Kahlo in 1932, photographed by her father Guillermo Kahlo
Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón|
July 6, 1907
Coyoacán, Mexico City, Mexico
July 13, 1954 47) (aged|
Coyoacán, Mexico City, Mexico
|Movement||Surrealism, Magic realism|
Frida Kahlo de Rivera (Spanish pronunciation: [ˈfɾiða ˈkalo]; July 6, 1907 – July 13, 1954), born Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón was a Mexican painter known for her self-portraits.
Kahlo's life began and ended in Mexico City, in her home, which is known as "La Casa Azul," the Blue House. Her work has been celebrated internationally as emblematic of Mexican national and indigenous traditions, and by feminists for its uncompromising depiction of the female experience and form.
Mexican culture and tradition are important in her work, which has been sometimes characterized as naïve art or folk art. Her work has also been described as surrealist, and in 1938 André Breton, principal initiator of the surrealist movement, described Kahlo's art as a "ribbon around a bomb". Frida rejected the "surrealist" label imposed by Breton, as she argued that her work reflected more of her reality than her dreams.
Kahlo had a volatile marriage with the famous Mexican artist Diego Rivera. She suffered lifelong health problems, many of which were caused by a traffic accident she survived as a teenager. Recovering from her injuries isolated her from other people, and this isolation influenced her works, many of which are self-portraits. Kahlo suggested, "I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best."
1907–1924: Family and childhood
Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón was born on July 6, 1907 in Coyoacán, then a village on the outskirts of Mexico City. Kahlo always stated that she was born at the family home, La Casa Azul (The Blue House), but according to the official birth registry, the birth took place at the nearby home of her maternal grandmother. Kahlo's parents were photographer Guillermo Kahlo (1871–1941) and Matilde Calderón y González (1876–1932). Originally from Germany, Guillermo had emigrated to Mexico in 1891, after epilepsy caused by an accident ended his university studies. Although Kahlo claimed that her father was Jewish, genealogical research has shown that he came from a Lutheran background. Matilde was born in Oaxaca to an indigenous father and a mother of Spanish descent. In addition to Kahlo, the marriage produced daughters Matilde (c. 1898–1951), Adriana (c. 1902–1968), and Cristina (c. 1908–1964). She also had two half-sisters from Guillermo's first marriage, María Luisa and Margarita, but they were raised in a convent.
Kahlo later described the atmosphere in her childhood home as often "very, very sad". She stated that her mother was "kind, active and intelligent, but also calculating, cruel and fanatically religious". Matilde's relationships with her daughters were tense, to the extent that the eldest, Matilde, ran away as a teen and had no contact with her parents for several years. Both parents were also often sick, and Guillermo's photography business suffered greatly during the Mexican Revolution of 1910–1920, as the overthrown government had commissioned works from him and the long civil war limited the number of private clients.
When Kahlo was six years old, she contracted polio, which made her right leg shorter and thinner than the left. The illness forced her to be isolated from her peers for months, and she became bullied. While the experience made her introverted, it also made her Guillermo's favorite due to their shared experience of living with disability. Kahlo credited him for making her childhood "marvellous ... he was an immense example to me of tenderness, of work (photographer and also painter), and above all in understanding for all my problems". He taught her about literature, nature, and philosophy, and encouraged her to exercise and play sports to regain her strength after polio. She took up bicycling, roller skating, swimming, boxing, and wrestling, despite the fact that many of these activities were then reserved for boys. He also taught her photography, and she began helping him retouch, develop, and color photographs.
Due to polio, Kahlo began school later than her peers. While her sisters attended convent schools, her father enrolled her in a German school. In 1922, she was accepted to the elite National Preparatory School. The institution had only recently begun admitting women, with only 35 students out of 2,000 being girls. Kahlo chose to focus on natural sciences with the aim of proceeding to medical school.
Kahlo performed well academically, despite not being especially studious. Particularly influential to her at this time were nine of her school mates, together with whom she formed an informal group called the "Cachucas" — many of them would become leading figures of the Mexican intellectual elite. They were rebellious and against everything conservative, and pulled pranks, staged plays, and debated philosophy and Russian classics. It was in this group that Kahlo became interested in socialism and Mexican nationalism. To mask the fact that she was older and to declare herself a "daughter of the revolution", she began saying that she had been born on July 7, 1910, the year the Mexican Revolution began, which she would continue throughout her life. Her first romantic relationship was with a fellow Cachuca, Alejandro Gómez Arias.
In addition to her other hobbies, Kahlo also enjoyed art, receiving drawing instruction from her father's friend, printmaker Fernando Fernández and filling notebooks with sketches. In 1925, she began to work alongside school to help her family. After taking classes in typing and shorthand writing and briefly holding positions at a pharmacy, a lumber yard and a factory, she became a paid engraving apprentice for Fernández. Although she did not consider art as a career during this time, he was impressed by the skill she demonstrated when sent to copy works by Swedish Impressionist painter Anders Zorn.
1925–1930: Bus accident, first paintings, and marriage to Diego Rivera
On September 17, 1925, Kahlo and Gómez Arias were on their way home from school when the wooden bus they were riding collided with a streetcar. Several people were killed, and Kahlo suffered nearly fatal injuries—an iron handrail impaled her through her pelvis, fracturing the bone, and she also fractured several ribs, her legs, and a collarbone. She initially spent a month in the hospital and two months recovering at home, before being able to return to work to cover her medical expenses. As she continued to experience fatigue and back pain throughout 1926, her doctors ordered x-rays, which revealed that the accident had also displaced three vertebrae. Her treatment included wearing a plaster corset, which confined her to bedrest at home for several months.
The accident ended Kahlo's dreams of becoming a doctor, and caused her pain and illness for the rest of her life. To occupy herself during her recovery, she began to paint with the aid of a special easel that made it possible for her to paint in bed, and a mirror that was placed above her. She started to consider a career as a medical illustrator, which combined her interests in science and art. She also began to use painting to explore questions of identity and existence, and later stated that the accident and the isolating recovery period made her desire "to begin again, painting things just as I saw them with my own eyes and nothing more."
Most of the paintings Kahlo made during this time were portraits of herself, her sisters and school friends. The preparatory school and the influence of her father, an amateur painter, had made her well-versed in art history, and her early paintings and correspondence show that she drew inspiration especially from European artists, in particular Renaissance masters such as Sandro Botticelli and Bronzino and avant garde movements such as Neue Sachlichkeit and Cubism.
Kahlo's confinement was over by late 1927, and she began again socializing with her old school friends, who were now at university and involved in student politics. She joined the Mexican Communist Party (PCM), and was introduced to a circle of political activists and artists, including the exiled Cuban communist Julio Antonio Mella, and the Italian-American photographer Tina Modotti. At one of Modotti's parties in June 1928, Kahlo was also introduced to Diego Rivera, one of Mexico's most successful artists and a notable figure in the Communist Party. They had already met briefly in 1922, when he was painting a mural at her school. Shortly after their introduction, Kahlo asked him to judge whether her paintings showed enough talent for her to pursue a career as an artist. Rivera recalled being impressed by her works, stating that they showed "an unusual energy of expression, precise delineation of character, and true severity ... They had a fundamental plastic honesty, and an artistic personality of their own ... It was obvious to me that this girl was an authentic artist".
Kahlo began a relationship with Rivera, despite him being 42 years old, having had two common law wives, and being a self-confessed womanizer. They were married in a civil ceremony at the town hall of Coyoacán on August 21, 1929. Kahlo's parents described the union as a "marriage between an elephant and a dove", referring to the couple's differences in appearance — he was over six feet tall and weighed around 300 pounds, while she was 5'3" and 98 pounds. Her mother was against the marriage, but her father approved of it as Rivera would be able to pay for Kahlo's continuing medical expenses. The wedding was reported by both Mexican and international press, and the marriage would be subject to constant media attention in Mexico in the coming years, with articles referring to the couple with the familiar names "Diego and Frida".
Soon after the marriage, in late 1929, Kahlo and Rivera moved to Cuernavaca, where he was commissioned by American ambassador Dwight W. Morrow to paint murals for the Palace of Cortés. Around the same time, she resigned her membership of the PCM in support of Rivera, who had been expelled shortly before the marriage for his support of the leftist opposite movement within the Third International.
In Cuernavaca, Kahlo changed her artistic style, beginning to draw inspiration increasingly from Mexican folk art. Art historian Andrea Kettenmann states that she may have been influenced by Adolfo Best Maugard's treatise on the subject, as she incorporated many of the characteristics outlined by him, for example the lack of perspective, and the combining of elements from pre-Columbian and colonial periods of Mexican art. Similarly to many other Mexican women artists and intellectuals at the time, Kahlo also began wearing traditional indigenous Mexican peasant clothing to emphasize her mestiza ancestry: long and colorful skirts, huipils and rebozos, elaborate headdresses and masses of jewelry. She especially favored the dress of women from the allegedly matriarchal society of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, who had come to represent "an authentic and indigenous Mexican cultural heritage" in post-revolutionary Mexico. The Tehuana outfit allowed Kahlo to express her feminist and anti-colonialist ideals, hid her damaged body, and appealed to Rivera, who believed that "Mexican women who do not wear [Mexican clothing] ... are mentally and emotionally dependent on a foreign class to which they wish to belong". Her identification with la raza, the people of Mexico, and her profound interest in its culture were to remain important facets of her art throughout the rest of her life.
1931–1933: Travels in the United States
After Rivera had completed the commission in Cuernavaca in late 1930, he and Kahlo moved to San Francisco, where he painted murals for the Luncheon Club of the San Francisco Stock Exchange and the California School of Fine Arts. The couple was "feted, lionized, [and] spoiled" by influential collectors and clients during their stay in the city. Kahlo was introduced to American artists such as Edward Weston, Ralph Stackpole, Timothy Pflueger, and Nickolas Muray; her long love affair with Muray most likely began around this time.
The six months spent in San Francisco were a productive period for Kahlo, who further developed the folk art style she had adopted in Cuernavaca. In addition to painting portraits of several new acquaintances, she made Frieda and Diego Rivera (1931), a double portrait based on their wedding photograph, and The Portrait of Luther Burbank (1931), which depicted the eponymous horticulturist as a hybrid between a human and a plant. Although she still publicly presented herself as simply Rivera's spouse rather than as an artist, she participated for the first time in an exhibition, when Frieda and Diego Rivera was included in the Sixth Annual Exhibition of the San Francisco Society of Women Artists in the Palace of the Legion of Honor.
Kahlo and Rivera returned to Mexico for the summer of 1931, and in the fall traveled to New York City for the opening of Rivera's retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). In April 1932, they headed to Detroit, where he had been commissioned by the Ford Motor Company to paint murals for the Detroit Institute of Arts. By this time, Kahlo had became bolder in her interactions with the press, impressing journalists with her fluency in English and stating on her arrival to the city that she was the greater artist of the two of them.
The year spent in Detroit was a difficult time for Kahlo. Although she had overall enjoyed visiting San Francisco and New York City, she disliked aspects of American society, which she regarded as colonialist, as well as most Americans, whom she found "boring". She disliked having to socialize with capitalists such as Henry and Edsel Ford, and was angered that many of the hotels in Detroit refused to accept Jewish guests. In a letter to a friend, she wrote that "although I am very interested in all the industrial and mechanical development of the United States", she felt "a bit of a rage against all the rich guys here, since I have seen thousands of people in the most terrible misery without anything to eat and with no place to sleep, that is what has most impressed me here, it is terrifying to see the rich having parties day and night whiles thousands and thousands of people are dying of hunger." Kahlo's time in Detroit was also complicated by a miscarriage, which caused a serious hemorrhage that required her being hospitalized for two weeks in July. Less than three months later, her mother died from complications of surgery in Mexico.
Despite her dislike of Detroit and her medical problems, Kahlo's time in the city was beneficial for her artistic expression. She experimented with different techniques, such as etching and frescos, and her paintings began to show a stronger narrative style. She also began placing emphasis on the themes of "terror, suffering, wounds, and pain". Despite the popularity of the mural in Mexican art at the time, she adopted a diametrically opposed medium, votive images or retablos, religious paintings made on small metal sheets by amateur artists to thank saints for their blessings during a calamity. Amongst the works she made in the retablo manner in Detroit are Henry Ford Hospital (1932), My Birth (1932), and Self-Portrait on the Border of Mexico and United States (1932). While none of Kahlo's works were featured in exhibitions in Detroit, she gave an interview to the Detroit News on her art; the article was condescendingly titled "Wife of the Master Mural Painter Gleefully Dabbles in Works of Art".
Kahlo and Rivera returned to New York in March 1933, as he had been commissioned to paint a mural for the Rockefeller Center. During this time, she only worked on one painting, My Dress Hangs There (1934), instead focusing on enjoying the city and taking care of her and Rivera's household. She also gave further interviews to the American press. In May, Rivera was fired from the Rockefeller Center project amid an international scandal, as he had included Vladimir Lenin in the mural and refused to change it. He was instead hired to paint a mural for the New Workers School. Although Rivera wished to continue their stay in the United States, Kahlo was homesick, and they returned to Mexico soon after the mural's unveiling in December 1933.
1934–1939: San Ángel and international recognition
Back in Mexico City, Kahlo and Rivera moved into a new house in the wealthy neighborhood of San Ángel. Commissioned from Le Corbusier's student Juan O'Gorman, it consisted of two sections joined together by a bridge; Kahlo's was painted blue and Rivera's pink and white. The bohemian residence became an important meeting place for artists and political activists from Mexico and abroad.
Kahlo made no new paintings in 1934, and only two in the following year. She was again experiencing health problems —undergoing an appendectomy, two abortions, and the amputation of gangrenous toes— and her marriage to Rivera had become strained. He was not happy to be back in Mexico and blamed Kahlo for their return. While he had been unfaithful to her before, he now embarked on an affair with her younger sister Cristina, which deeply hurt Kahlo's feelings. After finding out about it in early 1935, she moved to an apartment in central Mexico City and considered divorcing him. She also had an affair of her own with American artist Isamu Noguchi.
Kahlo reconciled with Rivera and Cristina later in 1935, and moved back to San Ángel. She became a loving aunt to Cristina's children, Isolda and Antonio, who practically lived with her. Despite the reconciliation, both Rivera and Kahlo continued their infidelities; she had several affairs with both men and women, and often went drinking at local bars with her friends. She also resumed her political activities in 1936, joining the Fourth International and becoming a founding member of a solidarity committee to provide aid the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. She and Rivera successfully petitioned the Mexican government to grant asylum to former Soviet leader Leon Trotsky, and offered La Casa Azul for him and his wife Natalia Sedova as a residence. The couple lived there from January 1937 until April 1939, with Kahlo and Trotsky not only becoming good friends but also having a brief affair.
The years 1937 and 1938 were an extremely productive period for Kahlo, and she painted more "than she had done in all her eight previous years of marriage", creating such works as My Nurse and I (1937), Four Inhabitants of Mexico (1938), and What the Water Gave Me (1938). Although she was still very unsure about her work, some of her paintings were exhibited in a gallery at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in early 1938. She also made her first significant sale in the summer of 1938, when film star and art collector Edward G. Robinson purchased four paintings at $200 each. Even greater recognition followed when French Surrealist André Breton visited Rivera in April 1938. He was impressed by Kahlo, immediately claiming her as a surrealist and describing her work as "a ribbon around a bomb". He not only promised to arrange for her paintings to be exhibited in Paris, but also wrote to his friend, art dealer Julien Levy, who invited her to hold her first solo exhibition at his gallery on the East 57th Street in Manhattan.
In October, Kahlo traveled alone to New York, where her colorful Mexican dress "caused a sensation" and made her seen as "the height of exotica". The exhibition opening in November was attended by famous figures such as Georgia O'Keeffe and Clare Boothe Luce, and received much positive attention in the press, although many critics adopted a condescending tone in their reviews. For example, Time wrote that "Little Frida's pictures ... had the daintiness of miniatures, the vivid reds and yellows of Mexican tradition and the playfully bloody fancy of an unsentimental child". Despite the Great Depression, Kahlo sold half of the twenty-five paintings presented in the exhibition. She also received commissions from A. Conger Goodyear, then the president of the MoMA, and Clare Boothe Luce, for whom she painted a portrait of Luce's friend, socialite Dorothy Hale, who had committed suicide by jumping from her apartment building. During the three months she spent in New York, Kahlo painted very little, instead focusing on enjoying the city to the extent that her fragile health allowed. She also had several affairs, continuing the one with Nickolas Muray and also engaging in ones with Levy and Edgar Kaufmann, Jr..
In January 1939, Kahlo sailed to Paris to follow up on André Breton's invitation to stage an exhibition of her work. When she arrived, it turned out that he had not cleared her paintings from the customs and no longer even owned a gallery. With the aid of Marcel Duchamp, she was able to arrange for the Renou et Colle Gallery to host the exhibition. Further problems arose when the gallery refused to show all but two of Kahlo's paintings, considering them too shocking for audiences, and Breton insisted that they be shown alongside photographs by Manuel Alvarez Bravo, pre-Columbian sculptures, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Mexican portraits, and what she considered "junk": sugar skulls, toys, and other items he had bought from Mexican markets.
The exhibition opened in March, but received much less attention than she had received in the United States, partly due to the looming Second World War, and made a loss financially, leading Kahlo to cancel a planned exhibition in London. Regardless, Louvre purchased The Frame, making her the first Mexican artist to be featured in their collection. She was also warmly received by other Parisian artists, such as Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró, as well as the fashion world, with designer Elsa Schiaparelli designing a dress inspired by her and Vogue Paris featuring her on its pages. Despite this, her overall opinion of Paris and the Surrealists remained negative; in a letter to Muray, she called them "this bunch of coocoo lunatic sons of bitches of surrealists" who "are so damn 'intellectual' and rotten that I can't stand them anymore."
Kahlo sailed back to New York soon after the opening of the exhibition. She was eager to be reunited with Muray, but he decided to end their affair, as he had met another woman whom he was planning to marry. Kahlo traveled back to Mexico City, where Rivera requested for divorce from her. The exact reasons for his decision are not known, but he stated publicly that it was merely a "matter of legal convenience in the style of modern times ... there are no sentimental, artistic, or economic reasons." According to their friends, the divorce was mainly caused by their mutual infidelities. Kahlo and Rivera were granted a divorce in November 1939, but remained friendly, with her also continuing to manage his finances and correspondence.
1940–1949: La Casa Azul, success in Mexico, and declining health
Following her separation from Rivera, Kahlo moved back to La Casa Azul and threw herself into work, confident from her experiences in New York and Paris and determined to earn her own living. Encouraged by the recognition she was gaining as an artist, she moved from the small and more intimate tin sheets she had used since 1932 to using larger canvases, which were easier to exhibit. Her technique also became more sophisticated, the motifs she used less gory, and she began to produce more quarter length portraits, which were easier to sell. During the months following her return to Mexico, she painted several of her most famous pieces, such as The Two Fridas (1939), Self-portrait with Cropped Hair (1940), The Wounded Table (1940), and Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940). Her works were featured in three exhibitions in 1940: the fourth International Surrealist Exhibition in Mexico City, the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco, and Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art in MoMA in New York.
On August 21, 1940, Trotsky was assassinated in Coyoacán, where he had continued to live after leaving La Casa Azul. Kahlo was briefly suspected of being involved as she knew the murderer, and was arrested and held for two days with her sister Cristina. The following month, Kahlo traveled to San Francisco for medical treatment for back pain and a fungal infection on her hand. Her always fragile health had been in decline since the divorce, exacerbated by her increasingly heavy consumption of alcohol. Rivera was also in San Francisco, having fled Mexico City following Trotsky's murder and working on a new mural. Although she had an affair with art dealer Heinz Berggruen during her visit to the city, she and Rivera also reconciled and decided to remarry. They were remarried in a simple civil ceremony in San Francisco on December 8, 1940.
Kahlo and Rivera returned to Mexico soon after their remarriage, which for its first five years was less turbulent than the previous. Both had much more independence, and continued having extramarital love affairs. La Casa Azul was their primary residence, but Rivera retained the San Ángel house for use as his atelier and second apartment. Despite the medical treatment she had received in San Francisco, her health problems continued throughout the decade. Due to her spinal problems, she wore twenty-eight supportive corsets, varying from steel and leather to plaster, between 1940 and 1954. She also experienced pain in her legs, the infection on her hand had become chronic, and she also underwent treatment for syphilis. The death of her father in April 1941 also plunged her into depression. Her ill health made her increasingly confined to La Casa Azul, which became the center of her world in the 1940s. She enjoyed taking care of the house and its garden, and was kept company by friends, servants, and various pets, including spider monkeys, Xoloitzcuintlis, and parrots.
Kahlo's paintings continued to raise interest in the United States. In 1941, her works were featured at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, and the following year she participated in two high-profile exhibitions in New York, the Twentieth-Century Portraits exhibition at the MoMA and the Surrealists' First Papers of Surrealism exhibition. In 1943, she was included in the Mexican Art Today exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Women Artists at Peggy Guggenheim's The Art of This Century gallery in New York.
Increasingly, Kahlo also began to gain more appreciation for her art in Mexico. She became a founding member of the Seminario de Cultura Mexicana, a group of twenty-five artists commissioned by the Ministry of Public Education in 1942 to spread public knowledge of Mexican culture. As a member, she took part in planning exhibitions and attended a conference on art. In Mexico City, her paintings were featured in two exhibitions on Mexican art that were staged at the English-language Benjamin Franklin Library in 1943 and 1944, and she was invited to participate at "Salon de la Flor", an exhibition presented at the annual flower exposition. An article by Rivera on Kahlo's oeuvre was also published in the journal published by the Seminario de Cultura Mexicana.
Kahlo also accepted a teaching position at the recently reformed, nationalistic Escuela Nacional de Pintura, Escultura y Grabado "La Esmeralda" in 1943. Encouraging her students to treat her in informal and non-hierarchical way, Kahlo's main goal was to teach them to appreciate Mexican popular culture and folk art, and to derive their subjects from the streets. When her health problems soon made it difficult for her to travel to the school in Mexico City, she began to hold her lessons at La Casa Azul. Four of her students —Fanny Rabel, Arturo García Bustos, Guillermo Monroy, and Arturo Estrada— became devotees, referred as "Los Fridos" for their enthusiasm for their teacher. Kahlo secured three mural commissions for herself and her students. In 1944, they painted La Rosita, a pulqueria in Coyoacán. In 1945, the government commissioned them to paint murals for a Coyoacán launderette, which was part of a national scheme to help poor women who made their living as laundresses. The same year, the group also created murals for Posada del Sol, a hotel in Mexico City. Its owner was not happy with the finished work, and destroyed the mural soon after.
Despite her rising profile in Mexico, Kahlo was struggling to make a living with her art, as she refused to adapt her style to suit her clients' wishes. She received two commissions from the Mexican government in the early 1940s, but never completed the first one, possibly due to her dislike of the subject, and another commission was rejected by the commissioning body. Nevertheless, she had some regular private clients, such as engineer Eduardo Morillo Safa, who ordered more than thirty portraits of family members over the decade. Her financial situation improved when she received a 5000-peso national prize for her painting Moses (1945) in 1946, and The Two Fridas was purchased by the Museo de Arte Moderno in 1947. According to art historian Andrea Kettenmann, by the mid-1940s, her paintings were "featured in the majority of group exhibitions in Mexico" and Martha Zamora has written that she could "sell whatever she was currently painting; sometimes incomplete pictures were purchased right off the easel" towards the end of the decade.
At the same time as Kahlo was gaining recognition in her home country, her health continued to decline. By the mid-1940s, her back problems had worsened to the point that she could no longer sit or stand for long. In June, she traveled to New York for an operation in which a bone graft and a steel support were fused to her spine to straighten it. The difficult operation did not have the hoped effect. According to Herrera, Kahlo also sabotaged her recovery by not resting as much as required and by once physically re-opening her wounds in a fit of anger. Her paintings from this period, such as Broken Column (1944), Without Hope (1945), Tree of Hope, Stand Fast (1946), and The Wounded Deer (1946), reflect her declining health.
1950–1954: Last years and death
In 1950, Kahlo spent most of the year in Hospital ABC in Mexico City, where she underwent a new bone graft surgery on her spine. It caused a difficult infection, and necessitated several follow-up surgeries. After being discharged, she was mostly confined to La Casa Azul, using a wheelchair and crutches to move. Her friends, Rivera, her collections of objects, politics and painting became increasingly important to her.
During these final years of her life, Kahlo dedicated her time to political causes to the extent that her health allowed. She had rejoined the Mexican Communist Party in 1948, and campaigned for peace by for example collecting signatures for the Stockholm Appeal She painted mostly still-lifes, portraying fruit and flowers with political symbols, such as flags or doves. She was concerned about being able to portray her political convictions, stating that "until now I have managed simply an honest expression of my own self ... I must struggle with all my strength to ensure that the little positive my health allows me to do also benefits the Revolution, the only real reason to live." According to Herrera, her increasing dependence in alcohol and painkillers had an effect on her paintings: her brushstrokes, previously delicate and careful, were now hastier, her use of color more brash, and the overall style more intense and feverish.
Photographer Lola Alvarez Bravo understood that Kahlo did not have much longer to live, and staged her first solo exhibition in Mexico at the Galería Arte Contemporaneo in April 1953. Kahlo was initially not due to attend the opening, as she had been ordered not to move from her bed by her doctors. As a solution, she ordered her four-poster bed to be moved from her home to the gallery. To the surprise of the guests attending the opening, she arrived in an ambulance and was carried on a stretcher to the bed, where she stayed for the duration of the celebration. The exhibition was not only a notable cultural event in Mexico, but also received attention in mainstream press abroad. The same year, five of her paintings were also included in Tate gallery's exhibition on Mexican art in London.
Kahlo's right leg was amputated at the knee due to gangrene in August 1953. She became severely depressed, and after hearing that Rivera was having yet another affair, attempted suicide by overdose. Her addiction to painkillers escalated, and her mood was often extremely irritable and anxious. She wrote in her diary in February 1954 that "they have given me centuries of torture and at moments I almost lost my reason. I keep on wanting to kill myself. Diego is what keeps me from it through my vain idea that he would miss me. ... But never in my life have I suffered more. I will wait a while..." She was again hospitalized in April and May. That spring, she also resumed painting again after a year's interval. Her paintings from this period include the political Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick (c. 1954) and Frida and Stalin (c. 1954), and the still-life Viva La Vida (1954).
In her last days, Kahlo was mostly bedridden with bronchopneumonia, although she made a public appearance on July 2, 1954, participating with Rivera in a demonstration against the CIA invasion of Guatemala. She seemed to anticipate her death, speaking about it often to visitors and drawing skeletons and angels in her diary. The last drawing was a black angel, which biographer Hayden Herrera interprets as the Angel of Death. It was accompanied by the last words she wrote, "I joyfully await the exit — and I hope never to return — Frida" ("Espero alegre la salida — y espero no volver jamás").
The demonstration worsened her illness, and on the night of July 12, 1954, Kahlo had high fever and was in pain. At approximately 6 a.m. on July 13, 1954, she was found dead in her bed by her nurse. Kahlo was 47 years old. The official cause of death was pulmonary embolism, although no autopsy was performed. The nurse, who counted Kahlo's painkillers to monitor her drug use, stated that Kahlo had taken an overdose the night she died; she had been prescribed a maximum dose of seven pills, but the morning she was found dead, it was apparent that she had taken eleven. She had also given Rivera a wedding anniversary present that evening, over a month in advance. Due to these details, the lack of autopsy, her previous suicide attempt, and the contents of her diary, Herrera has argued that Kahlo in fact committed suicide.
On the evening of July 13, Kahlo's body was taken to the Palacio de Bellas Artes, where it laid in state under a Communist flag. The following day, it was carried to the Panteón Civil de Dolores, where friends and family attended an informal funeral ceremony, while hundreds of admirers stood outside. In accordance to her wishes, Kahlo was cremated. Rivera, who stated that her death was "the most tragic day of my life", died three years later in 1957. He bequeathed La Casa Azul to the people of Mexico, and it was opened as a museum in 1958; her ashes are displayed there in a pre-Columbian urn.
Career as a painter
After her accident, Kahlo abandoned the study of medicine and began to paint, to occupy herself during her three-month immobilization. Self-portraits were a dominant motif then. Kahlo once said, "I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best." Her mother had a special easel made so she could paint in bed, and her father lent her his box of oil paints and some brushes. The 1926 painting, entitled Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress, shows her with a long and narrow face and neck, reflective of Italian Renaissance ideals.
Kahlo's accident made it impossible for her to have her own children, resulting in several miscarriages throughout her life. Because of her experiences with infertility, many of her paintings reference reproductive failure. She painted Henry Ford Hospital right after her miscarriage in 1932. In this work, Frida depicts herself on a bed bleeding, with the cold and industrial feeling from being far from home in Detroit, shown behind her. She chose to paint on a sheet of metal.
Kahlo created at least 140 paintings, along with dozens of drawings and studies. Of her paintings, 55 are self-portraits which often incorporate symbolic portrayals of physical and psychological wounds. She insisted, "I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality."
Diego Rivera had a great influence on Kahlo's painting style. Kahlo had always admired Rivera and his work. She first approached him in the Ministry of Public Education, where he had been working on a mural in 1927. She showed him four of her paintings, and asked whether he considered her gifted. Rivera was impressed and said, "You have got talent." After that, he became a frequent welcomed guest at Kahlo's house. He gave her many insights about her artwork while still leaving her space to explore herself. The positive and encouraging comments made by Rivera strengthened Kahlo's wish to pursue a career as an artist.
Kahlo was also influenced by indigenous Mexican culture, which is apparent in her use of bright colors, dramatic symbolism and primitive style. She frequently included the monkey, which in Mexican mythology is a symbol of lust, and Kahlo portrayed it as tender and protective symbols. Christian and Jewish themes are often depicted in her work. She combined elements of the classic religious Mexican tradition with surrealist renderings.
Posthumous recognition and "Fridamania"
The Tate Modern considers Kahlo "one of the most significant artists of the twentieth century", while according to art historian Elizabeth Bakewell, she is "one of Mexico's most important twentieth-century figures". Kahlo's reputation as an artist developed posthumously, as during her lifetime she was primarily known as the wife of Diego Rivera and as an eccentric personality among the international cultural elite. She started to gradually gain more recognition in the late 1970s, when scholars began to question the exclusion of female and non-Western artists from the art historical canon, and the Chicano movement lifted her as one of their icons. The first two books about Kahlo were published in Mexico by Teresa del Conde and Raquel Tibol in 1976 and 1977, respectively, and in 1977, The Tree of Hope Stands Firm (1944) became the first Kahlo painting to be sold in an auction, netting $19,000 at Sotheby's. These milestones were followed by the first two retrospectives ever staged on Kahlo's ouevre in 1978, one at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City and another at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.
Two events were instrumental in raising interest in her life and art for the general public outside Mexico. The first was a joint retrospective of her paintings and Tina Modotti's photographs at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, which was curated and organized by Peter Wollen and Laura Mulvey. It opened in May 1982, and later traveled to Sweden, Germany, the United States, and Mexico. The second was the publication of art historian Hayden Herrera's international bestseller Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo in 1983.
By 1984, Kahlo's reputation as an artist had grown to such extent that Mexico declared her works national cultural heritage, prohibiting their export from the country. As a result, her paintings seldom appear in international auctions and comprehensive retrospectives are rare. Regardless, her paintings have still broken records for Latin American art in the 1990s and 2000s. In 1990, she became the first Latin American artist to break the one-million-dollar threshold when Diego and I was auctioned by Sotheby's for $1,430,000. In 2006, Roots (1943) reached US$5.6 million, and in 2016, Two Lovers in a Forest (1939) sold for $8 million.
Kahlo has attracted popular interest to the extent that the term "Fridamania" has been coined to describe the phenomenon. She is considered "one of the most instantly recognizable artists", whose face has been "used with the same regularity, and often with a shared symbolism, as images of Che Guevara or Bob Marley". Her life and art have inspired a variety of merchandise, and her distinctive look has been appropriated by the fashion world. A Hollywood biopic, Julie Taymor's Frida, was also released in 2002. Based on Herrera's biography and starring Salma Hayek as Kahlo, it grossed US$56 million worldwide and earned six Academy Award nominations, winning for Best Makeup and Best Original Score.
Kahlo's popular appeal is seen to stem first and foremost from a fascination with her life story, especially its painful and tragic aspects, and she has become an icon for several minority groups and political movements, such as feminists, the LGBTQ community, and Chicanos. Oriana Baddeley has written that Kahlo has become a signifier of non-conformity and "the archetype of a cultural minority", who is regarded simultaneously as "a victim, crippled and abused" and as "a survivor who fights back", while Edward Sullivan has stated that Kahlo is hailed as a hero by so many because she is "someone to validate their own struggle to find their own voice and their own public personalities". According to John Berger, Kahlo's popularity is partly due to the fact that "the sharing of pain is one of the essential preconditions for a refinding of dignity and hope" in twenty-first century society. Kirk Varnedoe, the former chief curator of MoMA, has also stated that Kahlo's posthumous success is linked to the way in which "she clicks with today’s sensibilities—her psycho-obsessive concern with herself, her creation of a personal alternative world carry a voltage. Her constant remaking of her identity, her construction of a theater of the self are exactly what preoccupy such contemporary artists as Cindy Sherman or Kiki Smith and, on a more popular level, Madonna... She fits well with the odd, androgynous hormonal chemistry of our particular epoch."
Kahlo's posthumous popularity and the commercialization of her image have drawn criticism from many scholars and cultural commenters, who think that not only have many facets of her life been mythologized, but the dramatic aspects of her biography have also overshadowed her art, producing a simplistic reading of her works in which they are reduced to literal descriptions of events in her life. According to journalist Stephanie Mencimer, Kahlo "has been embraced as a poster child for every possible politically correct cause" and
"like a game of telephone, the more Kahlo's story has been told, the more it has been distorted, omitting uncomfortable details that show her to be a far more complex and flawed figure than the movies and cookbooks suggest. This elevation of the artist over the art diminishes the public understanding of Kahlo's place in history and overshadows the deeper and more disturbing truths in her work. Even more troubling, though, is that by airbrushing her biography, Kahlo's promoters have set her up for the inevitable fall so typical of women artists, that time when the contrarians will band together and take sport in shooting down her inflated image, and with it, her art."
Baddeley has compared the interest in Kahlo's life to the interest in the troubled life of Vincent Van Gogh, but has also stated that a crucial difference between the two is that most people associate Van Gogh with his paintings, whereas Kahlo is usually signified by an image of herself. Similarly, Peter Wollen has compared Kahlo's cult-like following to that of Sylvia Plath, whose "unusually complex and contradictory art" has been overshadowed by simplified focus on her life.
Commemorations and characterisations
Kahlo's legacy has been commemorated in several ways. La Casa Azul, her home in Coyoacán, was opened as a museum in 1958, and has become one of the most popular museums in Mexico City, with approximately 25,000 visitors monthly. The city also dedicated a park, Parque Frida Kahlo, to her in Coyoacán in 1985. The park also features a bronze statue of Kahlo. In the United States, she became the first Hispanic woman to be honored with a U.S. postage stamp in 2001, and was inducted into the Legacy Walk, an outdoor public display in Chicago that celebrates LGBT history and people, in 2012.
Kahlo received several commemorations on the centenary of her birth in 2007, and some on the centenary of the birthyear she preferred, 2010. These included the Bank of Mexico releasing a new MXN$ 500-peso note, featuring Kahlo and her painting titled Love's Embrace of the Universe, Earth, (Mexico), I, Diego, and Mr. Xólotl (1949) on the reverse of the note and Diego Rivera on the front, the largest-ever retrospective of her works at Mexico City's Palacio des Bellas Artes, which broke its previous attendance records, and a Google Doodle.
In addition to other tributes, Kahlo's life and art have inspired artists in various fields. In 1984, Paul Leduc released a biopic, titled Frida, naturaleza viva and starring Ofelia Medina as Kahlo. She is the protagonist of three fictional novels, Barbara Mujica's Frida (2001), Slavenka Drakulic's Frida's Bed (2008), and Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna (2009). In 1994, American jazz flautist and composer James Newton released an album inspired by Kahlo, titled Suite for Frida Kahlo.
Kahlo has also been the subject of several stage performances. She was the inspiration for a one-act ballet by Tamara Rojo and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa for the English National Ballet in 2016, and for two operas, Robert Xavier Rodriguez's Frida, which premiered at the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia in 1991, and Kalevi Aho's Frida y Diego, which had its premiere at the Helsinki Music Centre in Helsinki, Finland in 2014. She is also the main character in several plays, including Dolores C. Sendler's "Goodbye, My Friduchita" (1999), Robert Lepage and Sophie Faucher's La Casa Azul (2002), Humberto Robles' Frida Kahlo: Viva la vida! (2009), and Rita Ortez Provost's Tree of Hope (2014).
- Kahlo was given her first two names so that she could be baptized according to Catholic traditions, but was always called Frida. She preferred to spell her name "Frieda" until the late 1930s, when she dropped the 'e' as she did not wish to be associated with Germany during Hitler's rule.
- Given Kahlo's later problems with scoliosis and with her hips and limbs, neurologist Budrys Valmantas has argued that she had a congenital condition, spina bifida, which was diagnosed by Dr. Leo Eloesser when she was a young adult. Psychologist and art historian Dr. Salomon Grimberg disagrees, stating that Kahlo's problems were instead the result of not wearing an orthopedic shoe on her affected right leg, which led to damage to her hips and spine.
- Kahlo stated that the handrail entered on the left side of her abdomen and exited through her vagina, but according to Gómez Arias, "the wound was much higher up and hit the pelvic bone; the invention of the point of exit was to hide other things."
- Kahlo had always used her appearance to make political statements, having previously "dressed like a boy with shaved hair, pants, boots, and a leather jacket" and even posed for a family photo in a man's suit, and during her time in the Communist Party favoring "workman's shirts and a-line skirts ... deemed proper for a Communist".
- Frieda and Diego Rivera (1931) at SFMOMA
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- Panzer 2004, pp. 40–41; mentions 1931 letter from Kahlo to Muray, but not entirely sure if this was the beginning of affair; Marnham 1998, pp. 234–235; interprets letter as evidence of the beginning of affair.
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- Kettenmann 2003, pp. 61-62.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Frida Kahlo.|
|Wikiquote has quotations related to: Frida Kahlo|
|Wikinews has related news: Doctor diagnoses Mexican artist Frida Kahlo's infertility|
- Official website
- Frida Kahlo complete works at The Frida Kahlo Foundation
- Frida Kahlo discography at Discogs
- Frida Kahlo at the Open Directory Project
- Frida Kahlo documents selection at the ICAA Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
- Frida Kahlo & contemporary thoughts – contains an extensive bibliography
- In Our Time: Frida Kahlo A discussion on Kahlo's life and art on BBC Radio 4