I have deliberately never featured the studio of a woman who could not write her own story or was not currently creating art, in her chosen medium, in an inspired studio. But … 2021 is a New Year with new expectations, experiences, and inspiration. During 2020, Covid-19, Black Lives Matter, All Lives Matter, the LGBTQ+, and a variety of additional national and personal focuses in the divergent communities in our country have changed our perspective on the difference between what was and what should be.
Today around the world, it is basic, easy, and expected to have your voice heard conveying your objections and concerns as well as singing the praises of what is happening in our every day. However, one of the strongest and most enduring forms of communicating what is important in our daily lives is, and always has been, art. It is created one day and, sometimes, is respected, discussed, causes an impact, and collected for decades.
“I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.
During my quest to educate myself about artists and makers in this very broad category, I have never discovered an artist who represents so much to so many women as FRIDA KAHLO. An artist whose legendary status in modern day is not only because of the art she painted but because of who and all that she was and endured.
Frida was, and is, considered a surrealist painter of graphic and disturbing images. She pursued her passion and completion of 143 well-known paintings, 55 of which were self-portraits. She was, and is today, known as the Master of Self-Portraits, many of which were interpretations of extreme personal, physical, and psychological wounds. Frida and her paintings are infamous for so many reasons, one of which is because of her depiction of the unimaginable pain and suffering that she lived with throughout her life … as well as her resilience that never waned. Born outside Mexico City in 1907, Frida Kahlo began her life-long tragedy at age six, when she contracted polio. The disease crippled her right leg, which grew shorter than her left and gave her a limp. To strengthen her leg, her father enrolled her in boxing, roller skating, and soccer. He taught her photography and put her to work at his friend’s printmaking shop, where she replicated photos by hand.
The earliest Frida creation was crafted in 1912 measuring 4” X 7”, approximately. It is a framed cross-stitch piece that was part of her mother’s educating of her children, titled, “The Little House.” It is now part of a private collection in Mexico City. Frida’s life and work constantly evolved, but she always continued to paint self-portraits. Over her bed, in her studio, on her patio wall, next to her dressing table, and always on her worktable, Frida was surrounded by mirrors, not only because of her vanity but so that she would be able to see herself to work on her self-portraits.
At 15 years old and while studying at San Ildefonso College, Frida met Diego Rivera, a wealthy, revered Mexican muralist painter who became her mentor, and in 1929, with a bizarre Beauty-and-the-Beast dynamic, became her famous philandering husband.
At eighteen, she excelled in medical school but one September afternoon, her life forever changed when the bus she was riding collided with a trolley. The site was unimaginably gruesome, and her massive injuries included breaks in her spinal column, a broken collarbone, broken ribs, eleven fractures to her right leg, and three breaks in her pelvis, all of which left her bedridden and lonely for months…and in constant pain for the remainder of her life.
It was at this time that Frida began to paint. “For many years my father had kept a box of oil paints and some paintbrushes in an old jar and a palette in the corner of his photography studio. Being confined to a bed for so long, I finally took the opportunity to ask my father for it. Like a little boy whose toy is being taken away from him and given to a sick brother, he lent it to me. My mother asked a carpenter to make me an easel, if that’s what you can call the special apparatus which could be fixed onto my bed, because the plaster cast didn’t allow me to sit up. And so, I started on my first picture, The Portrait of a Friend.”
From a young age, Frida was flamboyant, irreverent, outspoken, and unforgettable. She was successful in academia, politically active in the Mexican Communist Party, a much-loved teacher, and an accomplished cook. Her visual renditions of conception, pregnancy, miscarriage, abortion, body image, love, and gender roles were all considered revolutionary for the time. Diego described them in his autobiography as “paintings which exalted the feminine qualities of endurance of truth, reality, cruelty, and suffering. Never before had a woman put such agonized poetry on canvas …”
Frida was also bisexual, eccentric, eclectic and dramatic. She was constant in her twisting of tradition. She wore a man’s suit for a backyard family portrait and draped her broken body in gorgeous Tehuana regalia for parties in Paris. Her hauntingly beautiful face, broken body, and bright Tehuana costumes have become the trademark of Mexican femininity. Everywhere are images of her bat-wing brows, moustache, and clunky, ethnic extensive jewelry collection, which consisted of so many bells that she often sounded like “a cathedral gone mad with all of the bells ringing.” Her hair adornments were often made of her much-loved lavish flowers, especially her roses that she grew in her own garden … which are now named after her. And, her dress, which was colorful and elaborately embellished, was selected personally and intentionally because of her desire to honor and show off her love for her Mexican culture … as well as to hide her deformities. She wore long skirts and layers of socks to hide her shorter leg, which was amputated when she was an adult and replaced with a prosthetic leg that was always outfitted by a red boot. Her personal adult life was tumultuous and scandalous, and her outward persona was as brazen as her paintings, her love life, and her politics.
In adulthood, Frida channeled her energy and emotion into her artwork and her many pets … monkeys, dogs, birds, and a fawn, which all lived with her in her home, Casa Azul in Coyocan, Mexico City. Perhaps one of the most famous is her “Self Portrait with Monkeys” from 1943. The iconic black-haired, unibrowed Kahlo is surrounded by three black spider monkeys, their arms wrapped around her. In Mexican mythology, monkeys are symbols of lust, but Kahlo portrayed them as tender and protective symbols. She was a groundbreaking artist who pioneered a new expressiveness, and her unique iconography of suffering transcended self-pity to create an existential art.
Frida and Diego traveled extensively during their marriage, living in the U.S., and Europe, as well as Mexico. They collected with a passion: décor, artifacts, and relics from around the world. Dolls, figurines, statues, toys, dishes, sculpture, carvings, and more adorned their houses with color, culture, and history.
In the early 1930s, while living in the US, Frida and Diego commissioned an American architect who designed their dream home and studio spaces, which would be built in 1933 on a corner in traditional, colonial San A’ngel. It is two tall dwellings: a large red building for Diego and a smaller blue one for Frida. Between the rooftops sits a connecting bridge meant to represent the love between the two. It is a startling merging of Mexican traditionalism and contemporary minimalism. The five years Frida lived there, she created many of her works, including two of her most powerful paintings: “What the Water Gave Me” and “The Two Fridas.”
I used to think I was the strangest person in the world, but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways that I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true, I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.
Frida often ventured away from her everyday world to find new inspiration. Oftentimes, she and Diego would load their giant easels and art supplies in the back of Diego’s battered old truck, whose holes had been patched with wood panels. They would hire a chauffeur to drive them from town to town so they could sketch or paint.
In 1951, Frida underwent seven spine surgeries, which left her confined to a wheelchair and cared for by nurses, all the while consuming large doses of painkillers and alcohol … and all the while painting and completing two of her most deeply meaningful pieces of art. Ten years before her death, Frida’s suffering continued to escalate. Constant pain, alcohol, painkillers, corrective corsets, and surgeries became common, and so she turned to journaling as a way to distract her mind and her hands. Watercolors, written entries, sketches, poems, personal letters (many of which were to her mother), color swatches, and small paintings are the insights into her mind.
Kahlo’s work as an artist remained relatively unknown until the late 1970s, when her work was rediscovered by art historians and political activists. By the early 1990s, she had become not only a recognized figure in art history but also regarded as an icon for Chicanos, the feminist movement, and the LGBTQ+ movement. In May 2006, Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait Roots, was sold for $5.62 million at a Sotheby’s auction in New York, setting a record as the most expensive Latin American work ever purchased at auction, and making Frida one of the highest-selling women in art.
“The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to, and I paint whatever passes through my head without any consideration.”
Never, that I could find, has there been a painter, or artist in any medium, who has been so iconized as Frida Kahlo. Who has had her image repainted by thousands of famous and yet-unknown artisans in every medium imaginable? I think … no one.
The articles, biographies, and separate accounts of Frida Kahlo number in the thousands. If you Google her name, you will not know where to begin. During the pandemic, many of us have turned to reading more magazines and more books on more subjects. My hope is that this will continue. That it remains important to hold print in your hands, smell the paper, and lose yourself wherever it is you want to be. During my research, I discovered three publications that beautifully tell the story of this most idolized icon.
FRIDA KAHLO AT HOME
By Suzanne Barbezat
Published by Frances Lincoln This is an extensive biography and photo album of Frida Kahlo, her life, and her work. Reading this was almost like taking a history class with Frida as the teacher.
By Kathy Cano-Murillo
Published by Simon & Schuster It is an accurate account of Frida’s messages, her art, and her life and is graced with the talent and passion of Kathy Cano-Murillo.
YOU ARE ALWAYS WITH ME
Letters to Mama Edited, Translated, and
Introduced by Hector Jaimes
Published by Virgo Press This is a collection of the letters written by Frida to her mother. It is the reading of someone’s diary, in their words, about what is important to them. It is authentic and fascinating.