Frida Kahlo is a well-known artist and will be our featured Woman of History this week.
[WARNING: Paintings linked within in this post may have triggering content]
Frida was born Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderon on July 6, 1907 in a small suburb of Mexico City. Her father was a German immigrant to Mexico, Guillermo (born Carl Wilhelm) Kahlo. He was a photographer, so the art bug came naturally to Frida. Her mother was Matilde Calderon y Gonzalez, a Mexican born woman of indigenous and Spanish descent. Guillermo and Matilde had four daughters together: Matilde, Adriana, Frida and Cristina. Frida also had two half-sisters named Maria Louisa and Margarita, but they played a lesser part in her life. Frida would be especially close to her younger sister Cristina.
Frida’s childhood was mixed. She enjoyed a close relationship with her father due to both dealing with debilitating illnesses. The family in general were often sick. Frida was six years old when she contacted polio, which left her disabled. She was bullied for her disability (her one leg was shorter than the other) and left isolated from her peers due to polio. She bonded with her father, who had epilepsy due to an accident in his youth. Guillermo also aided Frida in her first interest in art, teaching her how to take photographs and develop them. He promoted her being involved with sports, as well.
She also grew up during the Mexican Revolution. When she was three years old, war broke out in Mexico. Frida and her family found themselves living amongst it all, allegedly even feeding some of the rebels who wondered onto their property. Political unrest had been building for several years, as the president at the time, Porfirio Diaz, had ruled the country for thirty-five years. In 1910 an election was held. Originally Diaz claimed he wouldn’t run but did a reverse when it came time for the election. The election was rigged in his favor, and armed resistance to his term continuing began. However, Diaz would find himself out of power and in exile within the year, replaced by his opponent Francisco Madero.
Infighting amongst the factions of the rebellion would continue to fight for the next ten years, with varying degrees of outside interference (including incidents with the US and Germany).
Due to her illness, she started school with her younger sister at the local primary school. Cristina went to a convent school afterwards, but Guillermo intervened and had Frida sent to a German school. This experience however was not one of Frida’s best memories. She was soon kicked out of her first high school for disobedience, then sent to a vocational school where her stay was also brief. This time however, Frida was sexually abused by one of her teachers.
At the age of 15, Frida was accepted into the National Preparatory School, where she excelled. To hide the fact that she was older than her fellow students, she stated her birthday as being in 1910, trying to associate herself with the Mexican Revolution which she held in great esteem. She planned on becoming a doctor, so studied natural sciences. It was at this school that Frida found herself connecting the ideas that would fuel her later career and social activism. While she didn’t consider art as her future career, she began to assist her father and his friend Fernando Fernandez with their projects.
Frida’s life would change drastically on September 17, 1925. She and her boyfriend at the time were involved in a bus accident when the bus taking them home from school collided with a street car. The accident had fatalities, and Frida was almost one herself. An iron handrail impaled her through the abdomen, breaking bones and causing several other injuries. She spent over a month in the hospital, and another two months in recovery at home. She would never fully recover from this accident. She would continue to have problems with her spine – vertebrae had been displaced and pain for the rest of her life. She would have to wear special casts and corsets to help her back. Occasionally she would be bed-ridden or forced into a wheelchair. She would have over 30 surgeries during her life time trying to deal with the after effects of this accident.
Not only did this change her physically, but it also forced her to reconsider her future. Her recovery kept her out of school and would make it difficult to maintain a career as a doctor. However, her interest in art and in medicine gave her a potential alternative career: medical illustration. In the end she would become a full-time artist.
Frida was creative in finding ways around her disabilities and injuries. With the help of her mother, she had a special easel made that allowed her to paint in bed and used mirrors to help paint self-portraits.
After two years of recovery, Frida began to socialize again, meeting new friends and some old ones, and being introduced to new ideas. She joined the Mexican communist party and became friends with several activists and artists. She became more politically active and more into the history, culture and art of Mexico.
It was during this time that she was reintroduced to Diego Rivera. Diego was a member of the communist party, and like Frida was an artist himself. He was impressed by her art, and the two soon began a romantic relationship. Her mother was against it, while her father liked Diego and approved. He was twenty years her senior and had two previous marriages. In fact, when their relationship began, he was still married to his second wife Guadalupe Marin.
They were married on August 21, 1939 in a civil ceremony. Their marriage was tumultuous with neither of them being particularly faithful to one another. However, her travels with her husband greatly affected her art. They moved to Morelos when Diego was commissioned to paint a mural in the Palace of Cortes. There she found herself influenced by traditional folk art of Mexico, which altered her style of painting. She also began wearing more traditional native dress, which she used both as a connection to Mexico’s native history as well to hide her scars and disabilities. It also reflected Frida’s feminist and anti-colonialism beliefs as it celebrated both native history as well as referenced a native culture that was matriarchal.
One of the themes of Frida’s work, and her activism, was her belief in connecting with the culture and history of the native cultures of Mexico. She was influenced by her schoolmates and her father, developing a lifelong interest in the subject, although there would be specific moments when her artwork would show a particular increase of interest.
In 1930, she and Diego moved to San Francisco. Frida was interested in some aspects of the United States, but overall found it unlikable. She felt it emphasized colonialism and found the classism and ignorance of poverty to be ‘terrifying’. Over the next few years she lived in San Francisco, Detroit, and New York City. She began to put her artwork in exhibits and sell her work. She worked on her style and added new techniques and influences.
While in Detroit, Frida suffered a miscarriage. Sources differ on Frida’s interest in having children, but most state that her injuries from the bus accident and perhaps infertility problems would be the cause of her several miscarriages. She depicted the ordeal of her miscarriage, and the abortion that was carried out when it became prolonged, in her 1932 self-portrait Henry Ford Hospital.
She and Diego moved back to Mexico City, settling in the San Angel neighborhood. They had a pair of houses, joined by a bridge. They would live there together for four years till their divorce in 1939, when Diego would keep the home and turn it into his personal studio. Their marriage became strained due to Diego resenting coming back to Mexico and Frida’s continued medical problem putting stress on both. Diego also started an affair with Cristina, Frida’s younger sister, which hurt Frida more than the rest of his infidelity. During this time, she was not as productive an artist. She still painted, and many of her paintings reflected her turmoil. Memory, The Heart (1937) in particular seemed focused on her feelings on the affair with her sister.