Why does Frida Kahlo reach across cultures and decades to leave a lasting impression? She had a moderate amount of fame during her lifetime, but it was after her death in 1954 that she became a phenomenon. The first wave of ‘Frida mania’ began in 1983. Hayden Herrera, an art historian, wrote a comprehensive biography of Kahlo. The book was titled simply Frida. Like other icons, she only had to go by her first name.
Madonna collected her art and expressed interest in playing her in a film, but the eponymous biopic was released in 2002 with Salma Hayek in the title role. Now, there are numerous documentaries, books and exhibitions that focus on Frida. She is the subject of t-shirts, fridge magnets, dolls, postcards, shopping bags and colouring books. There are Frida lookalike contests. Her body was her art.
She said that she only painted what was on her mind. Frida fascinates people because she exposed her personal truth in her art; raw, honest and universal.
She was born on July 6, 1907 and was the third of four daughters. She became the favourite child of her father, Guillermo, his de facto son. Guillermo was a professional photographer and Frida often worked as his assistant. This work gave her an instinctive eye for images – Frida learned how to create a focal point in a picture. Her paintings show an eye for detail that is almost photographic in nature. Every detail is precise; she does not waste a stroke of paint.
There is a memorable family portrait where Frida is posing with her sisters and her cousins. Her hair is slicked back. She wears a man’s suit and tie. A cane is in her hand. A stranger would assume that this was the beloved family son. She gazes at the camera with a confident defiance. On an instinctive level, Frida could create a persona that ensured that she would be the focus of a picture.
As a child, Frida had been diagnosed with polio. She had surgery on her foot and underwent 9 months of recuperation. In a pattern that would be repeated throughout her life, she did not heal properly. One of her legs became thinner and weaker than the other. She hid this by wearing long skirts or padding the weak leg by doubling up on socks. To improve her strength, she was encouraged to be active as possible. Her father let her take part in sports, which was unusual for a girl of that time.
As a teenager, Frida was rambunctious and had a large group of friends composed of boys and girls. She was interested in biology and planned to study medicine. Her fate was not to be a doctor: instead, she became a life-long patient.
At 18, she was a passenger on a wooden bus with her first serious boyfriend, Alejandro. An electric trolley car slammed into the bus. Frida could not get away in time due to her weak leg. The handrail rammed into the left side of her body and exited via her vagina. (She would later say, with typical black humour, that this was how she had lost her virginity).
The force of the impact caused all of Frida’s clothes to be pulled off. She was naked and covered in blood.Alejandro lifted her up and saw that there was another piece of metal still stuck in her. A well-meaning bus passenger pulled it out of her body, which only increased the intensity of her screams and only caused more damage in the long run. In the chaos, a painter on the bus had spilt a package of gold paint flakes over her. Other passengers exclaimed that she looked like a ballerina. The paintings that she would later create used the same sort of raw images.
Her body was in turmoil. Her pelvis, spinal column, and two ribs were broken. Her right leg was fractured in eleven places. Once again, she had to endure a long period of physical recuperation and solitude, but this time she had to remain as still as possible in order to heal. Frida needed to occupy her time. The urge to paint arose in her. Her parents set up a mirror and a table for her so that she could create art while she was in bed.
She started with the subjects that were easy to access: neighbours, local children, and her younger sister, Christina. Her first self-portrait, dated from 1926, was a gift for Alejandro, who was starting to drift away from her. In the painting she wears a low cut dark red dress with black trim. Her hair is tied back in a loose bun. She gazes at the viewer with an expression of sorrow and pride. Her right hand crosses her body lies over her heart. She seems to be asking the viewer, “How could you leave me?”
Once she had recovered, Frida abandoned medical school and decided that she was going to become a painter. She met with Diego Rivera, a famous Mexican muralist. She asked for his assistance and his opinion on her paintings, while he admired her talent and served as her mentor. A mutual attraction and admiration began, and Diego courted Frieda in earnest. Physically, they were an incongruous couple; he was a large man, 220 pounds, a foot taller and 20 years older. Diego was a notorious womaniser and had numerous high profile affairs in spite of his marriages. Frida was his third wife. In comparison, Frida’s body was small and frail. They were described as ‘the elephant and the dove’. But in spite of appearances and people’s disbelief, they were in love. Diego gave Frida the encouragement to develop her artistic voice. They married in 1929.
Frida decided to adapt a style of dress that expressed her Mexican heritage. She wore the clothing that was worn by the women in the Tehuana region of Mexico, which consisted of brightly coloured peasant style blouses and long beaded and embroidered skirts. Tehuana women were also known for their matriarchal societies. Partly, this was done to please Diego, but mostly it was to please herself.
Frida also adorned herself with necklaces and rings. Her makeup routine featured powder, rouge, and bright lipstick. In spite of her physical traumas, she chose to dress in a unique and vibrant style – her sartorial choices were a way to show defiance in the face of suffering. She had a love of spectacle. In the many photographs that have been taken of Frida Kahlo it is rare that she does not look stunning.
In 1930, Frida and Diego travelled to Detroit, where he was commissioned to create a mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Frida desperately wanted to have Diego’s child. Due to her health problems she could not carry a baby to term. She had a miscarriage while she and Diego were still in Detroit. The baby came out in pieces. Frida portrayed this event in a painting entitled Henry Ford Hospital (1932). The hospital bed is floating in the air. Frida is bleeding, naked, and lying in bed. There are six threads, like umbilical cords, that come out of her body. The threads are attached to a baby, a pelvis, her uterus, a snail (to symbolise the long, agonising process of the miscarriage), a steel medical machine, and an orchid. In the background, Detroit is cold and mechanical with grey factories and metallic buildings. The picture is powerful – Frida picked some very simple images to touch upon themes of loss, grief, and alienation.
Frida became very unhappy in Detroit wanted to return to Mexico. Diego was reluctant to leave but they did eventually return to Mexico after an additional two years in New York. In 1934, Diego started an affair with Frida’s beloved younger sister Christina. Frida was devastated by this double betrayal, which would set off a chain of separations and reconciliations for the next two decades. Frida spent time travelling independently. In 1938, she went to New York for her first solo exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery.
Clare Boothe Luce, the publisher of Vanity Fair, commissioned Frida to paint a portrait of her friend Dorothy Hale. Hale had killed herself by throwing herself off the roof a New York hotel. Boothe Luce was expecting a traditional portrait. She was horrified by what she received.
Frida had suggested to Boothe Luce that she create a retablo (a devotional painting), a common feature of Mexican folk art. In Frida’s version, a retablo used people and symbols as iconographic images. The image of Hale was a prime example of Kahlo’s burgeoning artistic style. It was a raw vision which was horrifying and strangely beautiful.
In The Suicide of Dorothy Hale, the viewer sees Dorothy at three stages of her leap. At the top, a small figure in a black evening dress leaps off the building. Near the centre, Dorothy’s body turns in the sky amid the ominous looking whitish-grey clouds. Her eyes are on the viewer. Dorothy’s dead body lies on the ground, her eyes still open. A painted ribbon with words written in Spanish is at the very bottom of the picture. The translation is as follows: “In the city of New York on the 21st of the month of October 1938 at six in the morning Mrs. DOROTHY HALE committed suicide by throwing herself out of the Hampshire House building. In her memory [ ] this retablo, having been executed it, Frida Kahlo.”
Boothe Luce’s first impulse was to destroy the painting but a friend suggested that she remove her name from it instead. The blank space represents the place where her name was originally written.
The painting is a fascinating look at a body in a moment of trauma. No one would want to witness a suicide, but the viewer is drawn into the painful, tragic last moments of a life. The unflinching eye became a key element of Frida Kahlo’s artistic vision and a motif that would reappear in her future works.
Frida and Diego separated and divorced in 1939. Sheand cut off her long hair, which Diego had loved. The self-portrait from this time depicts Frida sitting on a chair. Her short hair which is cropped under her ears. There are pieces of hair on the floor underneath her. She wears a man’s suit which is several sizes too big for her. She wears earrings and small heals, and the overall impression is one of unease. The lyrics of a Mexican song are painted at the top of the picture. “Look, if I loved you it was because of your hair. Now that you are without hair, I don’t love you anymore.” Her outward gaze almost seems blank, but there is a sense of anger and sadness in her eyes.
The couple reconciled and remarried in 1940. She forgave Christina and resigned herself to Diego’s affairs. Frida also had extra-marital affairs, both with men and women, but she and Diego were emotionally dependent on each other. They were the epitome of the cliché – they couldn’t live together, and they couldn’t live apart.
Frida’s physical problems were always present. From 1940 to 1954 she had 24 operations. For an artist, a scar is a remembrance of the past. It is something that can be studied, depicted, and recorded. Since her body had been the subject to so much trauma, it was understandable that she would serve as the subject of so many of her works. Her body was broken and her paintings were the way that she could communicate with the world. The paintings were the pages of her diary, and her body was the source of her autobiography.
In the self-portraits, Frida looks at the viewer with an inscrutable, mask-like expression. Her eyes convey her emotional state. Her paintings depicted an explicit and unflinching honesty. She never asks for sympathy. She only depicts her truth.
The self-portraits also convey Frida’s unusual features. She was a beautiful woman and she painted herself with a unibrow and the beginnings of a dark moustache. She was proud of these features and used a small comb for grooming. There was no artifice. She did not try to attain a traditional standard of beauty. Her uniqueness made her stunning.
In 1946, Frida decided to undergo major surgery to fuse two of her vertebrae. The operation, like her others, gave her no relief. Doctors later discovered that the wrong vertebrae had been fused. Frida’s health worsened. She would wear corsets (which she painted in bright colours) but these did not relieve the pain. She could not heal from the multiple injuries that her body had been subject to.
Frida was given morphine to cope with the pain and she developed an addiction that would last for the rest of her life. She tried to remain defiant and retained her love of spectacle. Near the end of her life, she attended an exhibition of her works in her bed and travelled to the museum by an ambulance. She appeared in public with the same colourful clothing and the bright makeup, but her hands were shaky and the clear photographic precision of her earlier pictures was a thing of the past.
In John Berger’s book, Ways of Seeing, he writes about the male gaze. He shows how art and advertising have been designed for hundreds of years to appeal to an assumed male gaze. Frida Kahlo turned this assumption on its head, staring back at the viewer, but not in an attempt to appeal or seduce. She presented herself with brutal honesty and no shame.
Frida had successfully cheated death many times, but death was still her constant companion. In The Dream (1940) she is sleeping on a bunk bed bed that is suspended in mid-air. There are roots all over her body. Her eyes are closed. Sleep is a small expression of death; it could have been a temporary relief from pain. On the top of the bed, a grinning skeleton has a bouquet of flowers and his limbs are rigged with explosives. At any minute it could all end.
The end for Frida began when she developed gangrene. Her lower right leg had to be amputated. She wore a prosthetic leg, which she painted a beautiful red, but the loss killed part of her spirit. She died on July 13, 1954. The official cause of death was described as a pulmonary embolism but there was talk of an overdose – purposeful or accidental.
Her body was sent to a crematorium. Diego wanted her ashes to be mixed with his.
A strange thing happened as her body was moved from its coffin. The heat from the incinerator caused Frida’s body to contract. It looked as if she was sitting up. Her hair blew into a circle, like a sunflower, her mouth curled into a ghoulish grin. Even in death she could not be any less expressive. Death had won, but Frida would not be forgotten.
(featured image via)
Ira Mulasi is a Canadian writer who has too many books and can recall endless amounts of pop culture trivia. Jane is her favourite Bronte sister. You can read more of her writing over here: https://spirallingecstaticallythis.wordpress.com/ or at https://twitter.com/ruminatemuch