Time again for another midweek, late night history post! Because my school had our neon theme day today and I was surrounded by every bright color known to man, I was inspired to choose an artist to focus on, who happens to be one of the most well-known and successful female artists. Today, we celebrate Frida Kahlo as our WCW.
Frida Kahlo was born in Coyocoán, Mexico City, Mexico on July 6th, 1907. She grew up in what became a prominent piece in several of her works and is now a public museum, the Blue House or Casa Azul. When she was about six years old, Kahlo contracted polio, which caused residual damage to her right leg. Despite a slight limp, Kahlo was encouraged by her father to compete in soccer, swimming, and wrestling as rehabilitation exercises, sports not typical of girls at that time. Kahlo became politically active while attending high school at the National Preparatory School of Mexico, where she befriended many like-minded students and actually met future spouse Diego Rivera for the first time while he was commissioned to paint a mural for the school.
In 1925, at eighteen years old, Kahlo was involved in a horrible bus accident, during which she was impaled by a hand railing and experienced numerous fractures and breaks in her spine, pelvis, collarbone, ribs, and legs. Over the span of her life, Kahlo would undergo around thirty surgeries, wear painful medical corsets and correction braces, and spend years enduring bed rest to attempt recovery. Kahlo would face other serious health problems, including heart problems, gangrene that necessitated the amputation of her right foot, several miscarriages, and an addiction to painkillers and alcohol in her later years.
While on bed rest following the bus accident, Kahlo began painting. Initially, Kahlo’s work mainly consisted of self portraits that focused on the style, both artistically and costume-wise, of traditional Mexican culture, but as she gained experience she began crafting still lifes, concept pieces, and even a few commissioned works. Kahlo didn’t consider her work surreal, saying instead that she “just painted her reality,” but art experts loosely classify her art as surrealist with folk art influence. One of Kahlo’s most shocking paintings, which can be found through the links on either the above or below paintings, depicts the suicide of Dorothy Hale, and was met with criticism and hiding of the work due to its’ perceived insensitivity at the time.
In 1928, Kahlo married muralist Diego Rivera, who was twenty years older than her and far more established in the art community. The pair travelled to Rivera’s American galleries (most notably those in New York City, Detroit, and San Francisco) together until Kahlo was able to present her own work; after that point, the two were hardly together. Both often engaged in outside affairs, Kahlo with both men and women and Rivera with Kahlo’s younger sister at one point. You can actually track their relationship through Kahlo’s self portraits – if her hair was long, their marriage was going well, but if her hair is short, things were sour and she cut her locks in a sense of vengeful defiance. Rivera and Kahlo divorced in 1939, but remarried in late 1940, continuing to live mostly separate lives but legally bound. While together, the couple advocated for communism as active members of the Mexican Communist Party and supporters of Leon Trotsky, who they later disagreed with and abandoned to support Joseph Stalin.
Kahlo died on July 13th, 1954 in Casa Azul. Her cause of death is somewhat mysterious – some claim that her demise was a pulmonary embolism, but others say that she committed suicide due to her depressed state following the amputation of her leg. Whatever the actual cause, Kahlo demanded to be cremated at her death, reasoning that she spent “too much time lying down” in life to continue in death. Since her passing, Kahlo has been honored via feature on United States postal stamps, several biographies and movie adaptations of her life, and in some of the most successful gallery exhibitions of all time.
Kahlo’s reputation is highly controversial. She is held by scores of scholars and museums as a feminist icon, but many believe her art depicted the ideals of victimhood. Additionally, people sometimes hone in on her life story more than her art, glossing over the less glamorous parts of her life and her abundant talent. You can read more about the debate over Kahlo’s successes and reputation in this incredibly detailed article. After learning about the challenges and complexities in Kahlo’s life, I think she should be remembered as an incredible artist who was inspired by her heritage and dramatic life experiences, including high points like her fame and certain times in her marriage, and low points like her health and the other aspects of her marriage. I don’t know much about how criticism in the art community works, but as of now, Kahlo’s pieces are selling for millions of dollars, reportedly ranking her works financially in the same arena as some of the paintings of Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol.
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more Women in History Crush Wednesdays!