childhood

Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo Calderon was born at La Casa Azul (The Blue House) in Coyoacan, a town on the outskirts of Mexico City in 1907. 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, was of mixed Spanish and Indian ancestry, and raised Frida and her three sisters in a strict and religious household (Frida also had two half sisters from her father's first marriage who were raised in a convent). La Casa Azul was not only Kahlo's childhood home, but also the place that she returned to live and work from 1939 until her death. It later opened as a National Museum dedicated to Kahlo.

Frida Kahlo with her family (1927). Whilst her sisters wear the typical and fashionable dresses of the day, Kahlo wears a man's suit and positions herself as a rebel. She confronts convention and reveals that her identity extends beyond the confines of being a girl.
Frida Kahlo with her family (1927). Whilst her sisters wear the typical and fashionable dresses of the day, Kahlo wears a man's suit and positions herself as a rebel. She confronts convention and reveals that her identity extends beyond the confines of being a girl.

Aside from her mother's rigidity, religious fanaticism, and tendency toward hysteric outbursts, several events in Kahlo's childhood affected her deeply for the rest of her life. At age six, Kahlo contracted polio; a long recovery isolated her from other children and permanently damaged one of her legs, causing her to walk with a limp after recovery. Wilhelm, with whom Kahlo was very close, and particularly so after the experience of being an invalid, 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. All of Kahlo's sisters instead attended a convent school so it seems that there was a thirst for expansive learning noted in Frida that resulted in her father making different decisions especially for her. Kahlo was grateful for this and despite a strained relationship with her mother, always credited her father with great tenderness and insight. Still, she was interested in both strands of her roots, and her mixed European and Mexican heritage provided life-long fascination in her approach towards both life and art.

Kahlo had a horrible experience at the German School where she was sexually abused and thus forced to leave. Luckily at the time, the Mexican Revolution and the Minister of Education had changed the education policy, and from 1922 girls were admitted to the National Preparatory School. Kahlo was one of the first 35 girls admitted and she began to study medicine, botany, and the social sciences. She excelled academically, became very interested in Mexican culture, and also became active politically.

Early Training

When Kahlo was 15, Diego Rivera (already a renowned artist) was painting the Creation mural (1922) in the amphitheater of her Preparatory School. Upon seeing him work, Kahlo experienced a moment of infatuation and fascination that she would go on to fully explore later in life. Meanwhile she enjoyed helping her father in his photography studio and received drawing instruction from her father's friend, Fernando Fernandez - for whom she was an apprentice engraver. At this time Kahlo also befriended a dissident group of students known as the "Cachuchas", who confirmed the young artist's rebellious spirit and further encouraged her interest in literature and politics. In 1923 Kahlo fell in love with a fellow member of the group, Alejandro Gomez Arias, and the two remained romantically involved until 1928. Sadly, in 1925 together with Alejandro (who survived unharmed) on their way home from school, Kahlo was involved in a near fatal bus accident.

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Frida Kahlo Biography Continues
Frida Kahlo, drawing to illustrate her bus crash (1926)
Frida Kahlo, drawing to illustrate her bus crash (1926)

Kahlo suffered multiple fractures throughout her body, including a crushed pelvis, and a metal rod impaled her womb. She spent one month in the hospital immobile, and bound in a plaster corset, and following this period, many more months bedridden at home. During her long recovery she began to experiment in small-scale autobiographical portraiture, henceforth abandoning her medical pursuits due to practical circumstances and turning her focus to art.

Frida Kahlo photograph by Guillermo Davila (1929)
Frida Kahlo photograph by Guillermo Davila (1929)

During the months of convalescence at home after her bus accident Kahlo's parents made her a special easel, gave her a set of paints, and placed a mirror above her head so that she could see her own reflection and make self-portraits. Kahlo spent hours confronting existential questions raised by her trauma including a feeling of dissociation from her identity, a growing interiority, and a general closeness to death. She drew upon the acute pictorial realism known from her father's photographic portraits (which she greatly admired) and approached her own early portraits (mostly of herself, her sisters, and her school friends) with the same psychological intensity. At the time, Kahlo seriously considered becoming a medical illustrator during this period as she saw this as a way to marry her interests in science and art.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in 1929. Photograph by Tina Modotti
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in 1929. Photograph by Tina Modotti

By 1927, Kahlo was well enough to leave her bedroom and thus re-kindled her relationship with the Cachuchas group, which was by this point all the more political. She joined the Mexican Communist Party (PCM) and began to familiarize herself with the artistic and political circles in Mexico City. She became close friends with the photojournalist Tina Modotti and Cuban revolutionary Julio Antonio Mella. It was in June 1928, at one of Modotti's many parties, that Kahlo was personally introduced to Diego Rivera who was already one of Mexico's most famous artists and a highly influential member of the PCM. Soon after, Kahlo boldly asked him to decide, upon looking at one of her portraits, if her work was worthy of pursuing a career as an artist. He was utterly impressed by the honesty and originality of her painting and assured her of her talents. Despite the fact that Rivera had already been married twice, and was known to all to have an unsatisfiable fondness for women, the two quickly began a romantic relationship and were married in 1929. According to Kahlo's mother, who outwardly expressed her dissatisfaction with the match, the couple were 'the elephant and the dove'. Her father however, unconditionally supported his daughter and was happy to know that Rivera had the financial means to help with Kahlo's medical bills. The new couple moved to Cuernavaca in the rural state of Morelos where Kahlo devoted herself entirely to painting.

Mature Period

Frida Kahlo painting <i>Self-Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and The United States</i> (1932)
Frida Kahlo painting Self-Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and The United States (1932)

By the early 1930s, Kahlo's painting had evolved to include a more assertive sense of Mexican identity, a facet of her artwork that had stemmed from her exposure to the modernist indigenist movement in Mexico and from 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 name change from Frieda to Frida, and furthermore in her decision to wear traditional Tehuana costume (the dress from earlier matriarchal times). Two failed pregnancies augmented Kahlo's simultaneously harsh and beautiful representation of the specifically female experience through symbolism and autobiography.

During the first few years of the 1930s Kahlo and Rivera lived in San Francisco, Detroit, and New York whilst Rivera was creating various murals. Kahlo also completed some seminal works including Frieda and Diego Rivera (1931) and Self-Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and The United States (1932) with the latter expressing her observations of rivalry taking place between nature and industry in the two lands. It was during this time that Kahlo met and became friends with Imogen Cunningham, Ansel Adams, and Edward Weston. She also met Dr. Leo Eloesser while in San Francisco, the surgeon who would become her closest medical advisor until her death.

Soon after the unveiling of a large and controversial mural that Rivera had made for the Rockefeller Centre in New York (1933), the couple returned to Mexico as Kahlo was feeling particularly homesick. They moved into a new house in the wealthy neighborhood of San Angel. The house was made up of two separate parts joined by a bridge. This set up was appropriate as their relationship was undergoing immense strain. Kahlo had numerous health issues while Rivera, although he had been previously unfaithful, at this time had an affair with Kahlo's younger sister Cristina which understandably hurt Kahlo more than her husband's other infidelities. Kahlo too started to have her own extramarital affairs at this point. Not long after returning to Mexico from the States, she met the Hungarian photographer Nickolas Muray, who was on holiday in Mexico. The two began an on-and-off romantic affair that lasted 10 years, and it is Muray who is credited as the man who captured Kahlo most colorfully on camera.

Frida in Pink and Green Dress, Coyoacan, photograph by Nickolas Muray (1939)
Frida in Pink and Green Dress, Coyoacan, photograph by Nickolas Muray (1939)

While briefly separated from Diego following the affair with her sister and living in her own flat away from San Angel, Kahlo also had a short affair with the Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi. The two highly politically and socially conscious artists remained friends until Kahlo's death.

In 1936, Kahlo joined the Fourth International (an international communist organization) and often used La Casa Azul as a meeting point for international intellectuals, artists, and activists. Once granted asylum in Mexico, she offered the house as a place where the exiled Russian Communist leader Leon Trotsky and his wife, Natalia Sedova, could take up residence. In 1937, as well as helping Trotsky, Kahlo and the political icon embarked on a short love affair. Trotsky and his wife remained in La Casa Azul until mid-1939.

Frida in a Blue Dress in New York City (1939) photograph by Nickolas Muray
Frida in a Blue Dress in New York City (1939) photograph by Nickolas Muray

During a visit to Mexico City in 1938, the founder of Surrealism, André Breton, was enchanted with Kahlo's painting, and wrote to his friend and art dealer, Julien Levy, who quickly invited Kahlo to hold her first solo show at his gallery in New York. This time round, Kahlo traveled to the States without Rivera and upon arrival caused a huge media sensation. People were attracted to her colorful and exotic (but actually traditional) Mexican costumes and her exhibition was a success. Georgia O'Keeffe was one of the notable guests to attend Kahlo's opening. Kahlo enjoyed some months socializing in New York and then sailed to Paris in early 1939 to exhibit there. That exhibition was not as successful and as she became quickly tired of the over-intellectualism of the Surrealists. Kahlo returned to New York hoping to continue her love affair with Muray, but he broke off the relationship as he had recently met somebody else. Thus Kahlo traveled back to Mexico City and upon her return Rivera requested a divorce.

Later Years and Death

Following her divorce, Kahlo moved back to La Casa Azul. She moved away from her small tin paintings and began to work on much larger canvases. In 1940 Kahlo and Rivera remarried and their relationship became less turbulent as Kahlo's health deteriorated. Between the years of 1940-1956, the suffering artist often had to wear supportive back corsets to help her spinal problems, she also had an infectious skin condition, along with syphilis. When her father died in 1941, this exacerbated both her depression and her health. She again was often housebound and found simple pleasure in surrounding herself by animals and in tending to the garden at La Casa Azul.

Meanwhile, throughout the 1940s, Kahlo's work grew in notoriety and acclaim from international collectors, and was included in several group shows both in the United States and in Mexico. In 1943, her work was included in Women Artists at Peggy Guggenheim's The Art of This Century Gallery in New York. In this same year, Kahlo accepted a teaching position at a painting school in Mexico City, 'La Esmeralda', and acquired some highly devoted students with whom she undertook some mural commissions. She struggled to continue making a living from her art, never accommodating to clients wishes if she did not like them, but luckily received a national prize for her painting Moses (1945) and then The Two Fridas painting was bought by the Museo de Arte Moderno in 1947. Meanwhile, the artist grew progressively ill from the long-term effects of her childhood traumas. She had a complicated operation to try and straighten her spine, but it failed and from 1950 onwards, she was often confined to a wheelchair.

Frida Kahlo and her doctor, Juan Faril, 1951, photograph by Giséle Freund
Frida Kahlo and her doctor, Juan Faril, 1951, photograph by Giséle Freund

She continued to paint relatively prolifically in her final years while also maintaining her political activism, and protesting nuclear testing by Western powers. Kahlo exhibited one last time in Mexico in 1953 at Lola Alvarez Bravo's gallery, her first and only solo-show in Mexico. She was brought to the event in an ambulance, with her four-poster bed following on the back of a truck. The bed was then placed in the center of the gallery so that she could lie there for the duration of the opening. Kahlo died in 1954 at La Casa Azul.


Legacy

Frida Kahlo, 1932 photographed by Imogen Cunningham
Frida Kahlo, 1932 photographed by Imogen Cunningham

As 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 at times 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. Dreamers Awake (2017) held at The White Cube Gallery in London further illustrated the huge influence that Frida Kahlo and a handful of other early female Surrealists have had on the development and progression of female art.

The legacy of Kahlo cannot be underestimated or exaggerated. Not only is it likely that every female artist making art since the 1950s will quote her as an influence, but it is not only artists and those who are interested in art that she inspires. Her art also supports people who suffer as result of accident, as result of miscarriage, and as result of failed marriage. Through imagery, Kahlo articulated experiences so complex, making them more manageable and giving viewers hope that they can endure, recover, and start again.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Frida Kahlo
Interactive chart with Frida Kahlo's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

Diego RiveraDiego Rivera
Jose Clemente OrozcoJose Clemente Orozco
David Alfaro SiqueirosDavid Alfaro Siqueiros
Georgia O'KeeffeGeorgia O'Keeffe
Henri RousseauHenri Rousseau

Friends

Tina ModottiTina Modotti
Leon TrotskyLeon Trotsky
Bertram WolfeBertram Wolfe

Movements

SurrealismSurrealism
Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo
Years Worked: 1929-54

Artists

André BretonAndré Breton
Louise BourgeoisLouise Bourgeois
Francesca WoodmanFrancesca Woodman
Ana MendietaAna Mendieta
Tracey EminTracey Emin

Friends

Julien LevyJulien Levy
Emmy Lou PackardEmmy Lou Packard
Lola Alvarez BravoLola Alvarez Bravo
Manuel Alvarez BravoManuel Alvarez Bravo

Movements

SurrealismSurrealism
Feminist MovementFeminist Movement

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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Katlyn Beaver

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Dr. Rebecca Baillie

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Katlyn Beaver
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Dr. Rebecca Baillie
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Useful Resources on Frida Kahlo

Videos

Books

Websites

Articles

Audio

More

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.

biography

Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo Recomended resource

By Hayden Herrera

written by artist

The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait Recomended resource

By Carlos Fuentes

Frida by Frida

By Frida Kahlo and Raquel Tibol

More Interesting Books about Frida Kahlo
Why Contemporary Art Is Unimaginable Without Frida Kahlo

By Priscilla Frank
The Huffington Post
April 29, 2014

Diary of a Mad Artist

By Amy Fine Collins
Vanity Fair
July 2011

The People's Artist, Herself a Work of Art Recomended resource

By Holland Cotter
The New York Times
February 29, 2008

Let Fridamania Commence

By Adrian Searle
The Guardian
June 6, 2005

More Interesting Articles about Frida Kahlo

in pop culture

Frida

A 2002 Biographical Film on Frida Kahlo, Starring Salma Hayek

The Frida Kahlo Corporation

A Company with Products Inspired by Frida Kahlo

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