I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality.
– Frida Kahlo
It’s impossible to write about the life and work of Diego Rivera (as I did last week) without also discussing the life and work of his wife and companion Frida Kahlo who lived from 1907 to 1954. Though their work was very different in style—Rivera’s larger than life murals of Mexican history and Kahlo’s often quite discomforting gaze from her intimate self-portraits—their sense of dedication to commoners in general and Mexico’s indigenous people in particular was reflected in the art they created.
While Rivera was honored as a painter and master muralist of international renown during his lifetime, Kahlo was often simply seen as Diego’s wife–a woman who just happened to dabble in paints. By the time of her death, Kahlo had exhibited her paintings in her native Mexico City as well as in both New York and Paris. Her works were present in the private collections of some of the art world’s most prestigious patrons. Still, in her New York Times obituary, she was identified as, “Frida Kahlo, Artist, Diego Rivera’s Wife.”
Sexism still rears its ugly head in the art world today (just as it does in society at large) but the discrimination that existed in the first half of the 20th century was almost certainly an even greater stumbling block for a young female Mexican painter. In addition, Kahlo’s fragile health and the fact that she was more than twenty years younger than her husband must have made it incredibly daunting for this young artist to live each day (literally) in Rivera’s extremely large shadow. However, by bucking convention, staying true to her country’s traditions and creating what some might call her own brand, Kahlo helped pave the way for other female artists to make their mark.
This imbalance of power was surely on Frida’s mind when she painted the famous portrait “Frida and Diego Rivera” in 1931. While in real life, she was indeed diminutive in size compared to her large-framed husband, the differences in the size of their feet in the painting is symbolic of the lack of grounding she must have felt within their volatile marriage as well as her belief that she couldn’t compete with his recognition in the art world.
Notice that she was the painter of the portrait, yet Rivera is the one holding the palette and brushes. Other revealing symbols are Frida’s hand which seemingly hovers above Diego’s rather than holding it, and the slightly off kilter tilt of her head and side-ways gaze, as opposed to Rivera’s direct stare at the viewer.
Art imitates life
We often say that art imitates life, or at the very least that it’s an eye into the soul of a given society at a specific point in history. If this is true, then art is a visual expression of historical events.
Such is the case when examining the lives and careers of Kahlo and Rivera. Both artists were profoundly affected by the cultural changes that took place in Mexico during the Mexican Revolution from 1910—1920. The revolution had brought about a renewed interest in Mexico’s early cultural history and a heightened appreciation of the Pre-Columbian art and artifacts created by the country’s indigenous peoples.
For Frida, this meant going so far as adopting the indigenous ‘Tehuana’ style of clothing traditionally worn by Zapotec women from Mexico’s southern state of Oaxaca. This region has often been cited as having a matriarchal culture. While women in the region do dominate men in some aspects of life, men still control the realm of politics. In light of this, it seems clear that Kahlo proudly–even defiantly–chose this style of dress as both a symbol of female power and as a way to honor the indigenous traditions of her country.
Kahlo dressed in colorfully embroidered peasant-style blouses and floor-length skirts which helped hide her disfigured right leg which had been severely affected by childhood polio. Her braided hair was wrapped and neatly pinned on top of her head and was often adorned with flowers, again in typical Tehuana style. As a style and fashion icon, Kahlo was far ahead of her time.
My painting carries with it the message of pain.
– Frida Kahlo
Physical and emotional pain = painting style
In addition to the physical problems Kahlo suffered as a result of having polio as a child, she was severely injured in a bus accident in Mexico City in 1925 at the age of eighteen. Her near fatal injuries caused weakness, fatigue and severe pain that would follow her for the rest of her life. This tragic accident also ended her dream of becoming a doctor. During her months of recuperation and bed confinement, she had a special easel made that would allow her to draw and paint from bed. She also had a mirror placed on the sealing above her bed so she could see herself. Painting became a form of therapy that would sustain her through both the best and worst of times.
“marriage between an elephant and a dove”
Once Kahlo was well enough to venture out of the house, she rejoined her university friends and became involved in political causes. She joined the Mexican Communist Party in late 1927 where she met Diego Rivera. Despite the fact that Rivera was twice married and known to be womanizer, the two started an affair and were married in August 1929. The union was opposed by her parents who called it a “marriage between an elephant and a dove.”
Frida and Diego’s complex relationship was passionate and also very volatile. During the early years of their marriage, much of their time was spent away from home while Diego painted commissioned murals in the United States. The couple met and became friends with many well-known writers and artists as well as wealthy socialites in San Francisco, Detroit and New York where Diego worked on large-scale commissions. While Frida enjoyed the friendships of the writers and artists they met, she wrote letters to old friends back in Mexico indicating how much she disliked the conspicuous way rich Americans (the capitalists) partied while the poor starved.
All through the 1930s, she continued to be plagued by her physical problems as well as Diego’s infidelities. She experienced multiple miscarriages, was in constant pain from her earlier spinal injuries and even had toes on her right foot amputated. Further deterioration of her spine forced Kahlo to wear an assortment of stiff braces and girdles made from a variety of uncomfortable materials.
In 1935, Kahlo discovered that Rivera was having an affair with her younger sister, Cristina. She was furious and moved into an apartment alone. Whether out of spite or due to loneliness, she began an affair with an American artist who was living in Mexico City at the time. Kahlo and Rivera reconciled later in 1935 and she moved back into their house, but their relationship remained volatile with both having extramarital affairs periodically.
By the late 1930s, Kahlo was receiving recognition for her work in Mexico, as well as in the art centers of New York and Paris where she had well-received exhibitions. Her art also focused less on her physical pain and more on the emotional pain she was experiencing from her marriage to Rivera. The couple divorced in 1939, but remained friends and Kahlo continued to manage Diego’s finances. They remarried a year later in 1940.
She is quoted as saying, “There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst.”
Kahlo’s painting “The Two Frida’s” shows two versions of herself, one Frida dressed in a white Victorian dress (the European Frida) and the other wearing her adopted Tehuana style. The Mexican Frida is holding a small portrait of Diego in her left hand. The two figures are holding hands and are also joined by an artery that connects both hearts. The artery is spilling blood onto the white dress of the European Frida which art scholars believe represents Aztec blood sacrifices as well as the artist’s own continuing medical problems. This painting was completed following Frida and Diego’s divorce and before their remarriage. Perhaps the European image also represents an incomplete Frida who is missing an important part of herself–Diego.
Kahlo’s latter years
More recognition for her art but deteriorating health dominated Kahlo’s life during the 1940s. She spent a great deal of time in hospitals both in Mexico City and San Francisco dealing with infections and had unsuccessful back surgery in New York.
She also began teaching art students back in Mexico City, but her poor health eventually resulted in moving the classes to her house. At this point she found herself with only four loyal students she referred to as “Los Fridos.”
Monkeys were an important symbol in Aztec mythology. To the Aztecs, monkeys represented lust, but Kahlo uses them to show tenderness and as protective symbols. In her “Self Portrait With Monkeys“, art scholars believe Kahlo was paying homage to this ancient culture while also portraying her four loyal students as monkeys. Note the two monkeys on her shoulders are both pointing to an ancient Aztec symbol on the artist’s blouse.
During the early 1950s, Kahlo devoted as much of her time and physical strength as possible to political causes while painting mostly still lifes, although the fruit and flowers were often replaced by flags and political symbols. Due to illness, she wasn’t expected to attend her first solo exhibition in Mexico at the Galería Arte Contemporaneo. She surprised everyone when she arrived by ambulance and lay on a bed for the duration of the party.
Doctors were forced to amputate her right leg because of infection in 1953. Kahlo was depressed, addicted to painkillers and alcohol and completely bed-ridden.
On the morning of July 13,1954, Frida Khalo was found dead in bed by her nurse. The last drawing she had made was of a black angel and the last words she wrote were: “I look forward to the departure – and I hope never to return – Frida” (“Espero Alegre la Salida – y Espero no Volver jamás”).
Kahlo might be shocked by the legacy she has left to the art world. She transcended the mere appreciation of her subject matter and painting style to become a popular international cult figure. It’s easy to find her self-portraits emblazoned on T-shirts for sale to tourists in countries far from her homeland of Mexico. In tourist centers in Thailand, for example, images of her self portraits can easily be found alongside those of popular cultural icons such as Bob Marley and Che Guevara.
More importantly, Kahlo’s intimate self portraits provide a window through which we are offered a unique view of the soul of a brave, intelligent and artistically talented 20th century woman. Her willingness to openly express her inner pain and her life-long activism and dedication to political causes has inspired political movements involving feminists, the LGBTQ community, and Chicanos. The Chicano Civil Rights Movement sought to empower Mexican-Americans in the same way that African Americans had fought for their civil rights in the 1960s.
If you’re in Mexico City, a visit to the Frida Kahlo Museum is a great way to learn more about this fascinating artist’s life and work. It’s located in La Casa Azul (The Blue House) in the Coyacán neighborhood of Mexico City. The Blue House was Kahlo’s childhood home and later residence from 1939 until her death in 1954.