In her lifetime, Frida Kahlo was fêted by the French surrealists, a heroine of the Latin American left, and an integral part of the new wave of painters emerging in post-revolutionary Mexico. Her life and works fell into obscurity after she died, but they wouldn’t be forgotten. In the 1980′s, her works entered a new vogue as critics, often working from a feminist or third-world perspective, reevaluated her paintings. We provide a bit of background on who she was and provide links to her works and criticism.
Her childhood is somewhat shrouded in myth. While born in 1907, she often claimed she was born in 1910, the year of the Mexican Revolution. Her parents were a German immigrant– whom Frida would claim was of Jewish extraction, but this is disputed– and a Mexican woman of predominantly American Indian stock. The Revolution was still raging in the streets of Mexico City during her childhood, and the armed struggle between the peasants and landlords deeply affected her.
What was, in many ways, the defining event of her young life was the 1925 bus crash that left her in a full body cast for three months. Already weakened by polio in her childhood, she suffered multiple broken bones. However, it gave her time to paint, and it was in this period that she began to develop her unique style.
Her style incorporated a number of recurrent themes and subjects. Her health problems and physical pain, religious symbolism, the struggle between her Western European and American Indian identities, and traditional Mexican motif. She quickly won support among the French surrealist writers and painters. André Breton, the chief spokesperson and de facto head of the surrealist movement, referred to her paintings as a “ribbon around a bomb.” As with many painters associated with surrealism, she was a militant Marxist, and many of her paintings have a decidedly anti-capitalist spin to them. She remained politically active through her entire life, actively supporting Communist and indigenous rights movements.
In 1929, she married fellow painter Diego Rivera. They would have a tumultuous relationship over the next 20 years. He had multiple affairs, as did she, including with fellow luminaries Josephine Baker and Leon Trotsky. Despite that, they, in many respects, remained partners, and greatly influenced each others’ paintings.
Her death in 1954 at the age of 47 came as a shock to the art world. The cause given was pulmonary embolism, although many suspect a drug overdose, either inadvertent or intentional. At her cremation, witnesses describe her body bolting upright, engulfed in flames, Frida’s face frozen into a smile.
Following her death, her works fell out of fashion, even as her husband Diego Rivera’s paintings were being hailed as revolutionary. It wasn’t until the early ’80s that a new generation of Mexican painters began to look to her for inspiration. She quickly became the subject of books, film, modern composition, and even an opera. The apotheosis of this came in 2002, when the film Frida was released, starring Salma Hayek. It was with this that Frida Kahlo emerged into the popular consciousness of Europe and North America, and her place in the canon of the public imagination was secured.
Further Reading and Research
- The complete works of Frida Kahlo - archive of the complete paintings of Frida Kahlo
- Frida nudes - Julien Levy did a set of photos of Frida in 1938 as part of a larger series. Hosted by the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
- The official Frida Kahlo Site - official site of the Frida Kahlo estate
- Frida Kahlo: a Life - The Socialist Review, a British leftist paper, published a thoughtful article on the works and life of Frida Kahlo from a left perspective.
- “The Trouble With Frida Kahlo” by Stephanie Mencimer - The Washington Monthly alternative paper wrote an interesting examination of Frida Kahlo’s works and how she has ultimately been transformed into a commodity. Stephanie Mencimer criticizes the Frida hagiography of recent years, as well as discusses the gap between her present popularity and her own feminist and Marxist beliefs.
- The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo | PBS - PBS put together a documentary on Frida Kahlo, and the website contains numerous resources as well.
- The Case of the Questionable Frida Kahlo Paintings - Newsweek wrote an article in August 2010 about a case of Frida Kahlo forgery.
- Frida Kahlo Biography: Medical Mystery, Controversial Death - An article from CBS on Frida Kahlo’s mysterious death
- MUSEO FRIDA KAHLO >>> CASA AZUL - La Casa Azul is the house in Mexico City where Frida Kahlo was born and died. Today it operates as a museum.
- Frida Kahlo and Contemporary Thoughts - A portal on the thought and works of Frida Kahlo from a decidedly postmodern perspective, relating her art to issues of pain, sociology of the body, performativity, and the human/non-human divide
Image Source: Frida Kahlo in 1932 (Source: Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons)