Frida Kahlo is iconic.
Undoubtedly her status as an artist is legendary, but it is perhaps her face we know best. In recent years it’s found its way atop of just about every piece of merchandise available, from fridge magnets to T-shirts to bath towels. The most familiar rendition of Kahlo depicts her strong face with pinned up hair and defined brow, flowers scattered in her hair and bright colours beaming from her dress. She is an emblem for the vibrancy of Mexico and for the strength of women. Almost phoenix -like, Kahlo has the ability to rise again and again. It’s not merely a posthumous gift, she defied the odds in her lived existence.
It’s not merely a posthumous gift, she defied the odds in her lived existence.
Born in Mexico City in 1907, her father was a German migrant who met her mother in Mexico. She grew up in the family home, known as The Blue House, a building defined by exuberant colours and life; it is now a museum. I visited it in 2010 and was struck that despite the brilliant blues, greens and yellows sweeping every surface in the home, there was an inescapable sense of melancholy. She would die in the same house a week after her 47th birthday.
Suffering through two major incidents that incapacitated her at an early age, Kahlo’s life is typified by a powerful resilience that saw her weather the most traumatic grief. Painting, as a means of therapy, allowed Kahlo to engage with the world and endure her bad luck. She was intensely interested in exploring her own experience, inspired by unpicking herself and placing the flesh and bone of her story on canvas for public consumption.
At 6 years old she was bedridden for nine months due to polio. Her father, watching her struggle physically during her recovery, encouraged her to play sport, even wrestling – willing her to beat her physical pain.
Those 9 months spent imprisoned by her bedsheets wouldn’t be the last; in 1925 a bus she was traveling on a bus with a school friend when it collided with a tram. In the crash, a steel handrail impaled Kahlo; it entered near her lower hip and came out the other side. She would experience chronic pain for the rest of her life; she had several surgeries and wore specially designed corsets to try to correct her spine. Her pelvis was so badly injured during the tram accident, that her body couldn’t support a baby. She had to terminate two pregnancies because of medical complications and suffered a miscarriage. She didn’t hide from her grief, instead she externalised it in the most public way – through her art. Her bed would feature heavily in her life, having to spend an undesirable amount of time nestled in those sheets. In 1953 when Kahlo had her first solo exhibition, she arrived in an ambulance and spent the evening in a bed set up specifically in the gallery.
In 1928, Kahlo married Diego Rivera, their relationship was stormy. His work attracted much controversy and he had dalliances with numerous women, including with her sister, Cristina, causing her great agony. They divorced, and later remarried, seemingly unable to live life apart, though ironically they lead mostly separate lives.She would go on to write, “I suffered two grave accidents in my life, one was the tram. The other accident is Diego.”
According to a Vanity Fair article on the artist, she was known in her day for her macabre sense of mischief. Frida Kahlo was friends with the actress Dorothy Hale, who, in the mid-1930s had a career that had stalled and a husband who had recently died after veering his car off a cliff. She was left in a precarious financial situation. Unable to see a way to continue, Hale committed suicide by throwing herself out of the window of her apartment in 1938. A close friend of Hale and Kahlo, Clare Boothe Luce, commissioned Kahlo to create a remembrance portrait of their friend. Luce ardently loathed the finished result, The Suicide of Dorothy Hale was a graphic retelling of every step of the suicide.Agony was never far from Kahlo’s life, so it’s no wonder she tapped so deeply into Hale’s. Perhaps, allowing herself to spread her own grief across a canvas, she was doing the same service for Hale.
Her life was typified with violence and anguish and, instead of masking it, she used it to her own artistic gain. She’s the original selfie queen, though instead of using a filter to perfect an image, she smashed the lens, used the jagged fragments to cut apart her skin and smeared her own body parts onto a canvas.