Frida Kahlo de Rivera (July 6, 1907 – July 13, 1954; Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderón) was a Mexican painter, born in Coyoacán. Perhaps best known for her self-portraits, Kahlo’s work is remembered for its “pain and passion”, and its intense, vibrant colors. Her work has been celebrated in Mexico as emblematic of national and indigenous tradition, and by feminists for its uncompromising depiction of the female experience and form.
Mexican culture and Amerindian cultural tradition figure prominently in her work, which has sometimes been characterized as Naïve art or folk art. Her work has also been described as “surrealist”, and in 1938 one surrealist described Kahlo herself as a “ribbon around a bomb”.
Kahlo suffered lifelong health problems, many of which stemmed from a traffic accident in her teenage years. These issues are reflected in her works, more than half of which are self-portraits of one sort or another. Kahlo suggested, “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.” She also stated, “I was born a bitch. I was born a painter
Frida was one of four daughters born to a Hungarian-Jewish father and a mother of Spanish and Mexican Indian descent. She did not originally plan to become an artist. A survivor of polio, she entered a pre-med program in Mexico City. At the age of 18, she was seriously injured in a bus accident. She spent over a year in bed recovering from fractures to her spine, collarbone and ribs, a shattered pelvis, and shoulder and foot injuries. She endured more than 30 operations in her lifetime and during her convalescence she began to paint.
Her paintings, mostly self-portraits and still life, were deliberately naïve, and filled with the colors and forms of Mexican folk art. At 22 she married the famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, 20 years her senior. Their stormy, passionate relationship survived infidelities, the pressures of careers, divorce, remarriage, Frida’s bi-sexual affairs, her poor health and her inability to have children. Frida once said: “I suffered two grave accidents in my life…One in which a streetcar knocked me down and the other was Diego.” The streetcar accident left her crippled physically and Rivera crippled her emotionally.
During her lifetime, Frida created some 200 paintings, drawings and sketches related to her experiences in life, physical and emotional pain and her turbulent relationship with Diego. She produced 143 paintings, 55 of which are self-portraits. When asked why she painted so many self-portraits, Frida replied: “Because I am so often alone….because I am the subject I know best.”
In 1953, when Frida Kahlo had her first solo exhibition in Mexico (the only one held in her native country during her lifetime), a local critic wrote:
“It is impossible to separate the life and work of this extraordinary person. Her paintings are her biography.”
This observation serves to explain why her work is so different from that of her contemporaries. At the time of her exhibition opening, Frida’s health was such that her Doctor told her that she was not to leave her bed. She insisted that she was going to attend her opening, and, in Frida style, she did. She arrived in an ambulance and her bed in the back of a truck. She was placed in her bed and four men carried her in to the waiting guests.
Both Frida and Diego were very active in the Communist Party in Mexico. In early July 1954, Frida made her last public appearance, when she participated in a Communist street demonstration. Soon after, on July 13th, 1954, at the age of 47, Frida passed away.
Once when asked what to do with her body when she dies, Frida replied: “Burn it…I don’t want to be buried. I have spent too much time lying down…Just burn it!”
On the day after her death, mourners gathered at the crematorium to witness the cremation of Mexico’s greatest and most shocking painter. Soon to be an international icon, Frida Kahlo knew how to give her fans one last unforgettable goodbye. As the cries of her admirers filled the room, the sudden blast of heat from the open incinerator doors caused her body to bolt upright. Her hair, now on fire from the flames, blazed around her head like a halo. Frida’s lips seemed to break into a seductive grin just as the doors closed. Her last diary entry read: “I hope the end is joyful – and I hope never to return – Frida.”.
Her ashes were placed in a pre-Columbian urn which is on display in the “Blue House” that she shared with Rivera. One year after her death, Rivera gave the house to the Mexican government to become a museum. Diego Rivera died in 1957. On July 12th, 1958, the “Blue House” was officially opened as the “Museo Frida Kahlo”.
Frida has been described as: “…one of history’s grand divas…a tequila-slamming, dirty joke-telling smoker, bi-sexual that hobbled about her bohemian barrio in lavish indigenous dress and threw festive dinner parties for the likes of Leon Trotsky, poet Pablo Neruda, Nelson Rockefeller, and her on-again, off-again husband, muralist Diego Rivera.”
Today, more than half a century after her death, her paintings fetch more money than any other female artist. A visit to the Museo Frida Kahlo is like taking a step back in time. All of her personal effects are displayed throughout the house and everything seems to be just as she left it. One gets the feeling that she still lives there but has just briefly stepped out to allow you to tour her private sanctuary. She is gone now but her legacy will live on forever….