Frida Kahlo Essay
By: Heather Waldroup
Frida Kahlo was a female Mexican painter of mixed heritage, born on July 6, 1907 and lived 47 painful years before passing away on July 13, 1954. Within her short life, Frida was slightly crippled from polio, suffered from a serious streetcar accident that left her infertile, married famous muralist Diego Rivera, divorced, remarried Rivera, became a political activist and rose to fame through her oil paintings all before succumbing to her poor health. She was an intelligent female in a society that wanted women to be pretty, submissive wives and mothers. She struggled with cultural demands of her gender in a time when women were demanding a change in their role. All these aspects of her life, and more, affected her art. She was a modern woman but her art had an indigenous background. Her most common genre was self-portrait and through a dramatic views of herself, she was capable of showing her view of the world. Frida was an active member of global society and was a powerful speaker for her beliefs through her art. Her art was controversial and attracted attention. She gained global recognition of her work because it’s complex and provocative, demanding discussion.
Frida Kahlo’s art seems very closely tied to the ups and downs of her marriage and her health. Her and her husband, Diego Rivera, had an unconventional, rocky relationship. There was a lack of fidelity on both parts. Diego was a well-known womanizer and it is thought that Kahlo reacted in kind as vengeance. A struggle exists between an artist and their work, I can only imagine the battles that occur when two artist marry. Within the beginning of their marriage, Frida painted Frida and Diego Rivera (Figure 1). At the time, Rivera was already a well known muralist twenty years her senior and her painting was thought to be no more than a hobby for a quiet wife. Throughout the years they knew each other, they continually painted the other. Frida overlaid his face on her forehead in Diego on my Mind (Figure 2) within which she also wears a dramatic, traditional Mexican headdress. Often times, in her self-portraits she’s wearing traditional Tahuana dress, as in Figure 1. Their marriage seemed to deteriorate in time with Kahlo’s rising success (Lindauer, 1999) until they divorced in 1939. Often times she has been criticized for focusing too much on her work instead of being the docile wife expected of her. The two remarried later that year but it was a financial arrangement and they did not share a marital bed.
While her husband is a common theme so are issues of her health. She often depicted her physical pain and struggle with graphic self-portraits. She “usually located narrative impact . . . directly onto her own body.” (Zavala, 2010) During her accident, she was impaled by a metal pole in her torso that exited through her vagina, breaking her pelvis in the process. She had extreme pain and struggled with the aftermath of her accident. The Broken Column (Figure 3) shows Kahlo’s nude torso with nails in her skin and her torso torn open to reveal a cracked column. The cracked pillar could be representative of the “broken column” of her spine. She was told she would most likely never carry a pregnancy to full term and this turned out to be true, unfortunately. After one of her miscarriages, Kahlo painted Henry Ford Hospital (Figure 4). It depicts the once again nude Kahlo on a bloody hospital bed, crying and holding images of a baby and a pelvis. She went through over 30 surgeries to try to repair the damage and she was just left in more pain. She’d started to lose faith in medicine when she painted Tree of Hope (Figure 5) where a prone, assumed Frida lies cut up and bleeding on a gurney while another Frida in a traditional dress holds a back brace. These self-portraits were a way for her to process the pain she felt. “In Frida’s work oil paint mixes with the blood of her inner monologue.” (Tibol, 1993) They are disturbing images that invoke fear in the viewer. Her pain is so blatantly displayed in her blood and nakedness that can be felt so strongly by the viewer. She demands you feel it with her direct stare.
Kahlo invoked such strong reactions to her work because they challenged traditional values with modern ideas, mixed with often violent and sexualized imagery. She used her art to bring attention to the mistreatment of women and to aid the feminist movement. A Few Small Nips (Figure 6) was painted after she read in the newspaper about a man who stabbed his cheating wife. Frida was herself a sexually promiscuous woman who’d had affairs with both men and women (Lindauer, 1999) so she would feel invested in how such women are viewed. She fought against the expectation of the meek female dressed up in lace and bows. She painted Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (Figure 7) in which she’s wearing a man’s suit and has sheared her hair off. Men felt extremely threatened by this and took it as an assault on all males after her divorce from Rivera. They insinuated her to be a fallen woman and their fury further showed the social imbalance (Lindauer, 1999).
There was an excess of disparity in her art between the traditional and the modern. This is shown most clearly in two of her pieces: My Dress Hangs There (Figure 8) and Self-Portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States (Figure 9). Both paintings have clear American references, as well as other global iconography, as drastic comparisons to traditional Mexican culture. In Figure 8, the US capitol is centered and the Statue of Liberty is in the background. Capitalist iconography is represented by the billboard of a well-dressed woman and the gas pump, all placed in a metropolitan setting with the populous barely noticeable at the bottom of the painting. The artist’s Tehuana dress hangs in the center, offering the juxtaposition of the two. Figure 9 shows the inequality between the two nations with the artist straddling the line separating them. On the Mexican side there are symbols representing ancient Mexican religion and flowers are growing out of the dirt. The American side is completely urbanized. The paintings are considered her most politically explicit because they “portray the corruption, alienation and/or dehumanization” of Americans (Lindauer, 1999). Both of these pieces would’ve sparked discussion in the early 1930’s when they were painted. Nothing makes a topic more well known than controversy.
Frida Kahlo’s harsh life produced provocative images that challenged society. She was wise beyond her years and was a fiery, rebellious spirit. She was a member of las pelonas in college, a group of young, Mexican women who cut their hair, learned how to drive cars and wore androgynous clothing. While consulting a specialist on another serious spinal surgery, she told her physicians to send him every, to write him letters describing her character, so he would understand that she’s a fighter (Lindauer, 1999). She taught painting to youth across Mexico, affecting hundreds of lives with her mentorship. In her final days she left the hospital, despite doctors’ orders, to participate in a political protest. She was in a wheelchair, having lost a leg to gangrene, sickly thin, with colorful yarn tied into her hair. The things she saw and experienced led to the dramatic works that flowed from her brush. She hadn’t planned to follow in the artistic footsteps of her photographer father and grandfather. Yet, look at the silver lining of the tragedy of her accident. Instead of becoming a doctor, she painted pictures that made people talk and discuss. She is now recognizable worldwide for her unique self-portraits.
Zavala, Adriana. Becoming Modern, Becoming Tradition: Women, Gender, and
Representation in Mexican Art. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State UP,
Lindauer, Margaret A. Devouring Frida: The Art History and Popular Celebrity of Frida
Kahlo. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1999. Print.
Tibol, Raquel. Frida Kahlo: An Open Life. University of New Mexico Press, 1993. Print.
Please note that www.FridaKahlo.org is a private website, unaffiliated with Frida Kahlo or her representatives
- Our Shop
- Masterpieces of Frida Kahlo
- Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress, 1926
- The Bus, 1929
- Two Women, 1929
- Frida and Diego Rivera, 1931
- My Birth, 1932
- Self Portrait Along the Boarder Line Between Mexico and the United States
- Henry Ford Hospital, 1932
- My Dress Hangs There, 1933
- A Few Small Nips, 1935
- My Grandparents My Parents and Me, 1936
- My Nurse and I, 1937
- Memory, the Heart, 1937
- Fulang Chang and I, 1937
- Four Inhabitants of Mexico, 1938
- Self-portrait with Monkey, 1938
- What I Saw in the Water, 1938
- Two Nudes in the Forest, 1939
- The Two Fridas, 1939
- Self Portrait Dedicated to Dr Eloesser, 1940
- Self Portrait with Monkey, 1940
- The Wounded Table, 1940
- Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940
- Me and My Parrots, 1941
- Roots, 1943
- Self Portrait as a Tehuana, 1943
- The Broken Column, 1944
- Without Hope, 1945
- Moses, 1945
- The Wounded Deer, 1946
- Tree of Hope, 1946
- Self Portrait with Loose Hair, 1947
- Self Portrait, 1948
- The Love Embrace of the Universe, 1949
- Diego and I, 1949
- Frida Kahlo Facts
Frida Kahlo Biography
Frida Kahlo has poor health in her childhood. She contracted polio at age of 6 and had to be bedridden for nine months. This disease caused her right leg and food grow much thinner than her left one. She limped after she recovered from the polio. She has been wearing long skirts to cover that for the rest of her life. Her father encouraged her to do lots of sports to help her recover. She played soccer, went swimming, and even did wrestle, which is very unusual at that time for a girl. She has kept a very close relationship with her father for her whole life.
Frida Kahlo attended the renowned National Preparatory School in Mexico city in year of 1922. There are only thirty-five female students enrolled in that school and she soon became famous for her outspokenness and bravery. At this school she first met the famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera for the first time. Rivera at that time was working on a mural called The Creation on the school campus. Frida often watched it and she told a friend she will marry him someday.
At the same year, Kahlo joined a gang of students which shared the similar political and intellectual views. She fell in love with the leader Alejandro Gomez Arias. On a September afternoon when she traveled with Gomez Arias on a bus the tragic accident happened. The bus collided with a streetcar and Frida Kahlo was seriously injured. A steel handrail impaled her through the hip. Her spine and pelvis are fractured and this accident left her in a great deal of pain, both physically and physiologically.
She was injured so badly and had to stay in the Red Cross Hospital in Mexico City for several weeks. After that she returned home for further recovery. She had to wear full body cast for three months. To kill the time and alleviate the pain, she started painting and finished her first first self-portrait the following year. Frida Kahlo once said, "I paint myself because I am often alone and I am the subject I know best". Her parents encouraged her to paint and made a special easel made for her so she could paint in bed. They also gave her brushes and boxes of paints.
Frida Kahlo reconnected with Rivera in 1928. She asked him to evaluate her work and he encouraged her. The two soon started the romantic relationship. Despite her mother's objection, Frida and Diego Rivera got married in the next year. During their earlier years as a married couple, Frida had to move a lot based on Diego's work. In 1930, they lived in San Francisco, Calfonia. Then they moved to New York City for Rivera's artwork show at Museum of Modern Art. They later moved to Detroit while Diego Rivera worked for Detroit Institute of Arts.
In 1932, Kahlo added more realistic and surrealistic components in her painting style. In the painting titled Henry Ford Hospital(1932), Frida Kahlo lied on a hospital bed naked and was surrounded with a few things floating around, which includes a fetus, a flower, a pelvis, a snail, all connected by veins. This painting was an expression of her feelings about her second miscarriage. It is as personal as her other self-portraits.
In 1933, Kahlo was living in New York City with husband Diego Rivera. Rivera was commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller to create a mural named as Man at the Crossroads at Rockefeller Center. Rivera tried to include Vladimir Lenin in the painting, who is a communist leader. Rockefeller stopped his work and that part was painted over. The couple had to move back to Mexico after this incident. They returned and live in San Angel, Mexico.
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rievea's marriage is not an usual one. They had been keeping separate homes and studios for all those years. Diego had so many affairs and one of that was with Kahlo's sister Cristina. Frida Kahlo was so sad and she cut off her long hair to show her desperation to the betrayal. She has been longed for children but she cannot bear one due to the bus accident. She was heartbroken when she experienced a second miscarriage in 1934. Kahlo and Rivera has been separated for a few times but they always went back together. In 1937 they helped Leon Trotsky and his wife Natalia. Leon Trotsky is a exiled communist and rival of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Kahlo and Rivera welcomed the couple together and let them stay at her Blue House. Kahlo also had a brief affair with Leon Trotsky when the couple stayed at her house.
In 1938, Frida Kahlo became friend of Andre Breton, who is one of the primary figures of Surrealism movement. Frida said she never considered herself as a Surrealist "until André Breton came to Mexico and told me I was one." She also wrote, "Really I do not know whether my paintings are surrealist or not, but I do know that they are the frankest expression of myself". "Since my subjects have always been my sensations, my states of mind and the profound reactions that life has been producing in me, I have frequently objectified all this in figures of myself, which were the most sincere and real thing that I could do in order to express what I felt inside and outside of myself."
In the same year, she had an exhibition at New York City gallery. She sold some of her paintings and got two commissions. One of that is from Clare Boothe Luce to paint her friend Dorothy Hale who committed suicide. She painted The Suicide of Dorothy Hale (1939), which tells the story of Dorothy's tragic leap. The patron Luce was horrified and almost destroyed this painting.
The next year, 1939, Kahlo was invited by Andre Breton and went to Paris. Her works are exhibited there and she is befriended with artists such as Marc Chagall, Piet Mondrian and Pablo Picasso. She and Rivera got divorced that year and she painted one of her most famous painting, The Two Fridas(1939).
But soon Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera remarried in 1940. The second marriage is about the same as the first one. They still keep separate lives and houses. Both of them had infidelities with other people during the marriage. Kahlo received a commission from the Mexican government for five portraits of important Mexican women in 1941, but she was unable to finish the project. She lost her beloved father that year and continued to suffer from chronic health problems. Despite her personal challenges, her work continued to grow in popularity and was included in numerous group shows around this time.
In the year of 1944, Frida Kahlo painted one of her most famous portrait, The Broken Column. In this painting she depicted herself naked and split down the middle. Her spine are shattered like column. She wears a surgical brace and there are nails all through her body, which is the indication of the consistent pain she went through. In this painting, Frida expressed her physical challenges by her art. During that time, she had a few surgeries and had to wear special corsets to protect her back spine. She seeks lots of medical treatment for her chronic pain but nothing really worked.
Her health condition has been worsening in 1950. That year she was diagnosed with gangrene in her right foot. She became bedridden for the next nine month and had to stay in hospital and had several surgeries. But with great persistence, Frida Kahlo continued to work and paint. In the year of 1953, she had a solo exhibition in Mexican. Although she had limited mobility at that time, she showed up on the exhibition's opening ceremony. She arrived by ambulance, and welcomed the attendees, celebrated the ceremony in a bed the gallery set up for her. A few months later, she had to accept another surgery. Part of her right leg got amputated to stop the gangrene.
With the poor physical condition, she is also deeply depressed. She even had a inclination for suicide. Frida Kahlo has been out and in hospital during that year. But despite her health issues, she has been active with the political movement. She showed up at the demonstration against US backed overthrow of President Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala on July 2. This is her last public appearance. About one week after her 47th birthday, Frida Kahlo passed away at her beloved Bule House. She was publicly reported to die of a pulmonary embolism, but there are speculation which was saying she died of a possible suicide.
Frida Kahlo's fame has been growing after her death. Her Blue House was opened as a museum in the year of 1958. In 1970s the interest on her work and life are renewed due to the feminist movement, since she was viewed as an icon of female creativity. In 1983, Hayden Herrera published his book on her, A Biography of Frida Kahlo, which drew more attention from the public to this great artist. In the year of 2002, a movie named Frida was released, staring alma Hayek as Frida Kahlo and Alfred Molina as Diego Rivera. This movie was nominated for six Academy Awards and won for Best Makeup and Original Score.