Frida Kahlo - Biography and Legacy
Biography of Frida Kahlo
Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo Calderon was born at La Casa Azul (The Blue House) in Coyoacan, a town on the outskirts of Mexico City in 1907. Her father, Wilhelm Kahlo, was German, and had moved to Mexico at a young age where he remained for the rest of his life, eventually taking over the photography business of Kahlo's mother's family. Kahlo's mother, Matilde Calderon y Gonzalez, was of mixed Spanish and Indian ancestry, and raised Frida and her three sisters in a strict and religious household (Frida also had two half sisters from her father's first marriage who were raised in a convent). La Casa Azul was not only Kahlo's childhood home, but also the place that she returned to live and work from 1939 until her death. It later opened as the Frida Kahlo Museum.
Aside from her mother's rigidity, religious fanaticism, and tendency toward outbursts, several other events in Kahlo's childhood affected her deeply. At age six, Kahlo contracted polio; a long recovery isolated her from other children and permanently damaged one of her legs, causing her to walk with a limp after recovery. Wilhelm, with whom Kahlo was very close, and particularly so after the experience of being an invalid, enrolled his daughter at the German College in Mexico City and introduced Kahlo to the writings of European philosophers such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, and Arthur Schopenhauer. All of Kahlo's sisters instead attended a convent school so it seems that there was a thirst for expansive learning noted in Frida that resulted in her father making different decisions especially for her. Kahlo was grateful for this and despite a strained relationship with her mother, always credited her father with great tenderness and insight. Still, she was interested in both strands of her roots, and her mixed European and Mexican heritage provided life-long fascination in her approach towards both life and art.
Kahlo had a horrible experience at the German School where she was sexually abused and thus forced to leave. Luckily at the time, the Mexican Revolution and the Minister of Education had changed the education policy, and from 1922 girls were admitted to the National Preparatory School. Kahlo was one of the first 35 girls admitted and she began to study medicine, botany, and the social sciences. She excelled academically, became very interested in Mexican culture, and also became active politically.
When Kahlo was 15, Diego Rivera (already a renowned artist) was painting the Creation mural (1922) in the amphitheater of her Preparatory School. Upon seeing him work, Kahlo experienced a moment of infatuation and fascination that she would go on to fully explore later in life. Meanwhile she enjoyed helping her father in his photography studio and received drawing instruction from her father's friend, Fernando Fernandez - for whom she was an apprentice engraver. At this time Kahlo also befriended a dissident group of students known as the "Cachuchas", who confirmed the young artist's rebellious spirit and further encouraged her interest in literature and politics. In 1923 Kahlo fell in love with a fellow member of the group, Alejandro Gomez Arias, and the two remained romantically involved until 1928. Sadly, in 1925 together with Alejandro (who survived unharmed) on their way home from school, Kahlo was involved in a near fatal bus accident.
Kahlo suffered multiple fractures throughout her body, including a crushed pelvis, and a metal rod impaled her womb. She spent one month in the hospital immobile, and bound in a plaster corset, and following this period, many more months bedridden at home. During her long recovery she began to experiment in small-scale autobiographical portraiture, henceforth abandoning her medical pursuits due to practical circumstances and turning her focus to art.
During the months of convalescence at home Kahlo's parents made her a special easel, gave her a set of paints, and placed a mirror above her head so that she could see her own reflection and make self-portraits. Kahlo spent hours confronting existential questions raised by her trauma including a feeling of dissociation from her identity, a growing interiority, and a general closeness to death. She drew upon the acute pictorial realism known from her father's photographic portraits (which she greatly admired) and approached her own early portraits (mostly of herself, her sisters, and her school friends) with the same psychological intensity. At the time, Kahlo seriously considered becoming a medical illustrator during this period as she saw this as a way to marry her interests in science and art.
By 1927, Kahlo was well enough to leave her bedroom and thus re-kindled her relationship with the Cachuchas group, which was by this point all the more political. She joined the Mexican Communist Party (PCM) and began to familiarize herself with the artistic and political circles in Mexico City. She became close friends with the photojournalist Tina Modotti and Cuban revolutionary Julio Antonio Mella. It was in June 1928, at one of Modotti's many parties, that Kahlo was personally introduced to Diego Rivera who was already one of Mexico's most famous artists and a highly influential member of the PCM. Soon after, Kahlo boldly asked him to decide, upon looking at one of her portraits, if her work was worthy of pursuing a career as an artist. He was utterly impressed by the honesty and originality of her painting and assured her of her talents. Despite the fact that Rivera had already been married twice, and was known to have an insatiable fondness for women, the two quickly began a romantic relationship and were married in 1929. According to Kahlo's mother, who outwardly expressed her dissatisfaction with the match, the couple were 'the elephant and the dove'. Her father however, unconditionally supported his daughter and was happy to know that Rivera had the financial means to help with Kahlo's medical bills. The new couple moved to Cuernavaca in the rural state of Morelos where Kahlo devoted herself entirely to painting.
By the early 1930s, Kahlo's painting had evolved to include a more assertive sense of Mexican identity, a facet of her artwork that had stemmed from her exposure to the modernist indigenist movement in Mexico and from her interest in preserving the revival of Mexicanidad during the rise of fascism in Europe. Kahlo's interest in distancing herself from her German roots is evidenced in her name change from Frieda to Frida, and furthermore in her decision to wear traditional Tehuana costume (the dress from earlier matriarchal times). At the time, two failed pregnancies augmented Kahlo's simultaneously harsh and beautiful representation of the specifically female experience through symbolism and autobiography.
During the first few years of the 1930s Kahlo and Rivera lived in San Francisco, Detroit, and New York whilst Rivera was creating various murals. Kahlo also completed some seminal works including Frieda and Diego Rivera (1931) and Self-Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and The United States (1932) with the latter expressing her observations of rivalry taking place between nature and industry in the two lands. It was during this time that Kahlo met and became friends with Imogen Cunningham, Ansel Adams, and Edward Weston. She also met Dr. Leo Eloesser while in San Francisco, the surgeon who would become her closest medical advisor until her death.
Soon after the unveiling of a large and controversial mural that Rivera had made for the Rockefeller Centre in New York (1933), the couple returned to Mexico as Kahlo was feeling particularly homesick. They moved into a new house in the wealthy neighborhood of San Angel. The house was made up of two separate parts joined by a bridge. This set up was appropriate as their relationship was undergoing immense strain. Kahlo had numerous health issues while Rivera, although he had been previously unfaithful, at this time had an affair with Kahlo's younger sister Cristina which understandably hurt Kahlo more than her husband's other infidelities. Kahlo too started to have her own extramarital affairs at this point. Not long after returning to Mexico from the States, she met the Hungarian photographer Nickolas Muray, who was on holiday in Mexico. The two began an on-and-off romantic affair that lasted 10 years, and it is Muray who is credited as the man who captured Kahlo most colorfully on camera.
While briefly separated from Diego following the affair with her sister and living in her own flat away from San Angel, Kahlo also had a short affair with the Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi. The two highly politically and socially conscious artists remained friends until Kahlo's death.
In 1936, Kahlo joined the Fourth International (a Communist organization) and often used La Casa Azul as a meeting point for international intellectuals, artists, and activists. She also offered the house where the exiled Russian Communist leader Leon Trotsky and his wife, Natalia Sedova, could take up residence once they were granted asylum in Mexico. In 1937, as well as helping Trotsky, Kahlo and the political icon embarked on a short love affair. Trotsky and his wife remained in La Casa Azul until mid-1939.
During a visit to Mexico City in 1938, the founder of Surrealism, André Breton, was enchanted with Kahlo's painting, and wrote to his friend and art dealer, Julien Levy, who quickly invited Kahlo to hold her first solo show at his gallery in New York. This time round, Kahlo traveled to the States without Rivera and upon arrival caused a huge media sensation. People were attracted to her colorful and exotic (but actually traditional) Mexican costumes and her exhibition was a success. Georgia O'Keeffe was one of the notable guests to attend Kahlo's opening. Kahlo enjoyed some months socializing in New York and then sailed to Paris in early 1939 to exhibit with the Surrealists there. That exhibition was not as successful and she became quickly tired of the over-intellectualism of the Surrealist group. Kahlo returned to New York hoping to continue her love affair with Muray, but he broke off the relationship as he had recently met somebody else. Thus Kahlo traveled back to Mexico City and upon her return Rivera requested a divorce.
Later Years and Death
Following her divorce, Kahlo moved back to La Casa Azul. She moved away from her smaller paintings and began to work on much larger canvases. In 1940 Kahlo and Rivera remarried and their relationship became less turbulent as Kahlo's health deteriorated. Between the years of 1940-1956, the suffering artist often had to wear supportive back corsets to help her spinal problems, she also had an infectious skin condition, along with syphilis. When her father died in 1941, this exacerbated both her depression and her health. She again was often housebound and found simple pleasure in surrounding herself by animals and in tending to the garden at La Casa Azul.
Meanwhile, throughout the 1940s, Kahlo's work grew in notoriety and acclaim from international collectors, and was included in several group shows both in the United States and in Mexico. In 1943, her work was included in Women Artists at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery in New York. In this same year, Kahlo accepted a teaching position at a painting school in Mexico City (the school known as La Esmeralda), and acquired some highly devoted students with whom she undertook some mural commissions. She struggled to continue making a living from her art, never accommodating to clients' wishes if she did not like them, but luckily received a national prize for her painting Moses (1945) and then The Two Fridas painting was bought by the Museo de Arte Moderno in 1947. Meanwhile, the artist grew progressively ill. She had a complicated operation to try and straighten her spine, but it failed and from 1950 onwards, she was often confined to a wheelchair.
She continued to paint relatively prolifically in her final years while also maintaining her political activism, and protesting nuclear testing by Western powers. Kahlo exhibited one last time in Mexico in 1953 at Lola Alvarez Bravo's gallery, her first and only solo-show in Mexico. She was brought to the event in an ambulance, with her four-poster bed following on the back of a truck. The bed was then placed in the center of the gallery so that she could lie there for the duration of the opening. Kahlo died in 1954 at La Casa Azul. While the official cause of death was given as pulmonary embolism, questions have been raised about suicide - either deliberate of accidental. She was 47 years old.
The Legacy of Frida Kahlo
As an individualist who was disengaged from any official artistic movement, Kahlo's artwork has been associated with Primitivism, Indigenism, Magic Realism, and Surrealism. Posthumously, Kahlo's artwork has grown profoundly influential for feminist studies and postcolonial debates, while Kahlo has become an international cultural icon. The artist's celebrity status for mass audiences has at times resulted in the compartmentalization of the artist's work as representative of interwar Latin American artwork at large, distanced from the complexities of Kahlo's deeply personal subject matter. Recent exhibitions, such as Unbound: Contemporary Art After Frida Kahlo (2014) at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago have attempted to reframe Kahlo's cultural significance by underscoring her lasting impact on the politics of the body and Kahlo's challenge to mainstream aesthetics of representation. Dreamers Awake (2017) held at The White Cube Gallery in London further illustrated the huge influence that Frida Kahlo and a handful of other early female Surrealists have had on the development and progression of female art.
The legacy of Kahlo cannot be underestimated or exaggerated. Not only is it likely that every female artist making art since the 1950s will quote her as an influence, but it is not only artists and those who are interested in art that she inspires. Her art also supports people who suffer as result of accident, as result of miscarriage, and as result of failed marriage. Through imagery, Kahlo articulated experiences so complex, making them more manageable and giving viewers hope that they can endure, recover, and start again.