When Frida Kahlo died on July 13, 1954, she was only 47 years old. She had created 143 paintings, of which 55 were self-portraits. Frida’s look is iconic: thick eyebrows merging over her expressive eyes, fresh flowers adorning the braids atop her elegant head, and colorful Tehuana traditional dress lending additional vibrancy to this vivacious woman. As well, her life, her approach to that life, and the ways in which her work was an outward reflection of her most vulnerable and poignant inner emotions which are uniquely remarkable.
In 1939, her self-portrait The Frame was the first work by a Mexican artist in the 20th century to be purchased by an internationally renowned museum - the Louvre. In the decades since her death, the popularity of her work and her persona has grown. Her self-portrait Diego and I, painted in 1949, sold in November 2021 for $34.9 million (Smithsonian Magazine). For many she is a powerful representative of the feminist movement, and she is depicted on the 500 peso bill, (Diego Rivera is pictured on the opposite side), for the 100th celebration of the Mexican Revolution (Frida Kahlo.org - 10 facts.) The Frida Kahlo Museum, La Casa Azul (The Blue House), in Mexico City, opened in 1958. With 25,000 monthly visitors, the museum is one of the most visited in Mexico City. (Archello: Frida Kahlo Museum)
Frida said, “I paint my own reality.” Her work expressed the pain of her life’s experience, and she was not afraid to put it all out there for the world to see. At the same time, Frida reveled in life. She loved a good party, dancing, and tequila. She loved to give gifts and support to the people around her, and she loved children. She was dedicated to the communist movement as she felt it uplifted the common person and the workers. She was passionate and witty - for example, she referred to the United States as “Gringolandia.”
She contracted polio when she was six, which caused her right leg to be noticeably thinner than the left. She became quite athletic to keep her body strong, and disguised the leg asymmetry with long skirts. At age 18 she was in a life-changing bus accident, in which a side rail impaled her body and exited through her vagina. Immediately after the accident, she was found lying in the road. Her clothes had come off in the mayhem, and her nude body was covered in blood and a fine gold powder that someone on the bus had been carrying.
From the bus accident, Frida suffered a broken pelvis, spine, clavicle, and ribs. Her right leg and foot were broken, and her left shoulder was dislocated. Her resulting ill health, many surgeries (at least 32), and almost constant physical pain were lifelong challenges. She often was forced to lie in bed for long periods of time, and wore orthopedic corsets that her doctors prescribed to support her spine. Her injuries prevented her from carrying a child to full-term, which added to her emotional pain.
While in the initial recuperation from the accident, Frida learned to paint. Her mother ordered a special easel that Frida could use lying down, and a mirror was hung above the bed so that Frida could study and paint herself. She attributed her numerous self-portraits to so much time spent alone, and that she herself was the subject she knew best.
Her marriage to the famous muralist Diego Rivera was characterized by high drama and infidelity on both sides. What comes through in letters, accounts of friends, and several of her paintings, is that Frida dearly loved Diego, and his unwillingness to remain loyal was very hurtful. In Rivera’s autobiography, he acknowledged that the day Frida died was the day he realized that she was the best part of his life.
For several years beginning in 1943, Frida was a teacher of art at “La Esmerelda” - the Ministry of Public Education’s School of Painting and Sculpture in Mexico. She had the students come to her home as she could not physically tolerate the long bus ride to the school. The class dwindled to a group of four students who continued to learn from Frida for several years - they were called Los Fridos. Frida was not a teacher who followed a strict curriculum. She taught her students to develop their own style, to let their art develop in its own way. She taught from a place of encouragement and exploration, rather than with the attitude that she knew all the answers.
Frida Kahlo did not hold back in her life or on canvas. Her physical and emotional suffering were very real - she did not try to gloss over her reality. In her work as well as her words and letters to friends, Frida told it like it was. She demonstrated an acceptance of dichotomies in this world: pain, joy, challenges, love, life, death.
Her last painting, Viva la Vida, completed in 1954 just before she died, was of vibrant red watermelons. Translated to English, Viva la Vida means “Long Live Life.”
Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera
Frida Kahlo Foundation Website: Frida Kahlo Biography
Frida Kahlo.org Website: paintings, quotes, biography and videos
Jacqueline Denny, ACC, CHPC, LMT