Who was Frida Kahlo? Her life and legacy
Nearly 70 years after her death, the work of Frida Kahlo continues to move, excite and inspire. Jonathan Wright looks at the career of the Mexican artist and her legacy today
Today, we all fall under the gaze of Frida Kahlo. Looking out from posters, prints, book covers, mugs, tea towels and T-shirts, her image is more familiar than it was during her short life. Sometimes she appears androgynous, sometimes feminine and delicate, but there’s always an underlying sense of someone who carefully curated her own public image. No wonder Kahlo fits so easily into the iconography of a 21st-century world that’s invented the idea of the influencer, personifying as this version of Kahlo does a giddy and contradictory mix of bohemianism, tragic heroine and living your own best life.
- On the podcast | Radical women
But how much does this tell us about the historical Frida Kahlo, an artist of rare talent who grew up amidst the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution, endured chronic pain and fragile health throughout her life and who, in the wake of her marriage to Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, mixed with some of the 20th century’s most important figures? A great deal in that she understood the power of her own image, but also not much at all when you compare the kinds of images typically chosen for Kahlo merchandise to paintings that are rarely, if ever, shown on book covers. To take just one of the many self-portraits that were so integral to her work, Henry Ford Hospital (1932) shows Kahlo lying in a pool of her own blood on a hospital bed (pictured below right). A single tear falls across one cheek. Six red umbilical cords emanate from her stomach, one of which is attached to a male foetus. The painting was created in the wake of a miscarriage.
It’s a bleak and unflinchingly honest portrayal of trauma. Without this kind of extraordinary painting to give substance to her public persona, ‘Fridamania’ – a term that encompasses not just Kahlo’s posthumous fame but her adoption as a figurehead by Mexican-Americans, feminist movements and members of the LGBTQ+ community – simply wouldn’t exist. Forget for a moment Kahlo’s 21st-century image and focus on how she became a painter capable of such work.
Where was Frida Kahlo born?
It’s a story that begins in 1907 in Coyoacán, then a small village on the outskirts of Mexico City, when Kahlo became the third of four daughters born to German émigré Guillermo Kahlo (1871–1941) and Matilde Calderón y González (1874–1932), herself the daughter of an indigenous father and a Spanish-descended mother. Guillermo was a talented and successful photographer, although the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910 badly impacted on his work because he relied on commissions from the recently overthrown government.
While Kahlo’s relationship with her conservative mother was often tense, she was close to her father, especially after Kahlo contracted polio when she was six years old. This left her with a withered and shortened right leg – and may partly explain her love of long traditional dresses because they covered her disability. According to art historian Hayden Herrera’s biography Frida, Guillermo’s own experience of epileptic fits helped the pair forge a close bond based on a shared experience of ill-health. Guillermo taught his daughter about photography and painting. Later she would write in her diary of his “tenderness ” and “understanding for all my problems”.
More like this
- Read more | 100 women who changed the world
In 1922, Kahlo entered the prestigious Escuela Nacional Preparatoria (National Preparatory School), one of only 35 girls among 2,000 students. The school authorities embraced indigenismo, an anti-colonial approach to Mexican identity that played into Kahlo’s creation of a distinctive public image. She began claiming she had been born in 1910, “a daughter of the revolution”.
She and her friends, a small and informal group called Los Cachuchas after the peaked caps they wore, were rebellious and irreverent, but also politically engaged and fiercely intellectual. “We Cachuchas were anarchically happy,” wrote one of their number, Manuel González Ramírez, adding, “It would be a bit pious to say that we were studying in those days. We actually devoured books on a variety of subjects, but especially literature.”
Kahlo planned to become a doctor until a horrific accident changed the trajectory of her life. On 17 September 1925, Kahlo and her first love, Alejandro Gómez Arias, the unofficial leader of Los Cachuchas, were aboard a bus when it was hit by a streetcar. Several passengers died. Kahlo was impaled on an iron handrail that pierced her pelvis.
Her abdomen and uterus were punctured, she suffered multiple broken bones and her right foot was crushed. Doctors doubted she would survive. After her initial convalescence, she was diagnosed as having three displaced vertebrae, and had to wear a plaster corset and spend a further three months in bed. Her relationship with Arias, of which his parents disapproved, would finally end after he was sent on a tour of Europe.
Enduring a second long convalescence – her battle with polio had isolated her for nine months – Kahlo began to take art seriously. Her mother gave her a specially designed easel so Kahlo could paint in bed. She later wrote, “I paint myself because I am often alone and I am the subject I know best.”
Who was married to Frida Kahlo?
In late 1927, although she would live in chronic pain for the rest of her life and undergo multiple operations, Kahlo was well enough to enter the world again. Her friends, now at university, were involved in student politics. Kahlo joined the Mexican Communist Party (PCM), whose members included such radical figures as the Italian-American photographer Tina Modotti (1896–1942). At one of Modotti’s social gatherings – although accounts differ, and both parties had a habit of embellishing stories – Kahlo was introduced to Diego Rivera (1886–1957).
- Read more | A beginner's guide to art history
Akin in his own lifetime to Pablo Picasso in terms of recognition factor, Rivera was an art superstar. In 2018, his 1931 painting The Rivals fetched $9.76m (£7.17m) at a US auction – a record for a Latin American artist that would only be broken by the $34.9m (£25m) sale of Kahlo’s 1949 work Diego and I three years later. Typically forthright, Kahlo asked Rivera to look at her artworks and to judge whether she had any talent. Her work, he later wrote, “revealed an unusual energy of expression, precise delineation of character, and true severity”. Soon, she became “the most important fact in my life”.
The two married in August 1929. Matilde disapproved of Kahlo marrying a radical bohemian 20 years her daughter’s senior, a man whose love life was infamously convoluted. Guillermo, mindful of Rivera’s wealth and his daughter’s likely need for expensive medical treatment in the years ahead, took the opposite view. Their parents dubbed the couple “the elephant” and “the dove”, such was the difference in their physical stature.
What was Frida Kahlo famous for?
The couple’s marriage was reported internationally, and in the 1930s, the couple took on a kind of joint identity as ‘Diego and Frida’, art-radical precursors to Posh’n’Becks or Brangelina. Mexican fascination with the couple went global when they travelled to San Francisco in 1930. In the years immediately following, Rivera received lucrative commissions for huge murals, ironically enough considering his political sympathies, paid for by industrialists and financiers such as the Fords and Rockefellers – although this American work rather dried up after Rivera painted Lenin in a mural at the Rockefeller Center, an artwork later chiselled off the wall.
This need to travel for Rivera’s work explains why Kahlo’s Henry Ford Hospital also shows Detroit, the city where Kahlo lost her child, on the horizon, a placement that only adds to the desolation of the scene. Yet there’s a risk here of seeing Kahlo as someone to whom things were happening, as opposed to her husband who was out in the world making his way.
It’s an inherently sexist perception that all too often attaches itself to female artists, musicians and writers. It also ignores how Kahlo’s own art was developing over this time. Yes, she often dealt with her own pain, over which she had little control, but Kahlo was transmuting these experiences into something mysterious yet universal – and she knew this. “Of course he [Rivera] does well for a little boy, but it is I who am the big artist,” she mischievously told the Detroit News as early as 1933.
- Read more | What was the Women's Liberation Movement?
Over the course of the 1930s and through to her death in 1954, she backed up this idea with a series of canvases, often surprisingly small when you see them in galleries, that have become internationally famous.
Along the way, she enjoyed notable successes, such as a 1938 New York City exhibition and the sale of The Frame to The Louvre in 1939, but struggled to make a living from her painting until the 1940s. Her work was heavily influenced by Mexican folk art and rich in symbolism, both pre-Colombian and Christian. It was often deeply political, and confronted questions around gender, class and race.
She knew the great, the good and the notorious, sometimes intimately, as when she had an affair with the exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Her stormy relationship with Rivera, interrupted by divorce in 1939, endured and the couple reconciled and remarried – although neither ever learnt the knack of fidelity. During the course of their relationship, Kahlo had affairs with both men and women, including Costa Rican-born singer Chavela Vargas.
In April 1953, Kahlo staged her first solo exhibition in Mexico, at the Galería Arte Contemporaneo. Few expected her to attend. But ignoring medical advice, she arrived at the exhibition’s opening party by ambulance before being carried on a stretcher to her own four-poster bed, which she had arranged to have moved from her home to the gallery. Predictably, this caused a sensation.
It was an evening that says much about how Fridamania subsequently attached itself to her. To reiterate, for all she was a deeply serious artist whose life was bound up with her work, she understood the power of her own public image as keenly as a Kardashian. For further evidence, look at a photograph of Kahlo and Rivera from 1932 (pictured on page 53), the same year that she painted Henry Ford Hospital. While Rivera smiles and his attention seems elsewhere, Kahlo looks directly at the camera. It’s Kahlo who commands your attention. She looks magnificent.
How did Frida Kahlo die?
On 13 July 1954, Kahlo died, aged just 47. The official cause of death was pulmonary embolism, although some believe she may have taken her own life. Following her death, her body lay in state for a night at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico’s most important cultural centre, under a Communist flag. The next day, she was cremated and her ashes reside in a pre-Colombian urn at her family home, La Casa Azul, now a museum. The day of her passing, the same day Frida Kahlo’s rich and strange afterlife began, was, said Diego Rivera, “the most tragic day of my life”.
This feature was first published in the March 2023 issue of BBC History Revealed
Save 42% AND receive a copy of The Earth Transformed by Peter Frankopan when you subscribe BBC History Magazine! PLUS Get FREE access to HistoryExtra worth £34.99.