Happy birthday, Frida Kahlo! On this day in 1907, the celebrated painter and cultural icon, known for her portraits which explored themes of gender, colonialism, and Mexican identity at large, was born in Coyoacán, Mexico.
During the height of the pandemic, FF2 collaborator Dayna Hagewood attended a Smithsonian Associates Streaming Series lecture taught by Nancy G. Heller. Of the lecture, Dayna said, “[It] provided an overview of Frida Kahlo’s tragic life and powerful paintings in an attempt to explain the ‘Fridamania’ that has taken the world by storm.” It is an inarguable fact that Frida Kahlo is one of the most well-known and widely praised modern artists. But how did she come to be such a cultural tour de force? Nancy Heller claims that her legend was born from the intersection of a ‘tortured life’ and ‘striking self-portraiture.'”
Frida was the third child born to parents Matilde Caldéron y González and Guillermo Kahlo. At the age of six, she contracted polio, a disease that would impact Frida for the rest of her life. Due to the illness, she spent many months out of school, and was subjected to bullying and alienation from other children.
After contracting polio, Frida’s long stays at home gave her time to connect with her artist father Guillermo.
However, her long stays at home also gave Frida time to connect with her artist father. Guillermo, originally from Germany, had come to Mexico in 1891 and began working as a photographer of architecture, whose pictures were often commissioned by the Mexican government. As Guillermo himself suffered from epilepsy, he and Frida connected over a shared sense of isolation due to disability as well as Frida’s budding interest in art.
At 15, Frida was accepted to attend the National Preparatory School in Mexico City, where she rigorously studied science in the hopes of one day becoming a doctor. The elite institution was known for holding up the idea of “indigenismo,” which promoted Mexico’s indigenous heritage as opposed to the imposed colonialism of Europe. The nationalism and pride in Mexico which the school championed would go on to define Frida’s personal and professional career for the rest of her life.
In 1925, Frida was severely injured in a bus crash, which left her with countless broken bones, a crushed foot, displaced vertebrae, and a puncture wound from being impaled by a handrail. Due to the overwhelming intensity of her injuries, Frida underwent multiple lengthy hospital stays, bouts of bed rest, and lived in chronic pain for the rest of her life. The accident also ended any thoughts she had of attending medical school, and, as a result, Frida threw herself into painting.
In 1926, Frida painted her first self portrait, Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress.
In 1926, she painted her first self portrait, Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress. The painting depicts Frida with her head slightly tilted, looking straight at the viewer while wearing a deep burgundy gown. Behind her, a stormy sea swirls, and the entire scene is imbued with an electrifying intensity. The sublimity of the ocean is matched only by the breadth of emotion portrayed in Frida’s eyes.
After recovering, Frida joined the Mexican Communist Party, through which she met Diego Rivera, the influential Mexican painter known for his dazzling frescoes. Though Diego was over twenty years older than Frida, they married, and she followed him first to Cuernavaca and then to San Francisco, where she painted a portrait of the couple together titled Frieda and Diego Rivera. After San Francisco, the pair traveled to New York City, and then stayed for a period in Detroit, where Diego was working on murals for the Detroit Institute of the Arts.
Frida struggled with the extended stay in America, and her feelings about American culture and consumerism can be seen in her 1932 painting Self Portrait Along the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States. In the portrait, Frida paints herself straddling the line between Mexico, depicted through the natural world, historic architecture, and artifacts, and the United States, shown as an industrial world crafted of straight, unforgiving lines.
While living in Detroit, Frida became pregnant, and unsuccessfully attempted to have an abortion. However, once Frida decided to continue the pregnancy, she miscarried, and had to be hospitalized due to a severe hemorrhage. Then, only a couple months after leaving the hospital, Frida’s mother passed away. Out of this trauma, Frida painted the emotional, desolate piece Henry Ford Hospital, which is my personal favorite of all her works. In the self portrait, Frida lays naked on a hospital bed in a wasteland, with the cityscape of Detroit lurking small on the horizon. Red ribbons, which resemble fleshy umbilical cords, connect Frida to six objects—including an orchid, a snail, and a fetus—which float in the empty space surrounding her. Frida is weeping atop a pool of her own blood.
Though Frida and Diego returned to live together in Mexico City, issues within their marriage bubbled to the surface. Both Frida and Diego had long pursued extramarital affairs. Frida, a bisexual woman, carried on love affairs with men and women. One affair of hers, with famed Mexican singer Chavela Vargas, is mentioned in a recent FF2 article on Chavela’s life. Diego himself pursued an affair with Frida’s own little sister Cristina, which directly contributed to the couple’s divorce in 1939. However, the two remained friends, and eventually remarried in 1940.
Beginning in 1937, Frida entered into her most frenziedly productive period as an artist, during which she created some of her most acclaimed pieces such as My Nurse and I and What the Water Gave Me. In 1938, her paintings were exhibited at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
At the urging of surrealist André Breton, who had met Frida and fallen in love with her work for its own surreal style, Julien Levy then held Frida’s first solo show at his gallery in New York City. Frida’s popularity boomed in the United States, with many influential figures commissioning portraits from her. She was also invited to show her work at MoMA, the Institute of Contemporary Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art among others.
Frida’s health declined dramatically throughout the 1940s. On top of her continuous chronic pain, she battled alcoholism, syphilis, infection, and the effects of a failed operation to straighten her spine. The final blow to Frida came from the passing of her beloved father, which dragged her into a severe depression. Her feelings at the time are reflected in paintings of the period such as Without Hope and The Wounded Deer.
In 1953, Frida’s leg was amputated. Over the next year, her depression and suicidal ideation worsened, though she continued to involve herself fervently in the politics of Mexico. On July 2, 1954, Frida appeared at a demonstration against the 1954 invasion of Guatemala by the CIA. The protest exhausted Frida, and she fell into a dangerously high fever only days later, from which she never recovered, and, on July 13, she died at her home.
Though her final years had been marked by pain, Frida’s last painting, finished only a few days before her death, celebrated life.
Though her final years had been marked by pain, Frida’s last painting, finished only a few days before her death, celebrated life. Viva la Vida showcases watermelons on the ground below an endless blue sky. The brightness of the colors used by Frida infuses the scene with vivacity, and a sweetness conveyed through each brush stroke which paints the moist, red fruit.
Frida Kahlo’s life was colored with tremendous tragedy, but, instead of shying away from it, she infused her art with her pain, and made more of it than almost any artist could ever dream of. Her art, politics, and celebrity continue to inspire women artists in Mexico and across the world, who are all taking a moment today to celebrate this artistic icon’s life and legacy.
Happy birthday, Frida Kahlo. The women of FF2 Media adore you!
© Reese Alexander (7/6/23) FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Visit Frida Kahlo’s Wikipedia page here.
Read more about Chavela Vargas here.
Click HERE to learn how the release of Julie Taymor’s Oscar-winning film Frida helped give birth to our SWAN (Support Women Artists Now) agenda.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Online Catalog. LC-DIG-ds-05050.
Middle Photo: “Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait On The Borderline Between Mexico And The United States 1932, Mudec Milano, 3 maggio 2018” by Ambra75 is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.
Bottom Photo: “Hospital Henry Ford” by Natalia Cosntanza Cancino Rojas is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.