Frida Kahlo is one of the few female artists to permeate the mainstream, in an industry dominated by men. She’s inspired millions, including us, as we took inspiration for our AW’15 collection from her life and work – rich colours and floral prints, snakes and palms. However, as colourful as she appeared, she was an uncompromising symbol for women of all backgrounds and abilities.
An outspoken leftist in a world of oppression, Kahlo used her art to question beauty ideals, female sexuality, gender inequalities and physical limitations. Her story is a harsh and painful one, and she dealt with her grief and suffering in the only way she could – painting.
Frida contracted polio at the age of 6, resulting in her right leg being thinner than her left. Living with this disability would have been difficult enough, but in 1925 at age 18, her life was put on hold after a serious bus accident. Impaled by a handrail, her spinal column, collarbone, pelvis, right leg, some ribs and a foot were broken, leaving Doctors to question whether she would live, let alone walk again.
It couldn’t have come at a worse time; in 1922 she was one of only 35 girls to be admitted to one of Mexico’s premier schools, Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, to study to become a doctor. Although her Mother hadn’t supported her decision to get an education, her Father encouraged it.
With her dreams and body crushed, Kahlo spent three months in a full body cast, and had over 30 surgeries and relapses of extreme pain throughout her life. Her abdomen and uterus had also been pierced by an iron handrail, severely limiting her ability to conceive in the future. After learning this she created a heart-breaking birth certificate for an imaginary son, Leonardo.
You can only imagine the grief and suffering she felt; she began to paint to occupy herself. With little but her imagination and a mirror, she painted self portraits – “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.” Her ability to create so much with just one subject is testament to her skill; of the 140 (at least) paintings she created, 55 are self-portraits.
Using a special easel commissioned by her mother, and borrowed paints and brushes from her father, she completed her first full painting only a year after her accident; “Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress”.
Having already dabbled in politics at her school, becoming a member of a socialist-nationalist group “Los Cachuchas”, Frida picked up her train of thought post-recovery by joining the Young Communist League. Through her connections she met Diego Rivera; “I have suffered two grave accidents in my life: one in which a streetcar knocked me down…the other accident is Diego.”
A renowned muralist, Diego was a popular figure in Mexican art. She showed him four of her paintings, to which he told her she had talent – clearly something else caught his eye as they began a romantic relationship. After 2 years they married in 1929, much to the disapproval of Kahlo’s mother, who described Diego as too old (twice Frida’s age), too fat, a communist and an atheist. Her father was less resistant, seeing Diego as a financial support for his daughter’s medical needs.
Kahlo suffered through various complications and an abortion as a result of her accident, and in 1932 another miscarriage resulted in 13 days of recovery in a Detroit hospital. In “Henry Ford Hospital” she paints herself surrounded by her unborn baby, a medical diagram of the female reproductive system, her broken pelvis and medical machinery. Painted on a sheet of metal, and featuring an industrial background of the Ford Motor Company (the hospital where she lay financed by Henry Ford), it also referenced her political thoughts. Unfortunately this didn’t symbolise the last of her pregnancy issues, nor her hospital trips.
Diego and Frida’s marriage was tumultuous, with both parties having affairs and bad tempers. Kahlo’s tastes ran throughout the gender spectrum, and her lovers included Josephine Baker among others. Rivera tolerated her relationships with women, but men made him jealous, and once he had an affair with her younger sister, Cristina, Frida was furious. She moved to her own apartment and didn’t paint for a year; the next painting being a clearly heart-broken “A Few Small Nips (Passionately in Love)”.
Whilst the pair were married, Diego’s fame and talent often overshadowed Frida’s, however he was supportive and instrumental to her career and development. Her art was often described as a mix of Mexican tradition and surrealism, however she never consider herself the latter: “My paintings are... the frankest expression of myself”.
In 1939 Andre Breton invited her to France to feature in an exhibition, which led to The Louvre purchasing “The Frame”, the first work of a 20th century Mexican artist they had ever displayed.
Throughout the rest of her life Frida continued to align herself politically, entertained various lovers and exhibited her work internationally. She also continued to suffer with various illnesses and pain, eventually dying on the 13th July 1954 at just 47. Diego wrote that the day Frida died was the most tragic day of his life, and that he had realized too late that the most wonderful part of his life had been his love for her.
She was clearly an amazing and inspiring woman, and her work is still just as relevant today.