Pain, Infidelity And Art

Frida Kahlo’s paintings reflected her tough life
BY: ALEJANDRA SARACHAGA

Frida Kahlo is perhaps the most well-known Mexican female painter ever. Her work is known internationally and has been featured in some of the best museums in New York, Paris and around the world.

Frida was born Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo Calderon on July 6, 1907, in what is now known as Casa Azul in Coyoacan, a town on the outskirts of Mexico City. Her father, Wilhelm Kahlo, was German but had moved to Mexico at a young age and lived here for the rest of his life.

frida.JPGKahlo and her five sisters were raised in a strict and religious household. Along with her mother's rigidity and tendency toward hysteric outbursts, there were several events in Kahlo's childhood that warped her for life.

At age six, Kahlo contracted polio and took to bed for nine months. She walked with a limp after her recovery. Then, in 1925, at the age of 18, Kahlo was involved in a near-fatal bus accident where she was impaled through her pelvis by a handrail, suffering multiple fractures throughout her body. She spent nine months in the hospital this time, immobile and wrapped up in a plaster corset. Her injuries from the crash caused her pain and complications for the rest of her life.

Kahlo's work was influenced by the traumatic physical and psychological events from her childhood and early adulthood, as well as the infidelity of her husband, Diego Rivera, another famous Mexican painter/philanderer.

Her paintings were dominated by self-portraits that often showed her suffering. Her works are often categorized as surrealist because of her sometimes bizarre and disturbing themes, but unlike others surrealists, Kahlo was not interested in dreams or the subconscious; her art was almost always starkly autobiographical.

 In addition to personal issues, Kahlo's work, which was often brooding and introspective, also dealt heavily with questions of national identity. Her mixed ancestry - Mexican and German - provided a rich source of ideas, particularly during the second world war, when Kahlo changed the spelling of her first name to one that was less Germanic.

Kahlo's early training was drawn from an eclectic mix of influences. Following the Mexican Revolution and Minister of Education Jose Vasconcelos's new education policy, Kahlo was one of 35 girls admitted to the National Preparatory School in 1922, where she planned to study medicine, botany and social sciences. During her years at the school, Kahlo also took drawing lessons in Fernando Fernandez's studio where she acquired training in draftsmanship. At age 15, Kahlo witnessed Diego Rivera painting the Creation mural in the school’s amphitheater, a moment of infatuation and fascination for the young artist that she would pursue later in life.

But, Kahlo's most influential early experimentation with painting was during the months she spent recovering at home after her bus accident. Gifted with a set of paints from her father, Kahlo spent hours studying herself and confronting existential questions raised by her trauma, like dissociation from identity, death and spirituality. Why she never took a razor to her famous unibrow is a question she took to the grave with her.

In 1927, slowly recovering, Kahlo began to familiarize herself with the artistic and Communist circles in Mexico City. In 1928, having officially joined the Mexican Communist Party, Kahlo sought out Rivera to discuss a possible career as an artist. One year later, the two married and moved to Cuernavaca. Here, Kahlo devoted herself to indigenous themes in painting, at times even performing Mexican folkloric rituals like wearing a traditional Tehuana costume for her husband who apparently got off on that.

Throughout the 1930s, life in Mexico was tense for Kahlo. Rivera was an unfaithful husband, (could have been the unkempt unibrow), and the revolutionary climate leading up to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War made for an explosive atmosphere. Two failed pregnancies in the early 1930s also contributed to Kahlo's simultaneously harsh and beautiful representation of the female experience in her paintings.

Kahlo separated from Rivera in 1935, renting a flat in Mexico City, and began a short-lived affair with a Japanese sculptor. The following year, Kahlo joined the Fourth International, a Communist organization, and returned to Casa Azul, which became a meeting point for international intellectuals, artists, and activists, and where she helped protect Leon Trotsky, a Russian revolutionist, and his wife.

Following Trotsky's assassination, Kahlo bounced back to Rivera who was in San Francisco in September of 1940. They remarried shortly after and returned to Mexico City, where the two maintained separate flats. Kahlo continued to dote on her muse, sending him love notes wherever he was working. It’s the brow! The brow!

Throughout the 1940s, the artist's work grew in popularity with international collectors, and was included in several group shows in Mexico. In 1946, Kahlo received a national prize for her painting Moses.

As Kahlo’s work was gaining recognition, her health was declining. By June of that same year, she could no longer remain upright or sit or stand for extended periods of time so she underwent a bone graft operation on her spine in New York that was unsuccessful. In 1950, she underwent another bone graft and was hospitalized for nine months in Mexico City. After she was discharged, she had to use a wheelchair and crutches to get around and she needed painkillers that affected the quality of her work. In 1953, her right leg was sliced off at the knee due to gangrene.

Kahlo continued to paint in her final years while also maintaining her political activism, protesting nuclear testing by Western powers. She exhibited one last time in Mexico in 1953 at Lola Alvarez Bravo's gallery, her first solo show in Mexico. She was brought to the event in an ambulance and had her four-poster bed placed at the center of the gallery. Kahlo died the next year, on July 13, 1954, just seven days after her 47th birthday, at the now famous Casa Azul, which is today the Frida Kahlo Museum.