Painting of two women sitting together holding hands, with their hearts visable and connected.

Female Artist Frida Kahlo’s Story of Purpose, Passion, and Pain

Frida Kahlo is known as one of the most popular female artists in the world. Though she lived a life of struggle, she was a passionate and strong individual. This life of pain and suffering inspired the majority of her art. Not only was she ill as a child, but she also suffered greatly from a bus accident in her teenage years. Though tragic, these events fueled Frida’s creativity and allowed her to reach a wide audience. Like most famous artists, Frida did not achieve great success until after her death. Fridamania, a stage in the 21st century defined by a love of all things Frida Kahlo, undoubtedly launched her into infamy. 

Childhood

Frida Kahlo was born in Mexico City on July 6, 1907, to a Mestizo mother and a German father. Frida and her three sisters grew up in their family home, called the Casa Azul or Blue House. However, Frida spent the majority of her life in this house, not just her childhood. Frida contracted polio at the age of 6, which confined her to bed for several months. This disease left her right leg shorter and slightly deformed in comparison to her left leg. Consequently, she had a limp for the rest of her life and had to wear a specialized platform shoe on her right foot.  

Young Frida Kahlo in dress sitting on chair.
Image Source: fridakahlo.org

Frida’s father introduced her to art at a young age, being a photographer by profession. She often helped her father, perhaps laying the foundation for the work she would do later in her life. Frida’s father also encouraged her to participate in sports as a way to build her strength after her stint with polio. At her father’s encouragement, Frida then became a self-proclaimed tomboy. She participated in swimming, soccer, boxing, and wrestling, all heavily male-dominated activities at the time.

Wanting to become a doctor, the National Preparatory School accepted Frida as one of the few females allowed to attend. Despite being greatly outnumbered by her male peers, Frida excelled academically and enjoyed attending.

Bus Accident

Frida was involved in a near-fatal bus accident when she was just 18 years old. She was riding home from school on a crowded bus on September 17, 1925 when the accident happened. The bus attempted to pass a street trolley, which then crashed into the side of the bus. The accident injured Frida, along with several other passengers.

Frida Kahlo lying on her stomach on a bed.
Image Source: fridakahlo.org

An iron handrail impaled Frida when the trolley crashed into the side of the bus, nearly killing her. She broke her leg, collarbone, and spine, dislocated her shoulder, and suffered a bone fracture to her pelvis. These injuries kept Frida in the hospital for nearly a month. After her release from the hospital, she was bedridden at home for several months in a plaster cast. This accident caused Frida to suffer for most of her life, ultimately inspiring a large amount of Frida’s artwork. 

Career in Art

Many consider the bus accident to be the catalyst of Frida’s art career. Frida’s parents provided a specialized easel that would allow her to paint while lying in bed, seeing as Frida had to be confined to bed for several months following the accident. This is where Frida completed her first of many self-portraits.

Early Career

The bus accident dashed Frida’s hopes of becoming a doctor. The injuries Frida sustained forced her to drop out of school, giving her ample free time. An easel that could be used while lying in bed was commissioned by Frida’s parents, so Frida would have something to fill her time. Using an overhead mirror, Frida painted her first self-portrait.

Frida Kahlo lying in bed painting.
Image Source: fridakahlo.org

Frida joined the Mexican Communist Party several years later, where she was formally introduced to the popular artist Diego Rivera. She proceeded to show him some of her artwork, questioning whether she should pursue it as a career or not. Diego both encouraged her to continue painting, as well as pursued her romantically. Frida and Diego got married the following year and both continued to build their careers in art.

Marriage, Moving, and Miscarriages

Frida and Diego had a famously tumultuous marriage plagued by illness, constant moving, affairs, and miscarriages. Soon after their marriage, the couple began moving frequently for Diego’s commissioned work. They spent several years in the United States, split between San Francisco, New York, and Detroit. Frida supposedly hated her time spent in the United States, partly due to Diego’s multiple affairs, as well as the miscarriage she experienced while living there. While in the United States, she only completed a handful of paintings.

The couple opted to live in neighboring houses connected by a bridge when they returned to Mexico. Diego continued to have extramarital affairs, and, by this point, Frida had begun having extramarital affairs as well. Consequently, the couple divorced in 1939.

Despite the pain she was experiencing, Frida grew more successful during this time period. Frida’s artwork was exhibited in New York and Paris, and one of her paintings was even featured in the Louvre. Though she had numerous painful experiences during this time, she used them as inspiration and made art depicting many of them.

Later Years

 Frida and Diego remarried in 1940 and moved back to Frida’s childhood home, the Blue House. Frida’s health continually declined during the last decade of her life, but she continued to create art. She was subject to numerous operations, infections, and experienced chronic pain throughout her body. On July 13, 1954, Frida passed away, forever released from the physical ailments that plagued her throughout her life.

Posthumous Recognition and Influence

Though Frida Kahlo did experience success while she was alive, her artwork became more well known after her death.  Shortly after Frida died, her husband, Diego Rivera, had her childhood home turned into a museum. This museum, still in operation today, hosts a slew of her personal belongings and several of her paintings. 

Frida’s popularity grew over the years, culminating in the so-called ‘Fridamania’ at the dawn of the 21st century. Frida’s life and art inspired several plays, books, operas, and movies. Frida has also been adopted as a feminist icon, standing as a hero for women everywhere. 

Feminist Icon

Frida Kahlo represented feminist ideology in the way she lived her life, even if she did so unintentionally. Even from a young age, Frida defied gender stereotypes. She participated in boxing, swimming, wrestling, and soccer, all considered to be masculine sports at the time. As she grew older, she continued to defy gender stereotypes by highlighting typically masculine features— her eyebrows and faint moustache. Frida was not afraid to be herself, and lived her life to prove that. Likewise, Frida chose not to dress in the ribbons, bows, and pearls that other women wore at that time. Instead, she chose to wear traditional Mexican clothing, often patterned after a Mexican matriarchal society.

Close up photo of Frida Kahlo.
Image Source: fridakahlo.org

Frida shattered gender stereotypes in her paintings as well. Rather than the traditional female beauty often found in art, Frida opted to share the harsh realities of life. Particularly, in her paintings she highlighted the struggles many women face, honestly exposing relatively taboo topics.

Popular Paintings

Frida Kahlo created a total of 143 paintings during her life. Most of her paintings were quite morbid, not only representing the macabre outlook she possessed, but also highlighting the pain that she felt. Though many of her paintings have become quite popular since the dawn of the 21st century, only 6 paintings are highlighted here.

The Two Fridas

Painting of two women sitting together holding hands, with their hearts visable and connected.
Image Source: fridakahlo.org

Las Dos Fridas, or, The Two Fridas, was painted in 1939. Measuring nearly 6 ft tall, this was the first painting Frida completed on a large scale. Many speculate that this painting represents the duality Frida felt in her life, having both German and Mestiza heritage. This was undoubtedly a struggle for Frida as she developed her identity. This painting was created the same year Frida divorced her husband Diego, which surely played a part in its creation. This painting currently resides at the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City. 

Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird

Painting of Frida Kahlo wearing a thorn necklace with a hummingbird.
Image Source: fridakahlo.org

This self-portrait was created in 1940. In this portrait, Frida wears a necklace with thorns piercing her skin. This may represent the constant physical pain Frida struggled with her entire life. Hanging from this necklace is a hummingbird, which is often seen as a symbol of good luck and hope in Mexican tradition. Perhaps here Frida once again highlights the duality present in her life, illustrated through both pain and hope. This portrait is located at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas.

Viva La Vida, Watermelons

Painting of full and cut up watermelons.
Image Source: fridakahlo.org

Viva La Vida, Watermelons was created by Frida Kahlo in 1954. This painting was the last painting Frida ever did, placing the finishing touches just a few days before her death. Inscribed on the bottom slice of watermelon reads viva la vida, or long live life. This inscription perhaps comments ironically on her pain-filled existence. Watermelons are also associated with the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos, or, Day of the Dead. This holiday celebrates the life of those who have passed on instead of mourning for them. This painting is located at the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City.

The Broken Column

Painting of Frida Kahlo with a broken column in place of her spine.
Image Source: fridakahlo.org

Frida painted The Broken Column in 1944, while recovering from one of her many surgeries. The crumbling column shown in this painting represents her spine, where Frida had her most recent surgery. This painting also depicts nails protruding from Frida’s body, likely highlighting the constant pain she felt. The many tears on Frida’s face also reinforce this notion. Like most of her art, this painting clearly illustrates the suffering Frida experienced in her life. Despite the pain, Frida is pictured with a bold and courageous look on her face. This painting currently resides in Mexico City at the Dolores Olmedo Museum.

Self-Portrait as a Tehuana

Painting of Frida Kahlo with a man on her forehead.
Image Source: fridakahlo.org

This painting, another one of Frida’s many self portraits, depicts Frida in traditional Tehuana attire. Frida began painting the Self-Portrait as a Tehuana in 1940, during her brief divorce from Diego Rivera. Notably, a small portrait of Diego Rivera sits on her brow. The inclusion of her then ex-husband on her forehead visually represents the obsessive love she had for Diego. This obsession is further perpetuated in the crown of flowers, leaves, and roots that Frida wears. This crown symbolizes Diego growing into her head, entrapped and tangled up in her thoughts. This painting is currently part of the Gellman Collection in Mexico City.

Henry Ford Hospital

Painting of a woman laying on a bed with an umbelical cord connecting to fetus and other items.
Image Source: fridakahlo.org

In this intimate painting, Frida illustrates yet another representation of her pain. She painted this piece in 1932 to reflect upon her time spent at Henry Ford Hospital after the miscarriage of her son. Frida represents her discomfort by the way she has positioned her body. The legs are turned away from the viewer while the upper body is turned toward us in a twisting motion, causing an unsettling feeling.

There are six objects floating around her that are tied back to her with an umbilical cord. The first being the male fetus, which represents her son. The snail is a symbol of how slow the medical procedure took. The orchid symbolizes her uterus. The piece of machinery represents all of the medical equipment that Frida had to live with, including her back braces and crutches. The pelvis is a reminder of the bus crash and the damage it did to her body. And the medical illustration of her lower body represents the physical location of her pain. This painting currently resides in the Dolores Olmedo Museum in Mexico City. 

Fun Facts about Frida Kahlo

  • Appears on currency: 

 Frida and her husband Diego appear on opposite sides of the Mexican 500 peso note. 

  • Self-portraits make up more than a third of her artwork: 

Frida created a total of 143 paintings, with 55 of those being self portraits.

  • Had an affair with Leon Trotsky:

Frida had a very controversial extramarital affair with the founder of the Red Party, Leon Trotsky.

  • She didn’t consider herself a surrealist.

Though many categorize Frida Kahlo as a surrealist now, while she was alive she did not identify with surrealism. 

  • First Mexican artist of the 20th century to sell her work to the Louvre:

Frida Kahlo sold her painting, The Frame, to the Louvre in 1939. 

  • Went to one of her exhibitions in her bed:

Due to declining health in her later years, Frida was bedridden and attending her exhibition in her bed.

  • Had a variety of pets:

Though Frida didn’t have any children, she had numerous pets, including dogs, monkeys, birds, and a deer.

Frida Kahlo crouching down with her hand on a deer.
Image Source: fridakahlo.org
  • Total of 30 surgeries:

Because of her poor health, Frida had a total of 30 surgeries in her life, including the removal of several toes and one of her legs. 

  • Mattel created a Frida Kahlo Barbie doll:

Along with several other influential women, a Frida Kahlo Barbie doll was released in 2018.

  • Honored on a postage stamp: in 2001, both the United States and Mexico honoured Frida by putting one of her self portraits on a postage stamp. 

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

Frida Kahlo lived a life of pain and passion, undoubtedly illustrated through her artwork. However, Frida was able to find success despite her suffering. Her artwork has inspired people from all over the globe, significantly impacting culture and art. Not only did Frida inspire female artists, she carved a pathway for women to express themselves however they choose. She also helped solidify a visual Mexican identity through her artwork. Frida’s paintings have shared Mexican culture throughout the world in a way that people can connect with, urging them to understand and love a culture different from their own.

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