Frida Kahlo: the pain of existence turned into art

Frida Kahlo has become a media figure and an emblem claimed by various social movements, such as sexual diversity, feminism, and people with disabilities, not only for her artistic work but also for her intense life

Frida Kahlo: the pain of existence turned into art
Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo & Anson Goodyear. Photo: Wikimedia

Her name was Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo Calderón, but she passed through history as Frida Kahlo, a simplicity that contrasts with the complex and complicated nature of her personality, her life, and the circumstances that led her to be the tormented protagonist of her pieces. Kahlo is recognized not only for her artistic talent but also for her ideas close to feminism at a time when sexual liberation was rarely discussed. Today Frida Kahlo is part of the national imagination of the country, which is why her name is imminently referred to when talking about Mexico, its art, and culture.

In 1938, after a prolific artistic production, the recognition of her talent as a painter, and her close relations with intellectuals and artists of the world, Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) had her first solo exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York; this exhibition was accompanied by a text by the poet and essayist André Breton, who in his writing celebrates the Mexican artist and describes her as surrealist.

"My astonishment and rejoicing knew no limits when I discovered, when I arrived in Mexico, that her work had flourished, producing in the last paintings pure surrealism, and that even though everything was conceived without having previous knowledge of the ideas that motivated the activities of my friends and mine," says Breton, a surrealism theorist, in his text.

He adds: "This art still contains that drop of cruelty and good humor uniquely capable of mixing the rare effective powers that together form Mexico's secret potion. Far from considering that these feelings compose closed lands of the mind, as it happens in the coldest climate zones, she exposes them proudly, with a mixture of frankness and insolence at the same time".

Contrary to Breton's claims, Kahlo denied being surrealistic and even claimed not to know what that movement meant or represented until she met André Breton.

"The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to, and I always paint everything that goes through my head without further consideration... Surrealism is the magical surprise of finding a lion in a wardrobe when one was 'sure' to find shirts. I use surrealism as a way to make fun of others without them noticing it, and to befriend those who do," Kahlo said of Breton's observations.

Frida Kahlo in New York
Frida Kahlo in New York. Photo: MOMA

This exhibition in New York would be just one of many abroad that would precede for years his first solo exhibition in Mexico, which took place in 1953. Frida Kahlo arrived at the exhibition in an ambulance and, despite medical indications about her health, was admitted to a hospital bed.

This fact would become in later years one of the passages that would contribute to mistify her figure and to thinking of her as a painter whose main artistic engine was pain and suffering. An artist whose work could not be thought of and understood if it were separated from her life.

However, before the myth is its history, which began on July 6, 1907, the date on which it was born as a result of the union between Guillermo Kahlo, an immigrant of Hungarian-German origin, and Oaxaca's Matilde Calderon. Frida grew up in what is now known as the Casa Azul, located in Coyoacán, Mexico City.

In 1913, at the age of six, Frida suffered from poliomyelitis, a disease whose sequels caused her right leg to have a lesser development, so that the limb remained smaller and thinner.

By 1922 she entered the National Preparatory School; she was one of the few women who attended this institution since they barely exceeded thirty. The ideas and education she received in the National Preparatory School were decisive in Frida's formation of revolutionary and left-wing ideas and her later militant life in the Communist Party of Mexico.

There she met those who in the future would become important intellectuals of the country. During her time at the National Preparatory School, she formed part of "Los Cachuchas," a group made up mostly of men who defined themselves as a political group and a critic of authority. She and Carmen Jaime were the only women in this group of students.

Frida Kahlo mural: the work of art called Magdalena. Photo: AFP
Frida Kahlo mural: the work of art called Magdalena. Photo: AFP

When she was 18 years old Frida suffered an accident that would leave in her body damages that would accompany her all her life. On September 17, 1925, the bus in which she was traveling was run over by a tram, the impact left her with fractures in the spine, clavicle, and ribs; in addition, her right leg suffered several fractures.

This accident would represent a circumstantial event, not only because of the emotional impact and the suffering that it generated until the end of her life but also because, due to the immobility to which she was subjected for months, Frida began to paint.

It is at this moment that Frida Kahlo's career as a painter begins. At that time she maintained an affective relationship with the essayist and political orator Alejandro Gómez Arias, to whom she dedicates her first self-portrait; it is a Self-portrait in a velvet suit, considered one of the most important pieces in the history of Mexican art.

Her interest in painting and talent made Frida venture into artistic circles, where she met important artists and intellectuals such as photographer Tina Modotti, journalist Juan Antonio Mella and muralist Diego Rivera.

Soon Frida and Diego, whom the painter described in a text as "a big, immense child with a kind face and a sad look", would establish close relations, maintain a relationship and get married in 1929.

Frida Kahlo life
Life of Frida Kahlo. Photo: Twitter

The Blue House was their home and became a must-see for artists and intellectuals of the time. In 1934, after returning from a stay in different cities in the United States, Frida lived next to Diego in a house that is now known as Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, built by the architect Juan O'Gorman.

Their political ideals led them to take Leon Trotsky into their home between 1937 and 1939, with whom Frida has an affair and is finally assassinated by Ramón Mercader.

In 1939 Frida divorces Diego as a result of the conflicts derived from Rivera's multiple infidelities. However, they remarry in 1940 and agree to have independent sexual lives; Frida's affective relationships include both men and women.

As already mentioned, Frida's first solo exhibition takes place in 1938 in New York. Other exhibitions abroad where some of her works were shown were held at the Renou et Colle Gallery in Paris; the Museum of Modern Art in New York; and the Institute of Contemporary Art.

Likewise, in Mexico, her works formed part of collective exhibitions in diverse enclosures such as the Gallery of Mexican Art, the Palace of Fine Arts, and the Salon of the Mexican Plastic Arts. Frida's only solo exhibition took place in 1953, a year before her death, at the Galería de Arte Contemporáneo de Lola Álvarez Bravo.

Frida Kahlo paintings.
Frida Kahlo paintings. Photo: Twitter

The final part of her life was full of health complications, in 1950 she remained in for nearly a year in bed as a result of medical negligence; in 1953 her right leg was amputated and in 1954 she had two suicide attempts. At that time she participated in a march against the overthrow of the president of Guatemala and the interventionism of the United States in that Central American country, this generated greater difficulties in her health.

She finally died on July 13, 1954, at the age of 47 and her body was veiled in the Palace of Fine Arts.

Frida Kahlo has become a media figure and an emblem claimed by various social movements, such as sexual diversity, feminism, and people with disabilities, not only for her artistic work but also for her intense life, work, and the defense of her ideals. Nowadays, she is part of the national imagination of the country, which is why her name is imminently alluded to when Mexico, its art, and culture are spoken about.