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Historical and Cultural Context - Frida Kahlo

Portrait by Nickolas Muray

Life Takes Form Early

Frida Kahlo, was born on July 6, 1907 in the Mexico City suburb of Coyoacán, one of five daughters of a Hungarian-Jewish father and a mother of Spanish and Mexican Indian descent, (http://www.fridakahlo.com/bio.shtml) The background of Frida's father varies from source to source with Wikipedia stating ethnic German and Lutheran, not Jewish as his heritage.  

Frida claimed to be born on 1910, the year of the outbreak of the Mexican revolution, because she wanted her life to begin together with the modern Mexico. This detail introduces us to her singular personality, characterized since childhood by a deep sense of independence and rebellion against social and moral ordinary habits, moved by passion and sensuality, proud of her "Mexicanidad" and cultural tradition set against the reigning Americanization: everything mixed with a peculiar sense of humour.

She did not originally plan to become an artist. At 15 Kahlo entered the premedical program at the National Preparatory School in Mexico City. However, this training ended three years later when she was severely injured in a bus accident. (http://www.fridakahlo.com/bio.shtml

Her life was marked by physical suffering, starting with polio contracted at the age of five and progressively worsening through her life-dominating event, the bus accident when she was 18. She underwent approximately 30 surgical operations and numerous painful treatments including an array of corsets and mechanical "stretching" systems. Many of her works were painted lying in bed. To add to her trauma, she was never able to have children as a complication of her injuries.


The Accident - 1926

One year after the bus collision, she sketched The Accident, in the style of traditional Mexican ex-voto paintings. As religious works of art, ex-voto paintings, usually executed on tin sheets, portray scenes of miraculous heavenly interventions. The miracle in this sketch, Frida did not die. Describing events with both pictures and words shows another signature of the ex-voto style. Most of Frida's paintings would incorporate elements of the ex-voto style. (http://www.pbs.org/weta/fridakahlo/worksofart/accident.html)


Self-Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States - 1932 - http://cgfa.sunsite.dk/kahlo/p-kahlo28.htm


Thematic Influences

Drawing on her personal experiences (her troubled marriage, her painful miscarriages, her numerous operations), her works are often shocking in their stark portrayal of pain. Fifty-five of her 143 paintings are self-portraits, often incorporating symbolic portrayal of her physical and psychological wounds.

Another thematic element in her work developed from her deeply felt influence of the indigenous Mexican culture, which surfaced in her paintings' bright colors, dramatic symbolism, and unapologetic rendering of often harsh and gory content.

Although Kahlo's work is sometimes classified as surrealist, and she did exhibit several times with European surrealists, she never considered herself a surrealist. Her preoccupation with female themes and the figurative candor with which she expressed them made her something of a feminist cult figure in the last decades of the 20th century. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frida_Kahlo)

"I never knew I was a surrealist till Andre Breton came to Mexico and told me I was."

Kahlo preferred dressing in native Mexican costume and paid great attention to her hair and make-up even when gravely ill. The numerous self-portraits she created range in mood from violent (i.e. showing herself as a deer shot through with arrows or a woman ripped open from neck to navel and covered with nails), to heart-rending (showing herself naked and bleeding profusely from complications of childbirth), to more serene images such as the Self-Portrait with Monkey.

Kahlo's imagery reflects a preoccupation with the exploration of love and its connection to pain in her life. She had many lovers, both male and female, and was married twice, first in 1929 and again in 1940, to the famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, whom she loved obsessively. The small, slender Kahlo was a stark contrast to the portly Rivera. Her father remarked, "It was like the marriage between an elephant and a dove." Their stormy relationship inspired many of her paintings. As her biographer, Hayden Herrera, noted, "Every time Diego left her, there's another painting with tears or gashes." In Kahlo's own words, Rivera showed her "the revolutionary sense of life and the true sense of color."


“Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?”

What I Saw in the Water (What the Water Gave Me) - 1938 - http://cgfa.sunsite.dk/kahlo/p-kahlo11.htm


“I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.”

Self-Portrait with Monkey - 1938

Signature Icon

In October 1938, Frida staged her first one-woman exhibition at the Levy Gallery in New York. In the crowd of spectators A. Conger Goodyear, president of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, spotted a painting he just had to have – Fulang-Chang and I. Unfortunately, the work had already been promised to someone else. Not to be dissuaded from owning a work by Frida, he commissioned her to paint a similar self-portrait. A week later she unveiled Self-portrait With Monkey. (http://www.pbs.org/weta/fridakahlo/worksofart/index.html)

In Self-Portrait with Monkey, Kahlo emphasized her signature icon, her joined eyebrows. She chose a monkey as her companion because she admired its childlike and playful nature. The apparently naïve (unschooled) drawing, bright and bizarre colors, and dramatic and fantastical images reflect her inspiration in native Mexican art. (http://www.pbs.org/weta/fridakahlo/worksofart/index.html)


"I cannot speak of Diego as my husband because that term, when applied to him, is an absurdity. "

Diego and I - 1949

Frida and Diego

She was his chicuita ("little one") and he was her "frog prince," but the path of love was not a smooth one for Frida and Diego. Almost from the moment of their marriage in 1929, there were problems. But 1949 was a particularly low point in their relationship. Rumors circulated that Diego intended to marry the film star Maria Felix, with whom he was having an affair. Although nothing came of the affair and Diego remained with Frida, she was hurt. The self-portrait Diego and I came out of this experience. (http://www.pbs.org/weta/fridakahlo/worksofart/diegoandi.html)


Communist Sympathizers

Active Communist sympathizers, Kahlo and Rivera befriended Leon Trotsky as he sought political asylum from Joseph Stalin´s regime in The Soviet Union. The great Russian revolutionary had been expelled from the U.S.S.R. by Stalin in 1929 and sentenced to death, in absentia, by a Soviet court in 1937. After nine years of exile, in January 1937 Trotsky and his wife found asylum in Mexico, thanks to Rivera's help. Initially, Trotsky lived with Rivera and then at Frida's home where he and Frida allegedly had an affair. Trotsky and his wife then moved to another house in Coyoacán where Trotsky was later assassinated. Sometime after Trotsky's death, Frida denounced her former friend and praised the Soviet Union under Stalin. She spoke favorably of Mao, calling China "the new socialist hope". (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frida_Kahlo) (National Museum of Women in the Arts - http://www.nmwa.org/collection/detail.asp?WorkID=1432)


Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky - 1937

Tribute to Trotsky

This self-portrait shows the same Frida Kahlo seen in numerous photographs: intense, with broad, expressive eyebrows and a fondness for traditional Mexican garb. However, it omits the overt symbolism and sometimes-harrowing depictions of her medical history featured in many other self-portraits.Instead, the artist displays herself standing on a stagelike wooden floor between curtains dramatically tied back with heavy cords. Kahlo's hair is braided and adorned with flowers; she wears a long embroidered dress, a rebozo (Mexican shawl), and gold jewelry, calling attention to her carefully manicured hands, which hold a small bouquet and a sheet of paper. The fact that her feet are hidden makes Kahlo appear to float, and the overall composition recalls retablos, the small Mexican religious images painted on tin that Kahlo avidly collected. The paper, with its inscription, signature, and date, is a surprisingly old-fashioned touch. In it, Kahlo dedicates the self-portrait to Leon Trotsky, "with all [her] love." Kahlo presented this painting to the Russian revolutionary leader as a gift, presumably a memento of the brief love affair they had shortly after his arrival in Mexico.The great Russian revolutionary had been expelled from the U.S.S.R. by Stalin in 1929 and sentenced to death, in absentia, by a Soviet court in 1937. After nine years of exile, in January 1937 Trotsky and his wife found asylum in Mexico, thanks to Rivera's help. They lived in Kahlo's house for two years, before Trotsky was assassinated by a Stalinist agent. (National Museum of Women in the Arts - http://www.nmwa.org/collection/detail.asp?WorkID=1432)


My painting carries with it the message of pain.

The Two Fridas - 1939 - http://academic.reed.edu/spanish/courses/Spanish-210/Frida/Frida-TheTwoFridas.html

Painted in 1939 at the time of her divorce from Diego, The Two Fridas is believed to be an expression of Frida's feelings at the time. This double self-portrait was the first large-scale work painted by Frida. (http://www.pbs.org/weta/fridakahlo/worksofart/index.html)

I paint my own reality. The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to, and I paint whatever passes through my head without any other consideration."


The Dream - 1940 - http://cgfa.sunsite.dk/kahlo/p-kahlo18.htm


Roots - 1943 - http://academic.reed.edu/spanish/courses/Spanish-210/Frida/Frida-Roots.jpg


Thinking about Death - 1943 - http://cgfa.sunsite.dk/kahlo/p-kahlo26.htm


“I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality.”

Broken Column - 1944 - http://academic.reed.edu/spanish/courses/Spanish-210/Frida/Frida-BrokenColumn.jpg


Drama and Passion to the End

Kahlo was a famous personality in her time, and lived a life full of drama and passion right to the end. When her first major exhibition finally opened in Mexico City's Gallery of Contemporary Art in 1953, she was not expected to attend due to the grave condition of her health. To the surprise and delight of her patrons and fans, however, she arrived on a hospital stretcher and was enthroned in her canopy bed, which had been installed in the Gallery that afternoon. Less than a year later, she died from an overdose of tranquilizers. Her popularity has taken an upswing lately, due both to the avid collection of her work by celebrities such as Madonna and the relevance of themes such as androgyny and violence in 1990s. - Mariann Smith - Albright-Knox Art Gallery (http://www.fridakahlo.it/)


Moses (Nucleus of Creation) - 1945 - http://cgfa.sunsite.dk/kahlo/p-kahlo23.htm


"I leave you my portrait so that you will have my presence all the days and nights that I am away from you.”

Self-Portrait - 1948 - http://cgfa.sunsite.dk/kahlo/p-kahlo9.htm


The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth, Myself, Diego and Señor Xólotl
1949 - http://cgfa.sunsite.dk/kahlo/p-kahlo25.htm


Frida’s Obituary

Wednesday, July 14, 1954

Frida Kahlo, Artist, Diego Rivera's Wife

MEXICO CITY, July 13 -- Frida Kahlo, wife of Diego Rivera, the noted painter, was found dead in her home today. Her age was 44. She had been suffering from cancer for several years.

She also was a painter and also had been active in leftist causes. She made her last public appearance in a wheel chair at a meeting here in support of the new ousted regime of Communist-backed President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman of Guatemala.

Frida Kahlo began painting in 1926 while obliged to lie in bed during convalescence from injuries suffered in a bus accident. Not long afterward she showed her work to Diego Rivera, who advised, "go on painting." They were married in 1929, began living apart in 1939, were reunited in 1941.

Usually classed as a surrealist, the artist had no special explanation for her methods. She said only: "I put on the canvas whatever comes into my mind." She gave one-woman shows in Mexico City, New York and elsewhere and is said to have been the first woman artist to sell a picture to the Louvre.

Some of her pictures shocked beholders. One showed her with her hands cut off, a huge bleeding heart on the ground nearby, and on either side of her an empty dress. This was supposed to reveal how she felt when her husband went off alone on a trip. Another self-portrait presented the artist as a wounded deer, still carrying the shafts of nine arrows.

"Painting completed my life."

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