Who was Frida Kahlo? Your guide to the tortured artist

Her face may be better known than her art, but Frida Kahlo’s tragic history deserves just as much recognition, says Alicea Francis

Portrait of Frida Kahlo

They say that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil can cause a tornado in Texas; that a seemingly insignificant decision can change a person’s life in the most unimaginable of ways. Frida Kahlo’s butterfly moment occurred on 17 September 1925. She was boarding the bus home from school. Realising that she had left her umbrella behind, she disembarked and, after a fruitless search, boarded another one.

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The second bus did not reach its final destination. En route, it collided with a tram and Kahlo sustained near-fatal injuries. The course of her life, which until that point had been so clearly mapped out, had suddenly taken a dramatic turn – one that would see her rise to fame and become one of the most recognisable artists in global history.

Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón was born in 1910, the first year of the Mexican Revolution – or, at least, that is what she would tell her acquaintances. She was actually born on 6 July 1907. Her father was a German photographer who had settled in Mexico City after his epilepsy prevented him from attending university; her mother was of Spanish and indigenous descent. At the age of six, she contracted polio and was left with a deformed leg. Following her illness, she and her father grew close – perhaps thanks to their shared experiences of disability – and she spent many hours with him in his studio, learning to retouch portraits.

Kahlo was also academically gifted, and at the age of 15 won herself a place at the prestigious National Preparatory School to study medicine. She proved a rebellious student, shunning authority and playing pranks on her teachers. It was during a journey home from the ‘Prepa’ that the 18-year-old Kahlo fell victim to that fateful bus crash. Of the accident, she wrote: “I sat down at the side, next to the handrail … A moment or two later, the bus collided with a tram … It was a peculiar sort of impact. It wasn’t violent. It was muffled and slow and it injured everyone … The impact hurled us forwards and the handrail went into me like a sword going into a bull.”

Regarding herself

Kahlo sustained a triple fracture to her spine, fractures in her collarbone, ribs and pelvis, a dislocated shoulder, a perforated abdomen and a broken leg. She left hospital after a month, but was bed-bound on-and-off for more than two years. To keep her occupied, her mother had a special artist’s easel made that Kahlo could use while lying down, and attached a mirror to the underside of her bed canopy so that she could paint self portraits. These would be the first of around 55 such works that she would paint during her lifetime. “I paint myself because I’m so often alone,” she later said, “and because I’m the subject I know best.”

It was not only Kahlo’s bones that had been broken by the accident. Also shattered were her dreams of pursuing a medical career, as her spinal and leg injuries meant that she could no longer stand for any sustained period of time. Instead, she began to entertain the idea of becoming a professional artist. In 1928, she joined the Mexican Communist Party, and it was that June, through one of her fellow members, that she got to know Diego Rivera – the man who she would later call her “second accident”.

In 1928, she met Diego Rivera – the man who she would later call her ‘second accident’

Rivera was twice Kahlo’s age and more than double her weight. With an enormous belly and frog-like features, it may not have been immediately obvious that he was a notorious womaniser. He was also famed across Mexico as a talented muralist and vocal member of the Communist Party.

One day, Kahlo appeared at the bottom of his scaffold in the Ministry of Education, where he was working on ‘Creation’, and called for him to come down. He obliged, somewhat begrudgingly, but was pleasantly surprised when she presented him with a few of her paintings. He later explained, “The canvases revealed an unusual energy of expression, precise delineation of character and true severity. They showed none of the tricks in the name of originality that usually mark the work of ambitious beginners.” She invited him to her home to see more, and the pair soon became an item.

Elephant and dove

When they married in June 1929, Kahlo’s father was the only member of her family in attendance. Her mother described it as a union between “an elephant and dove”, but her father understood that at least Rivera could pay for the medical treatments that Kahlo would likely require for the rest of her life. At the wedding, Kahlo wore traditional street clothes that she had borrowed from her maid, beginning a habit that would continue for the rest of her life.

Photo of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera
Frida and her husband, the mural artist Diego Rivera (left). (Photo by Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images)

Every morning, she adorned herself with beaded necklaces, long skirts and embroidered tops in the indigenous style, embracing the Mexicanidad movement that had developed in the aftermath of the revolution. When the pair travelled to San Francisco in November 1930 – Kahlo’s first trip outside of Mexico – photographer Edward Weston wrote: “She causes much excitement … People stop in their tracks to look in wonder.”

The next year, they returned to the US – this time to New York City, where Rivera would host his first retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Kahlo hated their time in the city, describing it as “an enormous chicken coop”. She despaired at the gap between rich and poor, and caused a scene in hotels where Jews were prohibited. Her language could, at times, be as colourful as her clothes.

It was in early 1932, during a year-long stay in Detroit, that Kahlo fell pregnant. Following the bus accident, she had been told that she would be unable to carry a child to term due to the damage sustained to her pelvis. With a heavy heart, she arranged for an abortion, but later discovered that she was still pregnant. Desperate to have a “little Digueto”, she decided to keep the child, but in July she miscarried. The trauma would inspire her to create some of her most controversial pieces to date.

Separate lives

With their return to Mexico, Rivera and Kahlo acquired a pair of homes in San Ángel connected via a staircase. Here, the couple would live separately – an arrangement that seemed to suit Rivera well. He would have Kahlo nearby to organise his personal and work affairs, while also having the freedom to entertain a continual stream of female guests. In the summer of 1934, Kahlo discovered that he was having an affair with her younger sister Cristina. She was devastated and moved out for a while.

Russian Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky and his second wife, Natalia Sedova, are greeted by Frida Kahlo and Max Shachtman on their arrival in Tampico, Mexico. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Russian Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky and his second wife, Natalia Sedova, are greeted by Frida Kahlo and Max Shachtman on their arrival in Tampico, Mexico. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Eventually, Kahlo decided to take Rivera back, writing that “all these letters, liaisons with petticoats, lady teachers of English, gypsy models, assistants with good intentions, plenipotentiary emissaries from distant places, only represent flirtations, and that at bottom, you and I love each other dearly”. In both cases the emphasis is hers, but even so it appears she decided that their marriage would become an open one. She soon began her own affairs, with both men and women.

In September 1936, Rivera appealed to the Mexican President to grant Leon Trotsky asylum in Mexico. The Russian revolutionary leader had lived in exile in Turkey, France and Norway since 1929, and the previous month the Stalinist regime had found him guilty of treason and sentenced him to death in absentia.

Kahlo struggled to make a living from her work until the mid-1940s

Seeing the danger he was now in, asylum was granted, and it was Kahlo who greeted Trotsky and his wife off the boat. The pair were put up in Kahlo’s childhood home, La Casa Azul (The Blue House), and she spent many hours there conversing with Trotsky in English – a language that neither of their partners spoke well. Their mutual affection soon turned to intimacy, and they began a passionate affair that would last for the next year.

André Breton, the leader of the Surrealist movement, travelled to Mexico in 1938, and he too was blown away by Kahlo’s work. He declared her a Surrealist, and she was invited by Julian Levy – the owner of a gallery in New York that specialised in Surrealist works – to exhibit there. An essay by Breton appeared in the handout, in which he declared her work a “ribbon around a bomb”. Around half of the 25 paintings displayed were sold.

The following year, Breton arranged for her to exhibit in Paris, and her self-portrait ‘The Frame’ was bought by the Louvre. It was the first work by a 20th century Mexican artist to be purchased by a major international museum.

Unlikely reunion

Upon her return to Mexico, her relationship with Rivera deteriorated and he requested a divorce. Kahlo was crushed. Over the months that followed, her health worsened and she began drinking heavily. Learning of her condition, Rivera – who had by now been commissioned to paint a mural in San Francisco – encouraged her to fly out and see his doctor there. She was prescribed bed rest, a healthy diet and, controversially, a reunion with Rivera – although the doctor himself declared him “unfit for monogamy”. Rivera agreed and on 8 December 1940 – just a year after their divorce – they were remarried.

Photo of Diego Rivero and Frida Kahlo
Diego and Frida divorced in 1939 but remarried on December 8, 1940, in San Francisco City Hall. (Photo by Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images)

Despite her treatment, Kahlo’s health problems continued, particularly her back issues, and she was forced to wear corsets made from steel and leather or plaster. She spent much time confined to La Casa Azul, where her only company was her menagerie of pets, including spider monkeys, Xoloitzcuintli dogs and parrots. Her work continued to gain recognition, but she struggled to make a living from it until the mid-1940s, as she refused to adapt her style to suit her clients’ wishes.

Kahlo spent much of 1950 in hospital, where she underwent an unsuccessful bone graft that caused an infection and left her wheelchair-bound. Despite this, she continued to campaign for the communist cause, saying, “I must struggle with all my strength to ensure that the little positive my health allows me to do also benefits the revolution, the only real reason to live.”

In April 1953, realising that she was gravely ill, the photographer Lola Álvarez Bravo organised the first solo exhibition of Kahlo’s work in Mexico. On the evening of the private viewing, Kahlo was in a particularly bad way, so Rivera arranged for her four-poster bed to be set up in the gallery.

A peasants’ revolt: Madero, Mexicanidad and revolution

For 31 of the 35 years between 1876 until 1911, Mexico’s president was Porfirio Díaz. His economic policies served only the wealthy, leaving peasants and the working classes unable to make a living. In 1910, as he was running for his seventh term as president, Francisco Madero emerged as leader of the ‘Antireeleccionistas’ and declared himself a candidate. Madero was arrested and Díaz claimed he had won the election, leading to a revolt by the people. In the spring of 1911, Díaz was forced to resign and Madero was elected president. But with counterrevolutionaries fighting back, the conflict lasted for almost a decade.

Before the revolution, Mexican folk culture – a mixture of indigenous and European elements – was suppressed by the elite, who claimed to have purely European ancestry and regarded the West as the definition of civilisation. The post-revolutionary Mexicanidad movement sought to redefine Mexican identity through the rediscovery of its pre-Columbian and indigenous heritage. Music, fashion, architecture and art were all influenced, as is visible in much of Frida Kahlo’s work.

In August, her right leg was amputated at the knee due to gangrene, and she fell into a deep depression. In February 1954, she wrote: “I keep on wanting to kill myself. Rivera is what keeps me from it, through my vain idea that he would miss me … But never in my life have I suffered more. I will wait a while…”

Kahlo’s final public appearance was on 2 July 1954, at a demonstration against the CIA invasion of Guatemala. The event would prove more than her body could handle. On 12 July, she presented Rivera with a ring for their silver wedding anniversary – more than a month early. When he asked why she was doing so, she replied: “Because I feel I am going to leave you very soon.” The next morning, she was dead. The official cause stated was a pulmonary embolism, but many believe she committed suicide by overdose.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that Kahlo stopped being known as “the wife of Diego Rivera” and became a name unto herself. In 1976, at the height of second-wave feminism, a documentary titled The Life and Death of Frida Kahlo was released. The film exposed her to a public that was now ready for her story, and the feminist, Chicano (Mexican-American) and LGBT communities took Kahlo as their icon. Her fame only continued to grow over the decades that followed, and her image began to appear on T-shirts, mugs and cushion covers. Today, people know her face even if they do not know what she accomplished. In an age when self-portraiture has become the defining visual genre, Frida Kahlo has never been more popular.

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This article was first published in the September 2018 edition of BBC History Revealed