Frida Kahlo stands today for much more than art; she is a symbol and an icon of feminism, a heroine of the disability rights movement, anti-racism movements and LGBT communities. Her boundless creativity drew no lines between life and art; she succeeded in transforming herself into a living work of art. But at the same time her humanity was reflected in the anguished gaze of her self-portraits. Her colourful Tehuana dresses covered her crippled right leg, magnificent shawls and Byzantine jewellery concealed her physical impairments while the corsets supported her shattered spine. Life accompanied by pain was frequently the theme of her art as was its mirror image – life-relishing defiance. The earthy, bodily and feminine dimension of her art stands in juxtaposition with its preoccupation with death and suffering.
André Breton, the co-founder of surrealism, famously said that her painting was like “a ribbon around a bomb.” Hayden Herrera, author of the most well-known biography of Frida, wrote that each of her painting was like “a smothered cry, a nugget of emotion so dense that one felt it might explode.” There was indeed a smouldering intensity in Frida, all-consuming inner fire and superhuman strength burning in a feeble, sick body of hers. Yet weak as she was, there was an undeniable carnal fire that jumps at the viewer of her self-portraits or photographs. The details of her biography are widely known. The mainstream narrative chooses to focus on her tempestuous lifelong relationship with Diego Rivera, whom she married twice. It is common knowledge that he was serially unfaithful and at the same time violently jealous of her also numerous romances – with both men and women. This post does not dwell on these facts.
At the age of six Frida Kahlo contracted polio; a disease which crippled her right leg and gave her a limp. Also, it turned her into an introverted girl. She was “forced into the position of otherness” for the first time in her life. (1) To avoid looking weak, Frida took up soccer, boxing, wrestling, swimming and biking. In her childhood she was very close with her father Guillermo, who had come to Mexico as an immigrant from Germany. Hence Frida’s German sounding name, derived from the German word for peace. Together with her father they would spend hours developing photographs and walking in nearby parks, where she would collect “pebbles, insects, and rare plants along the river’s edge.” (2)
When she was eighteen, the most fateful event of her life occurred. On September 17, 1925 the bus she was on collided with a streetcar in Mexico City. Herrera quotes Frida’s then boyfriend, who thus remembered the accident:
“Something strange had happened. Frida was totally nude. The collision had unfastened her clothes. Someone in the bus, probably a house painter, had been carrying a packet of powdered gold. This package broke, and the gold fell all over the bleeding body of Frida. When people saw her they cried, ’La bailarina, la bailarina!’ With the gold on her red, bloody body, they thought she was a dancer.”
And these were the horrific medical facts as related by Herrera:
“Her spinal column was broken in three places in the lumbar region. Her collarbone was broken, and her third and fourth ribs. Her right leg had eleven fractures and her right foot was dislocated and crushed. Her left shoulder was out of joint, her pelvis broken in three places. The steel handrail had literally skewered her body at the level of the abdomen; entering on the left side, it had come out through the vagina.”
She never fully recovered. The accident prevented her from having children, resulting in a number of miscarriages and abortions as well as numerous surgeries throughout her relatively short life. For a month following the accident she had to lie flat on her back, “enclosed in a box-like structure that looked like a sarcophagus.” (3)
In 1926 she painted her first self-portrait, in which she poses in a velvet dress against a dark background – the ocean and a night sky. Her fragile and vibrant beauty has here a somber air. At the back of the painting she wrote in German – Heute ist immer noch (Today still goes on, as Herrera translates it). There is a blossoming quality about her despite the sadness. Her signature unibrow, compared to “the wings of a blackbird” by Diego Rivera, features prominently in the painting as does a shade of a moustache. Art historian Parker Lesley once wrote aptly about Frida’s peculiar “combination of barbarism and elegance.” (4) Even before she started wearing the famous Tehuana dresses, Frida here looks striking with her magnetic, arresting gaze. Frida once said about herself that her facial features were masculine; yet without a doubt she is an epitome of resplendent femininity. She is also celebrated as a fashion icon, though she did not follow the trends of her time, one of which was the thin, epilated brow. Her sense of what is beautiful was timeless.
Her signature Tehuana dresses and rebozos (shawls), which she started to wear consistently after meeting Diego Rivera, were inspired by those of the women from the city of Tehuantepec in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. It is said to be a culture of confident, strong, intelligent women. Their traditional costumes, which consisted of an embroidered blouse, a long skirt and a large headdress worn on special occasions, was adopted by many educated Mexican women contemporary to Frida. Even her mother was photographed wearing such a costume.
The ritual of getting dressed for the day was a serious matter to Frida, says Herrera:
“People who watched the ritual of her dressing recall the time and care she took, her perfectionism and precision. Frequently she tinkered with a needle before donning a blouse, adding lace here, a ribbon there. … To go with the exotic costumes, Frida arranged her hair in various styles, some typical of certain regions of Mexico, some her own invention. She would sweep it upward, sometimes pulling it so tightly at the temples that it hurt, and then braid into it bright woolen ribbons and decorate it with bows, clips, combs, or fresh bougainvillea blossoms. One friend observed that when she placed a comb in her hair, she pressed its prongs into her scalp with a ‘coquettish masochism.’”
Much has also been written about her outstanding collection of jewellery. She did not mind the physical discomfort and would wear heavy rings on each finger, large earrings and sizeable necklaces. “She clanked like a knight in armour,” commented once Parker Lesley. Together with Diego Rivera she collected pre-Columbian art. For her necklaces she would use stone beads from archeological Maya sites. She received a pair of unique earrings from Picasso, an admirer of her art, who once wrote to Diego Rivera:
“Neither Derain, nor I, nor you are capable of painting a head like those of Frida Kahlo.” (5)
Most of the jewellery is now missing, as it was stolen immediately after Frida’s death:
“So desperate were people to have a memento of her that even as her body moved towards the crematorium fire, onlookers pulled at her rings.” (6)
Folk art not only informed her dress but also her art, which is often reminiscent of the so-called retablos. These are votive (devotional) paintings, sometimes in the form of ex-votos (“from a vow”), which show a life-threatening event such as an illness that a person survived thanks to an intervention of Mary, Jesus or a saint. Frida collected Mexican ex-votos art. Her paintings are a few symbolic levels higher than “ordinary” retablos but nevertheless they share their emotional genuineness in relating her physical distress.
One of Frida’s earliest self-portraits steeped in the Catholic tradition is undoubtedly “The Broken Column.” This is Herrera’s description of it:
“Anguish is made vivid by nails driven into her naked body. A gap resembling an earthquake fissure splits her torso, the two sides of which are held together by the steel orthopedic corset … Inside her torso we see a cracked ionic column in the place of her own deteriorating spinal column; life is thus replaced by a crumbling ruin. With her hips wrapped in a cloth suggestive of Christ’s winding sheet, Frida displays her wounds like a Christian martyr; a Mexican Saint Sebastian…”
According to Herrera, one of Frida’s paintings that especially resembled a retablo is “Tree of Hope, Remain Strong” (1946). In it, the sick Frida is accompanied by the guardian Frida, who acts as her own miracle worker. The blood that drips from her wounds is echoed by the red dress, which symbolizes strength and the will to live. Like the Holy Priestess of the Tarot with the Moon shining above her, the Tehuana Frida brings her soothing emotional presence, her unconscious lunar power to the exposed, vulnerable body of the sick Frida that lies in the desert under the relentless beams of the sun.
The theme of fertility runs through the entirety of Frida’s oeuvre. She said once that her painting partly stems from an unfulfilled desire to be a mother. Not being able to bear children, she gave birth to the whole resplendent colourful world around her – the magnificent blue house (Casa Azul), which now serves as her museum, its garden, numerous pets (monkeys, a deer, dogs, parrots, doves and others) as well as her passion for cooking. The theme of roots is also vital, alluding to her desire to connect to the earth and also to honour her Mexican heritage. She was especially proud to have been nourished by an indigenous wet nurse as a baby.
“My Birth” is famously owned by the singer Madonna. It was painted in the year when Frida’s mother died (1932). A large infant’s head (Frida’s) emerges from the mother’s womb. In Herrera’s words:
“We see the infant’s large head emerging between the mother’s spread legs from the doctor’s vantage point. Heavy, joined eyebrows identify the child as Frida. Blood covers the inert, drooping head and skinny neck. The baby looks dead. A sheet covering the woman’s head and chest, as if she had died in childbirth, emphasizes the total exposure of delivery. As a substitute for the mother’s head, on the wall directly above her is a painting of another grieving mother, the Virgin of Sorrows pierced by swords, bleeding and weeping.”
For me, this is a shattering image that shows how closely death and life were intertwined in Frida’s consciousness. Blood seems to have been such a crucial motif of her art and life. Even in her personal letters she spoke of it a lot. She once wrote to her great love, photographer Nickolas Muray, “To you, my loveliest Nick, all my heart, blood and all my being.”
The paintings that I am personally most attached to are “My Nurse and I” (1937) and “Roots” (1943). To me they are both indicative of Frida’s celebration of her connectedness with the fertility of the earth. In the former, as Herrera describes:
“The ducts and glands of the lactating breasts are revealed in a plant-like pattern on the breasts’ surface. … milk-like veins in a huge leaf in the background are engorged. The raindrops in the sky are ‘milk from the Virgin’ – as her nurse had explained to her. The virgin’s milk, the praying mantis and the caterpillar that are camouflaged against the stems and leaves of plants stand for the interconnectedness of every aspect of the natural world and in her own participation in the world.”
Similarly, in “Roots” Frida’s body is planted in the earth. As Herrera puts it, her dream of fertility is realized here as it is she who gives birth to a vine.
Frida’s very last painting was a still life depicting watermelons. She painted them at the age of 47, in 1954, shortly before she died. Herrera writes:
“It is as if Frida had gathered and focused what was left of her vitality in order to paint this final statement of alegría. Sliced and chopped, the pieces of fruit acknowledge the imminence of death, but their luscious red flesh celebrates the fullness of life. Eight days before she died, when her hours were darkened by calamity, Frida Kahlo dipped her brush in blood-red paint and inscribed her name plus the date and the place of execution, Coyoacán, Mexico, across the crimson pulp of the foremost slice. Then, in large capital letters, she wrote her final salute to life: VIVA LA VIDA.”
Frida Kahlo’s art cannot be classified as belonging to any art movements of her time. Surrealists celebrated her and tried to claim her but she said once:
“They thought I was a surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”
The symbolism of her art is firmly rooted in the earth. Of her many passions life was perhaps the greatest.
(1) Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up, by Claire Wilcox (Editor), published 2018 by Victoria & Albert Museum
(2) Hayden Herrera, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo
(4) Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up, by Claire Wilcox (Editor), published 2018 by Victoria & Albert Museum
(5) Hayden Herrera, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo
(6) Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up, by Claire Wilcox (Editor), published 2018 by Victoria & Albert Museum
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