One of the most iconic artists of the 20th century was Frida Kahlo, whose life story is almost as popular as her art. Frida Kahlo was one of the most famous Mexican artist who was known for her self-portraits, pain, passion, and bold, vibrant colors. She had a difficult life but produced some of the finest paintings ever created by a Latin American painter. She continues to be remembered as a feminist icon for the way she led her life.
She was born on July 6, 1907 in Coyoacan, Mexico to Guillermo Kahlo and Matilde Calderón y González. The Mexican Revolution began in 1910, three years after her birth. Frida would later give her birth date as July 7, 1910, so that her life would coincide with the birth of modern Mexico. Her father was a German photographer who had immigrated to Mexico, following an accident that ended his university studies. Her mother was half Amerindian and half Spanish. Kahlo had two older sisters and one younger sister, as well as two older half-sisters from her father’s first marriage.
From a young age, Kahlo always challenged the status quo. Apart from participating in sports, like boxing, she joined a gang and fell in love with its leader. She often stayed out late at night and won tequila-drinking challenges against strong, muscular men. She partied hard, but took her art and political views very seriously.
Frida Kahlo had very poor health during her childhood. She contracted polio at the age of six and was bedridden for nine months. Polio caused her right leg and foot to grow much thinner than her left one. She would go on to wear long skirts or the rest of her life, in order to cover her leg and foot.
On a September afternoon, while traveling on a bus, a tragic accident happened. The bus collided with a streetcar and Kahlo was seriously injured. A steel handrail impaled her through the hip. Her spine and pelvis were both fractured, which left her in a great deal of pain, both physically and physiologically. Kahlo underwent thirty-five operations in her life, and was forced to bear with relapses of extreme pain. Furthermore, this accident left her unable to have children.
She had to wear a full body cast for three months. To kill time and alleviate the pain, she started painting and finished her first first self-portrait the following year. Frida Kahlo once said, “I paint myself because I am often alone and I am the subject I know best.” Her parents encouraged her to paint, gifting her brushes and boxes of paints. They also created a special easel for her, so she could paint while staying in bed.
Her works were inspired by the nature and artifacts of Mexico. Her paintings often had strong autobiographical elements, and mixed realism with fantasy. Kahlo has been described as a surrealist and magical realist. But she rejected the label, saying, “They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.” Some of her most notable works include ‘Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird,’ ‘Memory or The Heart,’ ‘Henry Ford Hospital,’ ‘The Broken Column,’ ‘Me and My Parrot,’ ‘Self Portrait with Monkeys,’ ‘What I saw in the Water,’ and ‘The Dream.’
Kahlo always admired the work of the famous Mexican painter Diego Rivera. When she first approached him in 1927, Rivera was impressed with her work and encouraged her to continue with her art. This encounter encouraged Frida to become an artist. Soon their relationship became intimate and they married on August 21, 1929, when he was forty-two and she was twenty-two. People often referred to the couple as “The Elephant and the Dove,” due to the difference in their size. In 1931, she displayed her work publicly for the first time at the ‘Sixth Annual Exhibition of the San Francisco Society of Women Artists.’ Here, she displayed ‘Frieda and Diego Rivera’, a portrait of her and Diego Rivera.
Her marriage with Rivera was tumultuous, as they both had multiple affairs. Frida Kahlo was bisexual, and she had affairs with both men and women. Rivera had an affair with Kahlo’s younger sister, which infuriated Kahlo. They divorced in 1939, but remarried a year later. Although their second marriage was as troubled as the first, Kahlo remained married to Rivera till her death.
After her death, the rise of the feminist movement in the 1970s sparked a renewed interest in her work. Kahlo’s reputation as an artist exceeded Rivera’s, and she grew to become one of the world’s most famous painters. Feminist theorists embrace Kahlo’s deeply personal portraits for their insight into the female experience. Likewise, her refusal to be defined by others’ definitions and the self-love shown in her proud capturing of her natural unibrow and mustache speak to modern feminist concerns over gender roles and body-positivity.