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Hispanic Heritage

Frida Kahlo

Also known as: Mrs. Diego Rivera, Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderon

Birth: July 6, 1907 in Coyoacan, Mexico
Death: July 13, 1954 in Coyoacan, Mexico
Nationality: Mexican
Occupation: Artist, Painter

Twentieth-century Mexican painter Frida Kahlo often commented, "I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality." Some critics and biographers argue that such a reality was more a surreal nightmare than reality or dream, for many of Kahlo's two hundred paintings are self-portraits, dealing directly with her battle to survive a horrific accident when she was eighteen years old. As her biographer, Hayden Herrera, noted in Grove Art, the self-portraits "are a kind of exorcism by which she projected her anguish on to another Frida, in order to separate herself from pain and at the same time confirm her hold on reality." Her primitive style and elements of fantasy are immediately recognizable, as is her black-haired subject with the full eyebrows grown almost into one. Blending European influences such as surrealism with distinct Latin-American iconography, Kahlo was praised by surrealists such as Andre Breton, and by her husband, Diego Rivera, during her lifetime. She had three solo exhibitions before her death in 1954, garnering a large reputation in the Latin-American art world. Since that time, her reputation has grown to international proportions, fueled during the 1970s and early 1980s by a spate of biographies and critical works about the artist and reinforced in the 1990s with publication of her diaries and letters. Despite the success she achieved as an artist, and her acquaintance with many notable figures of her day — including Leon Trotsky — Kahlo suffered immense psychological and physical pain for much of her life. The artist, who was stricken with polio at the age of six, also experienced continual back pain and underwent several operations as a result of injuries sustained in the accident when she was a teenager. Often, she was forced to paint while lying on her back.

Kahlo was born three years before the Mexican Revolution, during which the people rejected the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz and triggered a period of rapid and dramatic social and economic transformation in Mexico and a revival of Mexico's native cultural roots. Out of this re-discovered tradition grew the muralist style that influenced so much of Mexican art during Kahlo's lifetime. Born in 1907 — she would later say 1910 in order to have her birth coincide with the revolution — in a suburb of Mexico City, Kahlo was the daughter of a well-respected photographer, Guillermo Kahlo, who immigrated to Mexico from Germany at age nineteen. Kahlo's mother, Matilde Calderon, was of Spanish and Indian descent and largely uneducated. The child spent much of her life in the house, Casa Azul, which Guillermo Kahlo built shortly before his daughter's birth. Her parents were vastly different in temperament: the father a creative, boundary-pushing artist, and the mother more conservative, a devout Catholic and a proud housekeeper. Kahlo was more drawn to her father, who encouraged his daughter's creative energy. Her relationship with her mother, who suffered from depression after the loss of an infant son, was more distant and cool.

One of six daughters, Kahlo was an essentially happy and free-spirited child until she suffered a mild case of polio when she was six or seven. The polio left her with a withered right leg and her foot turned outward. The resulting limp caused her pelvis and spine to become twisted as Kahlo grew and also inspired taunts from her schoolmates. Kahlo's father helped to nurse her back to health and later encouraged her to play sports — not a typical activity for young girls at the time — in order to overcome her disability. Entering the National Preparatory School in 1922, she quickly became the class prankster, and was known for the traditional costumes she liked to wear in support of the spirit of the revolution. Indigenous jewelry, brightly colored native clothing, and braided hair worn atop her head in the style of Oaxaca natives were her preferred dress. When she was sixteen, she met painter Diego Rivera, who came to her preparatory school to decorate the walls of the auditorium. She quickly developed a crush on this internationally famous muralist, over twenty years her senior, and would spend entire afternoons watching him paint. Kahlo soon reported to her friends that she intended to have his baby one day.

All such dreams faded as a result of the incidents of September 17, 1925. That day Kahlo was badly injured when an electric trolley crashed into the side of the bus she was riding home from school. The collision split the bus in half and drove a piece of iron into Kahlo's pelvis and back, breaking them in several places. Other injuries included a fractured collarbone and ribs, as well as a shattered right leg and foot. The effects of this accident plagued Kahlo the rest of her life: she lived in pain most of the time; she was permanently crippled in the right leg; and she could never bear children. Over the course of her life, Kahlo would have more than thirty operations, most of them on her spine and her right foot.

Painting as Therapy

During her long convalescence, Kahlo turned to painting as an emotional outlet. Self-taught, Kahlo produced her first self-portrait to give to a boyfriend of the time. As Melissa Chessher noted in a cover story for American Way, "Like all the self-portraits that followed, the painting was a gift meant to join the artist and a loved one, a kind of talisman against Frida's constant fear that people wouldn't remember her, that she was unloved." A couple of years later, Kahlo began showing her work to Rivera. She was anxious for his criticism, as she had begun incorporating some of his motifs in her own work: a deliberately primitive style, simplified areas of bright color, and subject matter taken from the archaeology and folk art of Mexico. Yet her own contribution to an emerging style was a surrealist blend of fantasy and fable, as well as her use of animals in the paintings, in particular monkeys and dogs. Rivera was impressed by the young woman's talent and encouraged her to continue. Soon the relationship turned amorous and the couple was married in 1929.

For Rivera, this was his third marriage, and it was never a conventional relationship. Rivera had extra-marital affairs — including one with Kahlo's own sister — and Kahlo retaliated by having affairs with both men and women. Their marriage lasted for ten years, and it was during that turbulent decade and into the 1940s that Kahlo painted some of her best-known work. Some of these paintings, such as 1931's "Frida and Diego," record the vicissitudes of her marriage to Rivera, the second of two damaging accidents in her life, as she often said. In this painting Rivera is shown as the great master painter while Kahlo, dressed in her usual long-skirted Mexican outfit, is the nurturing wife of the artist. When they divorced in 1939, she produced "The Two Frida's," in which, as Herrera noted in Grove Art, "her heart is extracted and her identity split." The painting, Herrera explained, "conveys her desperation and loneliness at the time of their divorce."

Other paintings of the time, such as "The Broken Column," recall the injuries she received in the bus crash. In this self-portrait, Kahlo's naked body is strapped with bands and also pierced with nails. Her torso is split in half, the broken column of the title. "Moving from Rivera's jazzy black dancer series to Kahlo's The Broken Column is like stepping out of a warm tropical rain into a bone-chilling blizzard of pain," wrote Jeff Spurrier in Connoisseur. One other self-portrait of the time, "The Wounded Deer," continues this theme of being impaled: her head is grafted onto the body of a doe which is pierced with arrows. However, despite such injuries, the deer still stands tall. Such images were little less than what reality itself provided for Kahlo: even with her numerous operations, nothing could stop the bone deterioration, and she often "lived in braces, surgical corsets and wheelchairs, paraphernalia she transformed on canvas with a macabre vibrancy," as R. Z. Sheppard noted in Time. Thus, physical and emotional pain became Kahlo's main subject matter. Influenced by Rivera, Kahlo was, clearly, no mere clone. She developed her own distinctive style, a "hybrid of classical, modern, and Mexican folk art," as Sheppard noted. "She was an impressive colorist and a meticulous technician." Among her admirers in the art world were Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky, Andre Breton, and Rivera himself, who claimed Kahlo had a bigger talent than his own.

In the midst of their stormy relationship, Rivera and Kahlo formed the center of an intellectual group in Mexico that included artists and politicians of the day, mostly from the left, for Kahlo and Rivera both firmly believed in international communism. Kahlo's "Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky" attests in part to this circle of acquaintances; Kahlo had one of her many affairs with that Russian revolutionary. In 1932 Rivera was commissioned to produce murals for the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the couple lived in the United States for a time. While there Kahlo miscarried a pregnancy, and later she confronted this painful experience in the painting "Henry Ford Hospital." As Chessher described the painting, "[Kahlo] lies nude in a hospital bed with a pool of blood beneath her and a large tear falling from her eye. Her stomach is swollen, and veinlike red ribbons stretch from her hand." These connect to six images, including a small Rivera portrait, a likeness of the miscarried fetus, an iron vise, a snail, an orchid, and pelvic bones. As Spurrier commented, "Like all Kahlo surrealistic images, it is haunting and hypnotic, powerful far beyond its physical size." Indeed, most of Kahlo's canvasses were relatively small in size; the artist herself was only five feet tall. This was in sharp contrast to Rivera's massive murals and his equally massive body at over six feet in height and weighing three hundred pounds.

The Final Years

Though Kahlo and Rivera divorced in 1939, they remarried, at Rivera's insistence, the following year. However, Kahlo had conditions for this remarriage: they would have no sexual intercourse and Kahlo would support herself financially with proceeds from her art. In the 1940s, at Rivera's urging, Kahlo taught art students at her studio. Throughout these years her health continued to decline; while numerous operations confined her to bed for months on end, her international reputation continued to grow and her paintings were shown in exhibitions in Europe and New York, often linked with the Surrealists. Ultimately Frida rejected this classification.

Toward the end of her life, she was finally granted her first solo show in her native country. The prospect of this helped to bring her out of what was becoming an increasingly depressed state as a result of her physical problems. However, by the time of the exhibition, Kahlo was once again bed-ridden and her many fans feared she would miss her own opening. But at the last minute she arrived by ambulance and was set up in a four-poster bed at the gallery to receive the will wishes of visitors.

Her exhibit in Mexico was one of the last high points in Kahlo's life, for several months later doctors had to amputate her right leg due to gangrene. Increasingly the artist had to rely on painkillers to get her through the day. Life was becoming more of a burden than a joy to her. As she noted in the diary she kept of this period, "I hope the exit is joyful — and I hope never to come back." She continued to paint until the end; her final painting was of a watermelon, titled "Long Live Life," "both a salute to life and an acknowledgment of death's imminence," according to Herrera. Kahlo's last public appearance was at a demonstration protesting the CIA-sponsored overthrow of Guatemala's leftist President Jacobo Arbenz. She died a week later, on July 13, 1954, just a week short of her forty-seventh birthday. Though the cause of her death was reported at the time to be a pulmonary embolism, many now agree that Kahlo took her own life, most probably with an overdose of painkillers. At her funeral, attended by hundreds in Mexico City, Kahlo created a final stir. Just as her body was passing into the crematorium, the sudden heat from the open furnace doors caused her body to sit upright, and, as Herrera described the scene in his biography, Frida, "her blazing hair stood out from her face in an aureole." Sheppard commented in Time, "She was a woman who knew how to make an entrance and an exit."

The Legacy

By the 1970s Kahlo's fame had taken on worldwide dimensions. Fueled by a resurgence of feminism and a willingness in the art world to look seriously at her harsh messages, Kahlo became something of a cult figure, with buttons, T-shirts, and the full panoply of spin-off items on sale with her likeness. Herrera's 1983 biography also did much to increase such popularity. In 1984 the Mexican government also formally recognized Kahlo's work as important to the country's national heritage. A sure sign of her arrival were the prices her works now fetched at auction houses. In 1977, at the first auction of one of her paintings at Sotheby's, for example, the sale price was only $19,000, below even the low estimate. Less than two decades later Sotheby's sold another of her paintings for $3.2 million, at that time the highest ever paid for a painting by a Latin-American artist and for a female artist. Television specials and films followed. In 2002 the movie Frida was released, directed by Julie Taymor and starring Salma Hayek as Kahlo, and Alfred Molina, Geoffrey Rush, and Edward Norton, among other internationally celebrated actors.

In 1995 two more books were published in conjunction with this rediscovery of Kahlo. The first was her long-secreted diary, which had been stored in a bank vault in Mexico City for several years. Administrators of the Rivera estate had previously allowed only a select few, such as Kahlo's biographers, limited access to her writings. In 1994, however, the estate put the diary up for auction, and the art-book publisher Abrams was the highest bidder for the pages Kahlo wrote during the last ten years of her life. The diary was reproduced in the 1995 book The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait. Kahlo's sketches, often accompanied by captions and her written musings on a variety of introspective topics, form the book's core; it also contains an introductory chapter by Mexican critic and author Carlos Fuentes. Deborah Solomon, reviewing The Diary of Frida Kahlo for the New York Times Book Review, noted that it "is less pure diary than a hybrid creature mixing drawings and watercolors with casual prose-poems," and remarked that Kahlo's art seems to yield more clues to the artist herself than does the journal. Amanda Hopkinson, writing in New Statesman, also drew attention to the fact that this is not a typical artist's notebook nor a record of Kahlo's daily activities. "Instead," wrote Hopkinson, "its integration of text and image depends as much on visual as verbal puns, on mutual nourishment between profound emotions and often playful jottings." Donna Seaman in Booklist had a more straightforward reaction to the diary, calling it "a remarkable and precious book." A contributor for Publishers Weekly found the work "haunting," and a "testament to Kahlo's resilience and courage." And reviewing the Diary in Art in America, Jill Johnson felt it "is a very special publishing event." Johnson particularly commented on "`automatic' writing in various scripts, hues, moods, and degrees of clarity or messiness, both of thought and execution, along with riots of color and spontaneous, seemingly childlike bursts of imagery evolved from accidents, doodles and improvisation . . . [that] make this book a visual delight." Johnson concluded that Kahlo's Diary "is a gorgeous phoenix; it adds to the luster of her posthumous life as an artist."

Seaman and Solomon also reviewed The Letters of Frida Kahlo: Cartas Apasionadas, also published in 1995. The eighty letters chosen by Martha Zamora include letters that the artist wrote as a teenager to her first boyfriend, as well as later missives she sent to family, friends, and even to her doctors. The documents provide a portrait of a woman who was perhaps not as dark and brooding as her paintings may have suggested; critics note that in many of them Kahlo writes profusely and affectionately of Rivera. Still, Solomon found something lacking. "All in all, Kahlo's letters and diaries are most revealing in their very lack of revelation," she observed in her New York Times Book Review piece. "They have the odd effect of dulling the edge of her originality, allowing her to command center stage while providing no hint of how or why she got there." Seaman in Booklist, however, found that Kahlo's "frank, affectionate and energetic letters play in revealing counterpoint to her wrenching mythic paintings." Likewise, a contributor for Publishers Weekly thought that these "candid letters . . . flesh out [Kahlo's] image with revealing personal glimpses."

UPDATES

September 19, 2003: "Frida Kahlo's Intimate Family Picture," a show featuring the artist's paintings and family photographs, opened at the Jewish Museum in New York. Source: New York Times, www.nytimes.com, September 19, 2003.

Personal Information

Full name, Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderon; born July 6, 1907, in Coyoacan, Mexico; died, July 13, 1954, in Coyoacan, Mexico; daughter of Guillermo (a photographer) and Matilde (Calderon) Kahlo; married Diego Rivera (an artist), 1929 (marriage ended 1939), remarried, 1940.

CAREER

Artist. Exhibitions: Held one-woman shows in Mexico City, Mexico, 1953, New York, NY, and Paris, France. Paintings included in permanent collections, including the Frida Kahlo Museum and the Dolores Olmedo Patino Museum, both in Mexico City.

Writings

  • 1995: The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait, introduction by Carlos Fuentes, essay and commentaries by Sarah M. Lowe, Abrams (New York, NY).
  • 1995: The Letters of Frida Kahlo: Cartas Apasionadas, selected and edited by Martha Zamora, Chronicle Books (San Francisco, CA).

Further Readings

Books

  • Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996.
  • Drucker, Malka, Frida Kahlo: Torment and Triumph, University of New Mexico Press (Albuquerque, NM), 1995.
  • Frida Kahlo Masterpieces, W. W. Norton, (New York, NY), 1994.
  • Garza, Hedda, Frida Kahlo, Chelsea House (New York, NY), 1993.
  • Grimberg, Salomon, Lola Alvarez Bravo, the Frida Kahlo Photographs, Art Publishers (New York, NY), 1991.
  • Herrera, Hayden, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, Harper & Row (New York, NY), 1983.
  • Herrera, Hayden, Frida Kahlo: The Paintings, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1991.
  • Lozan, Luis-Martin, editor, Frida Kahlo, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2001.
  • Tibol, Raquel, Frida Kahlo: An Open Life, translated by Elinor Randall, University of New Mexico Press (Albuquerque, NM), 1993.
  • Zamora, Martha, Frida Kahlo: I Painted My Own Reality, Chronicle Books (San Francisco, CA), 1995.

PERIODICALS

  • American Way, December 1, 1990, Melissa Chessher.
  • Art in America, March, 1996, Jill Johnson, review of The Diary of Frida Kahlo, pp. 31-32; September, 2001, p. 168.
  • ARTnews, April, 1996, pp. 91-92.
  • Booklist, October 1, 1995, Donna Seaman, review of The Letters of Frida Kahlo and The Diary of Frida Kahlo, p. 244.
  • Connoisseur, August, 1990, Jeff Spurrier, "The High Priestess of Mexican Art," pp. 66-72.
  • Frontiers, spring, 1993, pp. 165-189.
  • Hispanic, July, 1993, pp. 23-26.
  • Latin American Research Review, summer, 1997, pp. 243-257.
  • Library Journal, May 15, 1994, p. 72; January, 1996, pp. 81-82; January, 2002, p. 49.
  • New Statesman, November 17, 1995, Amanda Hopkinson, review of The Diary of Frida Kahlo, p. 39.
  • New York Times, August 10, 1994, p. C9.
  • New York Times Book Review, November 19, 1995, Deborah Solomon, review of The Letters of Frida Kahlo and The Diary of Frida Kahlo, p. 12.
  • People Weekly, February 12, 1996, p. 83.
  • Publishers Weekly, February 20, 1995, p. 118; August 28, 1995, review of The Letters of Frida Kahlo, p. 96; October 9, 1995, review of The Diary of Frida Kahlo, p. 72.
  • School Arts, January, 1996, pp. 22-26.
  • Time, March 28, 1983, R. Z. Sheppard, review of Frida, p. 68.
  • Vogue, April, 1983, pp. 152-153.

OTHER

Source Citation

Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 47. Gale, 2003.
Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale. 2004.

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