Frida Kahlo

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Biography of Frida Kahlo Mexican painter of international fame. Her pictorial work revolves around her biography and her own suffering.

She was the author of some 200 works, mainly self-portraits, in which she projected her difficulties in surviving after having suffered from polio, a very serious accident and 32 surgical interventions.

In her self-portraits, Frida Kahlo depicted herself dressed as a peasant or an Indian, expressing her identification with the Indian population.

Since Frida Kahlo began exhibiting her work in Paris in 1938, the main art galleries around the world have dedicated retrospectives to the greatest representative of Mexican art.

Frida Kahlo’s family

Frida Kahlo was born on July 6, 1907, in Coyoacán, one of the 16 mayors of Mexico City. She was born in the “Blue House” on London Street, now converted into the Frida Kahlo Museum.

Casa Azul Frida Kahlo
The Blue House of Frida Kahlo is located in one of the oldest and most beautiful neighborhoods in Mexico City. Credit: CNN website

Her father was photographer Guillermo Kahlo, a German immigrant, of Lutheran parents who belonged to the local Baden-Württemberg bourgeoisie.

In 1890, due to disagreements with his family, Guillermo Kahlo embarked in Hamburg and arrived in Veracruz, Mexico.

On August 15, 1893, Guillermo Kahlo married María Cardeña, whom he became a widow four years later.

Frida Kahlo’s mother was the Mexican Matilde Calderón, who had married Guillermo Kahlo in 1898, after he was widowed.

The Kahlo Calderón couple had five children: Matilde (1899), Adriana (1902), Guillermo (1906), Frida (1907) and Cristina (1908).

Cristina, the younger sister was the constant companion of Frida Kahlo and the only one of the sisters who left offspring.

Frida Kahlo’s childhood

Frida’s life was marked from an early age by physical suffering due to the diseases she suffered.

Frida Kahlo 1919
Frida Kahlo in 1919 at the age of 12. Credit: web

In 1913, she was just 6 years old when she contracted polio. This terrible illness forced her to stay in bed for nine months.

Polio marked the beginning of a series of successive illnesses and operations.

After all these sufferings, she was left with a permanent sequel: her right leg was much thinner than her left.

In these terrible circumstances, Frida Kahlo was extremely lucky to always have the help of her father, who encouraged her to practice sports, including soccer and boxing.

Guillermo Kahlo
Photographer Guillermo Kahlo, father of Frida Kahlo. Credit: Wikipedia.

Frida’s relationship with her father was always very loving and close, since he accompanied her in her exercises and guided her in rehabilitation programs.

On several occasions, Frida Kahlo witnessed epilepsy attacks her father suffered, as a consequence of a youthful brain injury. Over time, the young Frida Kahlo learned to assist him, which united both father and daughter with a very strong bond of solidarity.

Frida Kahlo’s youthful years

It has not been possible to identify exactly the school that the girl Frida Kahlo attended.

In 1922, when she was 15 years old, she entered the “Escuela Nacional Preparatoria” in Mexico City, a prestigious educational institution that had begun to admit female students.

Frida Kahlo was one of 35 women, out of a total of two thousand students. So she aspired to study medicine.

Among her classmates she met future Mexican intellectuals and artists. And she was part of a group of students known as “Los Cachuchas”, named after the caps they wore.

“Los Cachuchas” protested against injustices and mobilized for the reforms of the school system. But they also had fun and played pranks at school.

Frida Kahlo
Original photograph of the young Frida Kahlo. Credit: web

On September 17, 1925, Frida Kahlo returned home from school with Alejandro Gómez Arias, her boyfriend at the time. The bus they were traveling in was hit by a tram.

Her spine was fractured in three parts, also suffering fractures in two ribs, in the clavicle and in the pelvic bone. Her right leg fractured into eleven parts, her right foot became dislocated, her left shoulder dislocated, and a railing pierced her from the left hip to exit through the vagina.

She underwent multiple surgical operations, plaster corsets, and various stretching mechanisms.

Frida Kahlo begins in painting (1925-1926)

At the beginning of that year 1925, shortly before this accident, Frida Kahlo had worked as an apprentice in the engraving and printing workshop of a friend of her father, who taught her how to draw, since he believed that he had detected in her special gifts for this art.

However, Frida had shown no special interest in painting. Nor did she follow with more interest the subject of plastic arts at school.

The battle against the aftermath of polio made her lean more towards sports activities, in order to regain some mobility.

After the accident, during her long convalescence she had to move as little as possible, and painting began to take center stage in her life.

Self-portrait Frida Kahlo
Self-portrait of Frida Kahlo in a velvet outfit. Credit: web artebarajas, May 2010

Her first self-portrait in oil on canvas (79 x 60 cm), when she was 19 years old, in September 1926, was dedicated to Alejandro Gómez Arias.

Frida Kahlo between 1927 and 1938

In 1927 Frida Kahlo’s painting became more complex. That same year she painted the portrait of Miguel Lira, an oil on canvas where she shows her fellow cap in a very particular and symbolic background full of objects and signs that allude to his last name.

A year later, in 1928, she made the portrait of her sister Cristina with very pure lines and very soft tones.

By this time, Frida had already begun to frequent political, artistic and intellectual environments. She met the Cuban Julio Antonio Mella and his partner, the Italian photographer Tina Modotti.

Frida and Tina quickly became friends, and through her, Frida Kahlo came into contact with the painter Diego Rivera.

Fruda Kahlo Diego Rivera
Frida Kahlo with Diego Rivera in 1932. Credit: Wikipedia. Author: American photographer Carl van Vechten

Diego Rivera was a member of the Communist Party since 1922.

Previously, in 1922, Frida Kahlo had had the opportunity to observe Diego Rivera while painting his first mural in the Simón Bolívar Amphitheater of the National Preparatory School.

In 1928, when Frida Kahlo met Diego Rivera again in some evenings and meetings she attended with Tina Modotti.

A few days later, she visited him while he worked on a series of murals for the building of the Ministry of Public Education.

Frida Kahlo showed him her own works. Diego was impressed with her paintings and encouraged her to continue painting. Since then, Diego Rivera has been a constant guest at the Kahlo house.

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo were married on August 21, 1929.

In 1930, Frida became pregnant for the first time. However, due to the aftermath of the 1925 accident, the three-month pregnancy had to be terminated by prescription.

The couple managed to complement each other in many ways, mutually admired their paintings and influenced each other.

Both shared a fondness for Mexican folk art with indigenous roots, and inspired other Mexican painters.

Mexico’s political environment became complicated for a communist like Diego Rivera. The commissioning of murals started by the Ministry of Education was paralyzed and the great painter saw his family finances endangered.

As Diego Rivera’s fame and reputation had grown in the United States, commissions arose that led to his transfer to the neighboring country. Between 1931 and 1934, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo established their residence most of the time in New York and Detroit.

Mural Diego Rivera
Paintings by Diego Rivera exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, in San Francisco, California. Credit: web

In 1932, Diego Rivera was commissioned to paint murals for a Detroit Museum. In turn, Frida Kahlo painted “Sideboard on a Detroit Street“.

While in Detroit, Frida Kahlo had another abortion. Due to her injuries, Frida Kahlo never had children, which took many years to accept.

In her paintings of that time, a style inspired by the small votive pictures of Mexican folk art is observed.

Her paintings exalted feminine qualities and revealed a tormented poetry about women’s suffering and grief.

When Diego and Frida returned to Mexico in 1933, Diego Rivera had an affair with Cristina, Frida’s little sister, which caused a decisive turn in their relationship.

Frida Kahlo began other love relationships with both men and women, which continued for the rest of her life.

Frida Kahlo exhibited her work in Paris

Although prominent painters and intellectuals of her time admired her paintings, Frida Kahlo had painted only privately and found it difficult to admit that her work might be of general interest.

In 1939 Frida Kahlo traveled to Paris to show her paintings. During this trip she managed to impress Picasso and Kandinsky with her works. Picasso later wrote Diego Rivera a letter with high praise for Frida Kahlo, highlighting her skills as a portraitist.

At the invitation of André Breton, Frida Kahlo exhibited her paintings in the “Renon et Collea Gallery“.

Frida Kahlo portrait
Frida Kahlo self-portrait. Credit: expansion

One of the works in this exhibition, “El marco” a self-portrait that Frida Kahlo had painted in 1938, became the first painting by a Mexican artist acquired by the Louvre Museum.

The revolutionary Leon Trotsky at Frida Kahlo’s House

Between 1937 and 1940, the Ukrainian communist revolutionary Leon Trotsky, threatened with death by Stalin, lived in exile in the house of Frida Kahlo in Coyoacán.

On May 24, 1940, the first unsuccessful assassination attempt against Trotsky occurred. The Mexican police carried out a raid on Frida Kahlo’s “Casa Azul”. The famous painter was detained by the police for a few hours.

A few months later, on August 21, 1940, a second attack took place that ended Trotsky’s life. Frida Kahlo, suspected of complicity with the killer, was arrested. Finally, she was released, like Diego Rivera.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera divorced

On November 6, 1939, Kahlo and Rivera divorced after a series of marital problems that had dragged on since their return to Mexico in 1933.

However, Frida and Diego continued to share a large part of the social, artistic and political life that united them.

Frida Kahlo went to live at the “Casa Azul”, in the Coyoacán neighborhood. A period of depressed mood began for her, leading to excessive alcohol consumption.

Frida Kahlo house museum
Frida Kahlo house and museum, in Coyoacán. Credit: web

Her pictorial productions in this period are strongly influenced by her sad mood.

In June 1940, Diego Rivera traveled to San Francisco. Frida Kahlo followed him shortly after, to undergo a new surgical operation in that city.

Months later, in September 1940, the couple decided to remarry. The new friendly agreement consisted of living together, sharing expenses, continuing artistic collaboration and excluding the couple’s sexual life from their relationship.

During these years, the artistic recognition of her work increased, especially in the United States.

Frida Kahlo participated in major group exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, at the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art, and at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Last years in the life of Frida Kahlo

Starting in 1943, the great painter Frida Kahlo taught at the “La Esmeralda School” in Mexico City.

In 1950 Frida Kahlo had to be hospitalized in Mexico City, staying in the hospital for a whole year.

Frida Kahlo was invited in 1953 in Mexico City to exhibit her work in a solo exhibition at the Contemporary Art Gallery.

In those years, Frida Kahlo had the opportunity to meet the Spanish surrealist painter Remedios Varo.

Frida Kahlo’s health was severely deteriorated. She had to go in an ambulance, and attend her exposure in a hospital bed.

The bed was placed in the center of the gallery, and Frida told jokes, sang and drank throughout the afternoon. The exhibition was a resounding success.

That same year of 1953, they had to amputate a leg below the knee, due to a gangrene infection. She was plunged into a great depression that led her to try suicide on a couple of occasions.

In February 1954 Frida wrote in her diary (she had started writing it at the age of 35) that she had had suicidal thoughts. She described the great torture of physical and psychological pain of the past six months after the amputation. She pointed out that the only thing holding her back was not leaving Diego Rivera alone.

On April 19, 1954, she was admitted to the English hospital after a suicide attempt. On May 6, she had to be hospitalized again for the same reason.

However, with great courage, she came in a wheelchair, on July 2 with Diego de Rivera and Juan O’Gorman, in a protest demonstration against the US intervention in Guatemala.

Days later, on July 13, 1954, Frida Kahlo passed away in Coyoacán. Her remains were veiled at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City.

Her body was cremated; her ashes are preserved in the Blue House of Coyoacán, the place that also saw her born. After Frida Kahlo’s death, the house was donated by Diego Rivera and since 1957 it is a museum that houses objects from her life and is a popular destination for tourists.

Frida Kahlo last painting
The last painting that Frida Kahlo painted. Credit: Wikipedia

Her latest painting is also exhibited in the “Frida Kahlo Museum“. It is an oil that shows several cuts of watermelons in very bright tones. On one of these pieces and next to her signature you can read «VIVA LA VIDA. Coyoacán, 1954, Mexico ».

The last words in her diary were: “I look forward to the departure and hope never to return“.

Frida Kahlo’s pictorial work

Most of Frida Kahlo’s works are small format works.

The worldwide impact of Frida Kahlo’s work has far exceeded that of her husband, the famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.

Her work cannot be associated with the revolutionary nationalism practiced by her husband Diego Rivera; rather it is a painting rooted in popular art.

The theme of relationships and affection appears frequently in her work, especially her great love Diego Rivera.

Frida Kahlo was characterized by her dress and grooming; frequently dressed in clothing, necklaces and beads, inspired by both pre-Columbian and colonial period Mexican folklore.

Frida Kahlo’s personal and artistic fame has inspired films and songs by numerous directors and singers, such as Madonna, Joaquín Sabina, Marta Sánchez and Pedro Guerra.

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