Frida Khalo: An Artistic Revolutionary in a Post-Modern World

Categories: Frida Kahlo
About this essay

Frida Kahlo was an extremely influential artist of the post- Revolutionary War period in Mexico. This time period was one of cultural renaissance, rejection of European civilization as a model, and the rise of Mexican nationalism. She is considered today to be one of the most significant artists of the Post-Modern period, and has become one of the most famous female painters in modernist art history. Kahlo was arguably one of the first female artists to graphically document her physical pain through art, and revolutionized the Latin American art world.

Frida Kahlo was born on July 6, 1907, but later in life cited 1910 as her birth date because she saw herself as a daughter of the Mexican Revolution. She developed polio at the age of six, and was left with one leg shorter than the other, “a deformity that made her always self conscious.” (Lowe 17), and developed trophic ulcers, which she sustained throughout her life. She joined the Prepatoria to further her education, which was both the start of her artistic training and her interest in politics.

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She joined the Cachuchas, a rebellious intellectual youth group with a contempt for authority. When she first started schooling, she originally wanted to be a doctor; though this career path would never come to pass, it greatly aided in her art further down the line with her usage of medical analogies and metaphors, such as her depiction of hearts, glands, organs, and veins shown outside body.

On September 17, 1925, Kahlo’s life was forever changed when she experienced a graphic bus accident, in which the bus she was riding in collided with a trolley car.

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During this crash, a rail broke loose and impaled her through the pelvis, fracturing most of her major bones. She was lucky to survive. “Although she recovered enough to lead a fairly normal life, the accident had deep emotional and physical consequences: her professional plans had to be abandoned; she had to recognize that she would be a semi-invalid for the rest of her life…she developed a critical and perceptive mind and had little tolerance for affectation and an uncanny ability to penetrate pretensions and get to the core of people and events.” (Lowe 18)

Kahlo’s major influences leading her towards her career in art were her father and her artistic mentor. Her father taught her photography at a young age, though she never made it her main artistic focus. She received rudimentary formal artistic training at the Prepatoria and took on an apprenticeship with Fernando Fernández in 1925, a commercial engraver. However, for the most part she was self- taught. “Art was for her more than a discipline and a career, it was a language that allowed her to articulate a contradictory universe of narratives” (Carpenter 17). Her first oil painting was a self-portrait, entitled “Self Portrait Wearing a Velvet Dress,” completed in 1926. Self- portraits comprised over fifty-five of her works, nearly one third of her entire body of work. These paintings were ways for her to explore her own multifaceted identity, “continually undertaking] to situate herself at the intersection of various levels of being… [She] explore[d] her condition as Mexican, as woman, and as disabled in relation to each other: these lives, these selves, compensate for each other, act as foils for one another, offer refuge. Each of Kahlo’s portraits maps her tenuous hold on herself, allowing her to negotiate a way to position herself in the world.” (Lowe 34)

Kahlo used self portraiture as a means of self expression at the deepest level. She was quoted as saying, “I paint self portraits because I am often so alone, because I am the person I know best” (Herrera). Kahlo’s extensive use of self portraiture was revolutionary in both the subject matter she often portrayed, and its very existence due to widespread stigmas at the time. Women artists “who paint self portraits….. had to overcome an already-given meaning [of their art]: the equation of female self-reflection with ‘Vanitas.'” (Lowe 38) Kahlo’s portrait of Luther Burbank in 1931 was her first painting with major elements of her characteristic style, particularly illusionism mixed with the fantastic. This painting features cycles of growth, decomposition, and regeneration that directly correlate to Burbank’s career as a horticulturalist, as well as being a poignant metaphor for the circle of life in memoriam for the man himself.

As Kahlo became more active in politics, she joined the Young Communist League in 1927. Her involvement in politics and “social struggle sprang from her deep sympathy for the disenfranchised and disadvantaged people of Mexico.” (Lowe 20) She was also an ardent feminist, both through her art and in her personal life. “A radical Bohemian, Kahlo delighted in bending and breaking rules, transgressing mainstream boundaries regarding gender, sexuality, social class, and ethnic background” (Carpenter 16).

She married Diego Rivera, another famous Latin American artist, in 1929, though they both ended up having extramarital affairs. In Kahlo’s case, these were with both men and women; she was bisexual, though there was no widely acknowledged word for that identity at the time. Kahlo and Rivera’s relationship was a complicated one. They divorced and remarried, at which point Kahlo “requested contractual independence, both monetary and sexual, stipulating that each would pay half the household expenses and that they would refrain from sleeping together” (Lowe 28). However despite this tension, Kahlo still loved him and respected him on an artistic level, and is quoted as saying: “Being the wife of Diego is the most marvelous thing in the world… I let him play matrimony with other women. Diego is not anybody’s husband and never will be, but he is a great comrade” (Herrera). However, she has also said, “”I suffered two grave accidents in my life, one in which a streetcar knocked me down… The other is Diego” (Herrera). Despite his many affairs, Rivera openly discussed his admiration of her, particularly of her art: “Frida is the only example in the history of art of an artist who tore open her chest and heart to reveal the biological truth of her feelings… a superior painter and the greatest proof of the renaissance of the art of Mexico” (Herrera).

Their complicated relationship can be summed up by Herrera’s statement that “their union was both carnal and comradely, bound by mutual dependence and yet surprisingly open and free. One of their most powerful bonds was their admiration for each other’s art. To her, he was the world’s greatest artist, the ‘architect of life.’ To him, Frida was a diamond in the midst of many inferior jewels’ and ‘the best painter of her epoch'” (Herrera).

In her art, Kahlo drew from Renaissance influences like Botticelli, Mannerists such as Agnolo Bronzino, Cubists, and Mexican influences including colonial painting and sculpture, 19th century painting, and folk art. She participated in the Latin American Art that aligned with revolutionary left and nationalist programs of the time. Kahlo drew upon the “odd spatial quality of ex-Votos, the mixing of human and animal forms often seen in Aztec imagery, and themes that to European eyes might have seemed morbid but that were more common in colonial art.” (Lowe 77). Kahlo came from a heritage of Mexican Catholicism and German Jews, and thus religion often influenced her art, though she did not devoutly align herself with organized religion. “Irreverent though not heretical, spiritual and pantheistic in her beliefs, Kahlo deployed religious symbols in her art in a respectful manner” (Carpenter 16).

Kahlo is considered one of the great Surrealist artists, despite the fact that her art does not technically qualify as strictly Surrealist, nor did she claim to be one. However, enough of the qualities of Surrealism appear in her work for it to be noted as a strong influence on her art. She rejected European modernist abstraction in favor of the figural, but also strayed from the instructive aspect of the Muralists. Though there were characteristics of Surrealism in her art, she didn’t fully identify herself with the movement. She was quoted as saying, “I didn’t know I was a Surrealist till André Breton came to Mexico and told me I was.” (Lowe 78) However, her most traditionally Surrealist painting was “What the Water Gave Me” in 1938. Major Surrealist elements in this painting include “the systematic displacement of objects from their familiar surroundings in order to achieve astonishing, sometimes disturbing juxtapositions” (Lowe 93). Kahlo’s relationship with the Surrealist movement can be summed up as “provisional. Although she shared sources and, at times, subject matter, eventually she rejected any affiliation, calling Surrealism ‘a decadent manifestation of bourgeois art in a deviation from the true art that people hope for from the artist'” (Lowe 94).

Another Modern art movement that deeply influenced Kahlo’s art was Primitivism, an art movement using simplistic forms of expression that derived from untrained art production, or were meant to look like they were untrained. In Kahlo’s art, this presented itself in her lack of use of linear perspective or illusionist lighting, and her imperfect proportions. She was also influenced by Arte Popular. This movement depicted art made by peasantry, often by indigenous cultures, with a title that carried meaning that the term “folk art” lacked. This movement was closely linked to Primitivism, though Primitivism described art that was made to echo folk art, while Arte Popular was the art that Primitivism tried to emulate.

Midway through her artistic career, Kahlo taught at La Esmeralda art school in Mexico. Though she was “self-taught, an anti academic at heart, and a rebel against bourgeois culture, she was cherished and recognized by her former students, Los Fridos, as a great teacher who sought new methodologies for art pedagogy” (Carpenter 16).

She never truly got over her bus accident injuries, and thus her health deteriorated from 1944 on. As her health worsened, the content of her art increasingly “dwelt upon her physical condition, charting the assaults on her body, and when she could no longer bear to look in the mirror, she focused on still life painting” (Lowe 30). Numerous debilitating surgeries spurred her to produce art directly addressing her physical condition, including “The Broken Column,” in 1944. “Without Hope” in 1945, and “The Wounded Deer” in 1946. The first depicted her fractured spinal column as a broken classical Greek column, and covered her body with pins and needles while tears streamed down her face, graphically illustrating her unknowable physical pain in a way that all could understand. The second showed her confined to her bed with a giant cornucopia of horror including raw meat hanging over her, in reference both to feeding tubes and her illness literally hanging over her. Kahlo continued to make art up until she died on July 13, 1954, though far less frequently than in her periods of health, however the ones produced during this time are often seen as her most influential and controversial.

Most of Kahlo’s work did not get the appreciation it deserved during her life. Though she was well known locally, Kahlo had few excursions in the art world; she “had her first and only one-person exhibition during her lifetime in Mexico in 1953, one year before her death” (Carpenter 15). She also was not nearly as popular in North America or Europe, more traditionally recognized art meccas by the academic world, until after her death. Her art gained more popularity in the 1960s posthumously with the Cult of Frida, initiated by Mexican American female artists such as Amalia Mesa-Bains. Awareness of her art spread in the 1970s and exploded into “Fridamania” in the 90s. Her work was revolutionary, and both her art and personal life continue to be an inspiration today.

Works Cited

  1. Carpenter, Elizabeth. Frida Kahlo. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2007. Print.
  2. Herrera, Hayden. Frida Kahlo, The Paintings. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1991. Print.
  3. Lowe, Sarah M. Universe Series on Women Artists: Frida Kahlo. New York: Universe Publishing, 1991. Print.
Cite this page

Frida Khalo: An Artistic Revolutionary in a Post-Modern World. (2023, May 25). Retrieved from

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