Kahlo, Frida (1907–54)

Mexican painter, the daughter of a German-born photographer and a Mexican mother.

In 1925, while traveling home from school, she suffered appalling injuries in a traffic accident, leaving her a permanent semi-invalid, often in severe pain. During her convalescence she began painting portraits of herself and others. She remained her own favorite model and her art was usually directly autobiographical: ‘I paint myself because I am so often alone.’

In 1928 she married Mexico’s most famous artist, Diego Rivera, who was twice her age and twice her size. Their relationship was often strained, but it lasted to her death, through various separations, divorce and remarriage, and infidelities on both sides. One of her lovers was Leon Trotsky, who was assassinated in Mexico City in 1940. Both Rivera and Kahlo were investigated for complicity and, although legally exonerated, both returned to a firm allegiance to Stalinist Communism in their later years. Kahlo was mainly self-taught as a painter. She was influenced by Rivera, but more by Mexican folk art (its impact was also apparent in her colorful clothes). This had a decided political significance.

She became a strong adherent of ‘Mexicanidad’, a movement rejecting Western European and aristocratic culture in favor of a national folk culture, which was also strongly supported by Rivera. Oriana Baddeley and Valerie Fraser have argued that it was Kahlo rather than Rivera and the other muralists whose work ‘effectively united the concerns of popular art with those of the modernist avant-garde’. Her work at its best combines a colorful, almost naive vigor with a considerable delicacy, as well as a sense of fantasy that attracted André Breton.

He arranged an exhibition of her work in Paris in 1939, but Kahlo did not regard herself as a Surrealist—‘I never painted my dreams, I painted my own reality’. This, in fact, demonstrates that she was in spirit Surrealist in that she did not make the distinction between the two. Kahlo’s paintings of her own physical and psychic pain are narcissistic and nightmarish, but also—like her personality—fiery and flamboyant. She presents herself as a wounded deer in a painting of 1946 or with her spine as a broken column (1944, Museo Dolores Olmedo Patino, Mexico). Rivera described her work as ‘acid and tender, hard as steel, and delicate and fine as a butterfly’s wing, loveable as a beautiful smile, and profound and cruel as the bitterness of life’. Some paintings allude to a wider political context.

One of the most striking, Self-portrait on the Borderline (1932), shows her between the technological world of the modern USA and symbols of ancient Mexico. Her paintings were widely shown in Mexico and in the year of her Paris exhibition (1939) she also had a successful show in New York, but during her lifetime she was overshadowed by her husband. Since her death, however, her fame has grown and she has become something of a feminist heroine, admired for her refusal to let great physical suffering crush her spirit or interfere with her art and her left-wing political activities. (She was carried on her death-bed to an anti-American rally and one of her last paintings was optimistically entitled Marxism Will Heal the Sick.)

As Sarah Lowe put it, ‘Kahlo has been venerated for her proto-feminist resistance to patriarchal restraints and mythologized for her steadfast introspection in the face of the predominant “public art” of her time.’ This aspect was capitalized on in the film Frida, starring Salma Hayek, that was released in 2002. When her work has been exhibited there has frequently been debate as to how far the paintings match up to the myths around the artist. Brian Sewell (Evening Standard, 10 June 2005) wrote of ‘clumsy ineptitude and premeditated primitive’ and said that Kahlo’s work has ‘become a major weapon in the cultural war waged by blind, ignorant, silly, and yet menacing feminists’. Even those repelled by Sewell’s political polemic might have to concede that in bulk the work is very uneven. As a far less hostile commentator, Stephanie Mencimer, put it, ‘her fans are largely drawn to the story of her life, for which her paintings are often presented as simple illustration’.

Nonetheless, in the same article she concludes that ‘when you sweep away the sideshow, ignore the overwrought analysis, and take a hard look at what she painted, much of it is extraordinary’. Indeed a selection of well-chosen paintings, generally the best-known pieces, make a powerful impact, which can be dissipated by repetitive or low-quality work. Kahlo’s house in the suburb of Coyoacán in Mexico City was opened as a museum dedicated to her in 1958.p;