Frida: The Girl in the Blue House
La Casa Azul (The Blue House) is found in the small town of Coyocoan. It was here that on July 6, 1907, Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderon was born. She was the third daughter of Wilhelm (Guillermo) Kahlo and Matilde Calderon y Gonzales. After marrying Matilde, Guillermo took over the photography business of her family. Guillermo had two daughters from his first marriage, who were then raised in a convent, and four daughters with Matilde.
Frida contracted polio at age six. It left her bedridden for months and damaged her right leg and foot. This episode would delay her schooling, but it would also deepen her bond with her father. Frida would walk with a limp after and covered her leg by wearing long skirts. To help with her recovery and rehabilitation, Guillermo encouraged her to play soccer, take up swimming and boxing.
Her father also enrolled her at the German College in Mexico City. At the same time, Guillermo introduced his daughter to the writings of Friedrich Schiller, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and other European philosophers. Frida was grateful for the decisions Guillermo made for her, ascribing him with great insight and tenderness. Even with her strained relationship with her mother and Matilde’s outbursts and religious fanaticism, Frida explored both sides of her roots. Her European-Mexican heritage would shape her approach to life and art.
After a traumatic experience at the German College, Frida was then enrolled at the National Preparatory School. The Mexican Revolution and the Minister of Education brought changes to the education policy, which led Frida to be one of the first 35 girls in said school. She did well academically, taking up botany, social sciences, and medicine. Together with her growing interest in Mexican culture, Frida also became politically active.
Frida befriended and joined a group of like-minded dissident students, the Cachuchas. The group encouraged Frida’s interest in politics and literature. In 1923, she became romantically involved with Cachuchas’ leader, Alejandro Gomes Arias. Arias was with Frida during a vehicular accident in 1925. The bus they took on the way home from school collided with a streetcar, leaving Frida impaled by a metal handrail. She had several other injuries, including a fractured spine and pelvis. As a result, Frida spent several weeks at the Red Cross Hospital in Mexico City and continued recovery at home. Kahlo’s relationship with Arias continued until 1928.
It was also at the National Preparatory School that Frida met her future husband, Diego Rivera. Rivera was painting a mural for the school amphitheatre. Frida would watch the already renowned Rivera as he worked on The Creation mural.
Frida Kahlo: Painting Pain
Frida found herself bedridden after the bus accident. A plaster cast limited her movements, so to pass the time and help alleviate the pain, Frida began to paint. This endeavour was encouraged by her parents who had a special easel made so Frida could paint in bed. It was during her recovery period that Frida completed her first self-portrait, which she later gave to Arias. Frida would continue to wear special corsets for her back aside from undergoing several surgeries. Throughout her life, Frida would seek treatments for chronic pain, but would barely succeed.
During this time, with the special easel and a mirror above her head, Frida confronted existential questions. The accident, aside from injuries, brought her trauma, dissociation from her own identity, and a feeling of inferiority.
Before the accident, Frida helped her father in his photography studio. She was an apprentice engraver and drawing student to Guillermo’s friend, Fernando Fernandez. Frida greatly admired her father’s photographic portraits and drew upon their pictorial realism and applied it to her early portraits, most of which were of her and her sisters.
Upon her recovery in 1927, she reunited with the Cachuchas, who had become even more political. Joining the PCM (Mexican Communist Party) brought her in contact once more with Diego Rivera. She showed him her work and asked him if he thought that her work proved that she had any future as an artist. Rivera, impressed by her work, encouraged her. They began a romantic relationship and despite the twenty-year age difference, not to mention Rivera’s previous marriages and womanising, the two got married in 1929. Matilde did not approve of the union, but Guillermo found Rivera’s wealth to be a good thing for his daughter considering her medical condition.
Her tumultuous marriage, her miscarriages, coupled with the pain left by the accident influenced several of Frida’s paintings. The Broken Column shows a half-naked Frida with a split torso revealing her spine represented as a decorative column. Her skin is pierced with numerous nails, and she wears a strange corset, perhaps similar to what she had to wear to alleviate her back pain.
Her thoughts after a miscarriage are reflected in her painting, Henry Ford Hospital. She is portrayed lying on a blood-stained bed, with ribbons connecting her belly to the objects surrounding her, which included a fetus, an orchid, and a snail.
Frida’s feelings after her divorce with Rivera can be seen in The Two Fridas and Self Portrait with Cropped Hair. The former shows two Fridas, one broken-hearted, dressed in Tehuana costume and another in modern dress, heart complete and independent. The latter shows Frida, dressed in a suit not unlike Diego’s, with scissors in one hand, indicating she had cut her hair herself. Diego loved Frida’s long hair and dresses, so after their separation, Frida cut her hair and dressed in suits, similar to that in the portrait.
Aside from drawing from her personal experiences, Frida’s paintings were also influenced by her Mexican heritage. Indigenous Mexican culture can be seen in her use of symbolism and vibrant colours. Frida frequently included the monkey in her paintings and portraits. Though a symbol of lust in Mexican mythology, the monkeys portrayed in her paintings appeared to be gentle symbols of protection. She also depicted Christian and Jewish themes and combined surrealist renderings with Mexican religious tradition.
In her later years, Frida’s health would deteriorate, and she found herself bedridden once more. With all the surgeries and medication, she lost her appetite, to the point that her doctor prescribed force-feeding her for health reasons. During this time, she would paint Without Hope, with her portrayed lying on her bed, food and animal skulls hang from her easel. Her arms pinned beneath the blanket and the deserted Mexican landscape magnified the desperation and hopelessness of her situation.
Frida Kahlo: Death and Legacy
Frida and Diego remarried in 1940, and their reunion not as turbulent as the first. Frida’s health was in decline, but it did not stop her political activism nor her painting. Her career did not falter either, as she gained notoriety from international collectors. She was included in Women Artists, an exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery in New York in 1943. The Louvre purchased The Frame, and it was the first painting by a 20th-century Mexican artist ever bought by an internationally renowned museum. Moses was awarded the national prize while Museo de Arte Moderno bought The Two Fridas in 1947. She had her last exhibit (her first and only solo show in Mexico) in 1953 at Lola Alvarez Bravo’s gallery. Frida died in her home, La Casa Azul, in 1954. Official records attribute her death to pulmonary embolism, but speculations that it was suicide circulated and continue to do so.
Frida Kahlo may be known for many things: her passion, her political activism, her numerous self-portraits, and her turbulent marriage with Diego Rivera, whose fiery temperament rivalled hers. But perhaps, Frida should be remembered for her courage to confront her pain and express it through her art. She painted her struggles in a time when any woman who expressed her pain through her art would be labelled a hysteric or even insane. Through her paintings, Frida may have helped others, artists and non-artists to confront their pain and find the courage to carry on.