Kahlo’s pain had two main sources. Her physical condition and her relationships. By far her most painful relationship was with her husband.
Frida was married to the artist Diego Rivera. Maybe you’ve heard of him. He was one of the big three 3 Mexican Muralists of the early 20th century. He was a genius artist, and by all accounts a serious player. He simply loved women.
Kahlo’s physical pain can be traced back her childhood. She contracted polio at the age of six. At the age of 18 Frida was injured in a traffic accident. This incident caused her several severe injuries.
One of those injuries damaged her uterus. This made her unable to give birth. Lacking the ability to give Diego a child would be a major source of emotional pain in her life.
Frida Kahlo was much more than an accomplished painter. She was a feminist. A bisexual. A Marxist. And a self described “bitch”.
Her paintings are considered to be national treasures of Mexico. Feminists revere her as an example of a woman who was keenly aware of her value as a woman. They view her work as a vital expression of the female experience.
Frida Kahlo told people her birth date was July 7, 1910. She lied. According to legend, Frida told this lie because she wanted her birth date to coincide with the start of the Mexican Revolution. Frida was actually born on July 6, 1907 in Coyocan, Mexico. This was a small town outside of Mexico City. Its a Mexico City suburb now.
Her father, Guillermo Kahlo, was an epileptic German immigrant who had been married before. Frida had 4 older sisters, including two half sisters from her father’s first marriage. Her mother, Matilde kahlo was of mixed Spanish and Indian heritage.
11 months after Frida’s birth her little sister Cristina was born. At age 6 Frida contracted polio. As a result, her right leg was thinner than her left. She was known to wear long, colorful skirts to hide this fact.
Frida was her parents’ third child. Matilde was still mourning the death of a baby boy when Frida was born.
Even after Frida was born, Matilde was still very depressed over the death of her infant son. As a result she was either unwilling or unable to properly breast feed baby Frida.
The job of nursing Frida was passed on to two Indian wet nurses. According to Frida, the first nurse was fired for drinking.
So you could easily describe the household into which the future artist was born as sad. Maybe, very sad. This could explain why Frida seemed to have a damaged sense of self.
Her relationship with her mother might very well be illustrated here:
Notice how the face of the “mother” is shrouded as if dead? Her “child” seems lifeless. An image above the bed shows the “Mater Dolorosa,” the Virgin of Sorrows, pierced by swords and weeping. Of course, this image could also represent one of Frida’s miscarriages.
On the flip side, Frida was her father’s favorite by far. In fact, Frida assumed something of a son’s role in the family.
Frida once said this in an interview:“I am in agreement with everything my father taught me and nothing my mother taught me.”
She obviously loved her father very much. But, Frida didn’t seem to have similar feelings for her mother.
In 1932 Frida returned to Mexico from Detroit because of her mother’s illness. Upon return, she failed to visit her dying mother. She never even viewed her body.
Kahlo told a biographer that she first had sex at the age of 13. Actually, she suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a female gym teacher.
Kahlo’s mother discovered evidence of this abuse. She removed Frida from the school. She enrolled her instead in the National Preparatory School.
There she was one of 35 girls in a student body of 2,000.
While Frida was attending the National Preparatory School,they brought in the famous Diego Rivera to paint the walls of their auditorium. Fifteen year old Frida soon developed a crush on the 36-year-old artist. She declared to her school friends that one day she would have his child.
Frida’s relationship with Diego would begin later. For her life was about to change forever. In 1925, Frida, now apprenticing (and allegedly sleeping) with an artist friend of her father’s, was riding in a wooden bus with her boyfriend.
An electric trolley car crashed into it.
Trapped under the trolley, her companion sustained few injuries. But Frida, probably destabilized by her bad leg, was pierced by the trolley’s metal handrail.
The handrail entered her lower body on the left side and exited through her vagina. Her spinal column and pelvis were each broken in three places. Her collarbone and two ribs broke. Her polio – deformed right leg was shattered. It was fractured in 11 places. Her right foot was dislocated and crushed.
Somehow, in the impact, Frida’s clothes had also been yanked off. She was left completely nude. Even stranger, someone on the bus had been carrying a packet of powdered gold. This package broke, and the gold fell all over her bleeding body.
Kahlo spent a month in the hospital (her mother visited only twice). She was then sent home to recover. While laid up in bed, she bombarded her boyfriend with lovelorn letters. She also took up painting.
Her letters show the intermingling of the physical pain from the accident and the emotional pain of her boyfriend’s waning affections. She created her first self-portrait as a gift for her lukewarm beau. She was hoping to force him to keep thinking about her.
This wouldn’t be the last time the artist would associate love with the experience of pain.
Frida recovered from her injuries. She regained her ability to walk. But she suffered occasional relapses of severe pain for the rest of her life.
The intense pain would leave her bedridden for months at a time. She had 35 surgeries as a result of the accident. These were mostly for her back, her right leg, and her right foot.
Medical complications and permanent damage kept Frida from having a child. Even though she conceived three times, sadly, all of her pregnancies had to be terminated.
Frida Marries Diego
Sometime around 1927 Frida once again met her future husband. Diego Rivera. This time through mutual friends in the Communist Party.
Their affair began when Frida showed up one day while he was painting a fresco in Mexico City’s Ministry of Education building. She brought some of her paintings with her. She asked him to critique them.
In 1929 Frida married this giant of a man. He was almost a foot taller. 200 lbs. heavier. And very famous.
His appetite for the ladies was legendary. Women seemed to find his artistic genius irresistible. At one point he even bedded Frida’s baby sister Cristina. Frida was hopelessly attracted to him, even developing a special fondness for his huge stomach.
Frida altered herself to please Diego. She painted works influenced by native Mexican art. She wore long, colorful Indian style dresses. She arranged her long, black tresses in Indian-inspired styles.
Frida conceived just before she married Diego. But she aborted at three months, supposedly because of her twisted pelvis.
Her second pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. However she had in fact tried to induce an abortion by ingesting quinine.
The third pregnancy was also terminated. It’s rumored to have been another man’s child.
These three pregnancies are very important to Frida’s tragic persona. It’s widely believed that she wasn’t able to carry a child to term. But, she seemed to have little trouble getting pregnant.
The grief over these miscarriages became the subject of two of her major paintings. Some people have questioned why she never tried a cesarean delivery. They speculate that her all 3 of her miscarriages were intentional.
Over the years there have been many rumors about this part of Frida’s life. She’s rumored to have cheated on Diego over and over again. Sometimes with other men. Sometimes engaging in lesbian affairs. They say she went to great lengths to hide her affairs with men from her husband. However it went. It was her choice. And none of our business.
Whatever her indiscretions were she seemed to pay a very high price for them. There was strain in her marriage. Guilt. Grief. The physical and emotional toll of her failed pregnancies. These were major themes in her paintings.
Frida managed to turn her personal grief into paintings which spoke loudly of the female experience.
Frida Kahlo created at least 140 paintings in all. There were also dozens of drawings and studies. Of her paintings, 55 are self-portraits. She would often include symbolic portrayals of physical and emotional trauma.
Not surprisingly, Diego Rivera had a great influence on Kahlo’s painting style. Aside from admiring Rivera the man, she was also attracted to his work.
When she demanded a critique on their first meeting she showed him four of her paintings. She asked whether he considered her gifted. An impressed Rivera said, “You have got talent.”
He then became a frequent guest at the Kahlo household. He taught Frida well. Her gave her the benefit of his experienced eye. At the same time he allowed her to explore and develop a style of her own.
The positive feedback from Rivera played a key role in Frida’s decision to pursue a career as a painter.
Kahlo was also influenced by native Mexican culture. This shows mostly in her use of bright colors and dramatic symbols.
She often included the monkey. In Mexican folklore the monkey is a symbol of lust. Christian and Jewish themes are also are part of her work. Frida rejected the surrealist label others put on her painting.
She insisted, “I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”
Frida only had one solo gallery showing in the U.S. Her work was shown in 1938 at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York. The paintings were well received and several major artists were there.
In 1939 Andre Breton invited her to France. She was featured at a gallery in Paris. One of her paintings, The Frame, was purchased by The Louvre.
This was the first painting by a 20th century Mexican artist ever bought by The Lourve. Kahlo met Wolfgang Paalen and Alice Rahon in Paris. She invited to come to Mexico.
Kahlo painted her personal pain. But it was presented in a context that reflected the cultural pride of the period. Her work reveals “Mexicanidad” (love of things Mexican).
Frida used elements of size, inscriptions, and simplicity from Mexican popular art forms especially “retablos” and “ex-votos.” These tiny 19th century tin paintings were made by traveling artists. They were used as prayers to the various Catholic saints for recovery from illness.
Kahlo also used native imagery and concepts in such works as My Nurse and I (1937). Kahlo is held in the arms of a nurse with an Olmec mask. In Tree of Hope (1946), images of the sun and moon represent the duality of life. This is from Indian folklore.
In Self-Portrait on the Border Between Mexico and the United States (1932), Kahlo stands besides the sculptures and a temple from the pre-Columbian world.
From an early age Frida was a critic of her society. At the National Preparatory School she was included in a group of politically active students.
Frida and Diego joined the Mexican Communist Party in the 1920’s. This was common for young, educated Mexicans at the time. Diego was kicked out of the party in 1929. Frida left also.
In the arly 1930’s Rivera became interested in Trotskyism. In 1936 he joined the Mexican section of the movement. Kahlo, who admired Leon Trotsky (and had a short fling with him) never became a Trotskyist.
Some years later Frida rejoined the Communist Party. She was a Marxist until her death.
Her Final Years
In July 1952, gangrene cost Frida her lower right leg. She also had a bout of pneumonia which left her quite frail. She was very ill throughout 1954.
At this point Diego became her caregiver. Her taking of morphine increased due to anxiety attacks. This can be seen in her paintings. In later paintings the brushstrokes are unusually fleeting.
In her last self portrait, she looks like a withered sunflower, No Moon At All. Frida did manage one last act of political defiance. She participated in a demonstration against the CIA invasion of Guatemala.
Kahlo died on July 13, 1954, soon after turning 47. She was cremated according to her wishes. A few days before her death, she wrote in her diary: “I hope the exit is joyful — and I hope never to return — Frida”.
Officially she died of pulmonary embolism. Some have speculated that she overdosed on morphine. No autopsy was performed.
In his autobiography, Diego Rivera wrote that the day Kahlo died was the most tragic day of his life. He realized too late that the most wonderful part of his life had been his love for her.
The pre-Columbian which holds Frida’s ashes is on display in her former home, La Casa Azul (The Blue House), in Coyoacán. The house has been maintained as a museum for her artwork and personal mementos since 1958.
Kahlo’s art and life gives us a picture of the ongoing struggle for autonomy in the lives of women. Through her artwork, Kahlo forged an identity outside the bounds of her society.
Conception. Pregnancy. Abortion. Gender roles. These issues are all handled with brutal honesty. This approach makes Frida’s work political and still relevant, even in the 21st century.
Women in general haven’t had the freedom to express their private pain in a manner that is so very public. Frida’s life and art appeals not only to feminists but to a wide general audience of both men and women.