Frida's life started with pain and ended with suffering. It was a tragic twist of fate that set her on the path to becoming the famous artist we know and love today.
Frida Kahlo suffered a lot throughout her life, but her creative output was on par with some of the greatest artists in the world at the time, and has rightfully gained international recognition for both her art and her character. In an important and rather obvious way, her suffering inspired her creations, and we likely wouldn’t have one without the other.
A life begins
Daughter of a mestizo mother and a German father, Kahlo lived most of her life involved in and surrounded by Mexican folk culture, which influenced her work significantly. She grew up in a small and picturesque municipality in Mexico City, Coyoacán, in the now-famous Casa Azul (“Blue House”), currently a museum dedicated to Frida Kahlo’s life. At the age of 6, she contracted polio, which left her with a mildly disabled leg. But the true watershed, the most significant turning point for her early years, occurred one seemingly innocuous and fateful day on the way back from school.
The first accident: a trolley and a streetcar
The afternoon of September 17th, 1925, appeared unremarkable, following a pretty usual morning. Frida was only 18 years old when she was traveling back home with her boyfriend, a young boy named Alejandro Gómez Arias, in a typical wooden trolley. As it was rushing down its usual route, the bus suddenly crashed with an unexpected streetcar, with particularly gory results for the passengers. An iron handrail impaled Frida, passing through her pelvis and fracturing the pelvic bone. She had to remain over a month at the hospital and two months recovering at home. But she never quite healed. As some x-rays later revealed, the accident had displaced three vertebrae. Forced to wear a plaster all around her torso, she was bedridden for several more months.
Before her accident, Frida was planning on going to medical school, but any such hopes and dreams were crushed thereafter. Confined to bed, unable to walk, and barely able to move, she became understandably frustrated and got immensely bored. Her boyfriend left her, and she grew increasingly hopeless. But then something happened. Something wonderful.
The immediate aftermath: the beginning of creation
Frida’s pain and desperation drove her to seek inspiration, and she looked back to a forgotten childhood hobby: art, drawing, painting. She took the brush and a custom-made easel to paint in bed and intended, at first, to become a medical illustrator. This was a good compromise that perfectly combined her initial interests in medicine with her rediscovered artistic passion. She even asked her mother to place a mirror on top of her bed so she could see herself in her convalescence to depict the medicinal qualities of recovery. Soon enough, however, her creativity went far beyond the constraining fidelity of a literal anatomical representation, as she explored deeper issues of her own identity, existence, pain and suffering, and the aesthetics of the grotesque.
The accident led to discomfort, to say the least, for Frida. More accurately, it led to unbearable anguish and a deep frustration that is well reflected in her early paintings. But it also led to something amazing: the discovery of a buried calling far in the depths of her character. Behind her misfortune, Frida found, in her own words, the will and drive “to begin again, painting things just as [she] saw them with [her] own eyes and nothing more.” A light had been lit.
A new life—and a fateful encounter
By 1927, Frida was finally able to move again. She left bed with an already impressive assortment of portraits, mostly of herself (her most reliable model given her condition), of her sisters, and of some close friends. Around that time, she joined the Mexican Communist Party, and at one of the Party’s events she met a fellow communist, a fellow artist, and the man who would change everything for her: Diego Rivera.
Rivera was already an international celebrity years before Frida met him in the late 20s. She knew about the man, and had even briefly encountered him once when he was painting a mural at her school when she was much younger. But it wasn’t until this later point that she got his attention, when she asked him to judge a few of her paintings to evaluate the prospect of an artistic career. Rivera was enthusiastic about her talent, and took her under his wing.
The second accident: an elephant and a dove
"I suffered two grave accidents in my life. One in which a streetcar knocked me down … The other accident is Diego,” she once expressed. Even though Rivera was 20 years older than Frida, by 1929 they were married.
Given his fame and her rather appealing character, “Diego and Frida” (known also as “the elephant and the dove”) became a celebrity couple in Mexico and, indeed, throughout the world. It was an unorthodox union, to say the least. This was Diego Rivera’s third marriage and he proudly confessed to being a womanizer, unfit for monogamy.
She wasn’t quite the model for traditional women of the time either: often challenging established parameters and the social expectations bore upon “decent women,” she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind with audacious candor. She was known to have worn male clothes on some occasions, and her attire was anything but ordinary, draping herself in the truest Mexican image through Tehuana garments and elaborate hair styles.
As such, normalcy was not in the cards for the unsteady couple. Both got involved in several affairs, incurred in harmful and toxic behavior against each other, and constantly broke the norms of civility. Professionally, their relationship was always one of mutual admiration, respect, and support. Romantically, however, they were an oscillating pendulum swinging back and forth between unity and distance, joy and despair, love and hate, always uncertain of where the balance would end. They separated on multiple occasions and divorced in 1939 only to remarry a year later.
A life of troubles, a truth in art
The pain brought about by Diego’s incessant disdain for marriage and stability was only exacerbated by a further tragedy: her inability to bear a child. Ever since she got polio at the age of 6, Frida’s life was marked by one misfortune after another, but she was prolific as an artist. Through her paintings, she found the will and means to express her life’s calamities and nakedly channel her anguish onto the canvas.
And beyond her artistic technique or style, it was the sheer authenticity of her works, the bare honesty, and the raw emotion what ultimately made her stand out above so many others. If you ever wonder what is special about Frida’s paintings, keep in mind her context, history, and how she was brilliantly able to explore and translate her woes into a blatant image, unburdened by the disguises of propriety and social expectations.
And the world showed fascination for her as well before her death. For a while, she was mostly “Diego Rivera’s wife,” but it didn’t take long before she proved herself in the eyes of the art world. Surrealist artist André Breton took an interest in her talent and arranged a solo exhibition for her in New York, in 1938. Its success led to a second one, one year later, in Paris. She kept participating in several exhibitions during the 1940s in both Mexico and the U.S., until her fragile health took a turn for the worse that same decade. She never was healthy, especially since the accident, requiring constant treatment and several surgeries throughout her life. Eventually, her body gave up.
Frida Kahlo died in her hometown of Coyoacán in July of 1954, shortly after her first solo exhibition in Mexico. She was 47 years old. She is survived by a frank collection of paintings, self-portraits, journals, and letters that open the windows into the intimacy of a life full of agony and trouble, which only rose so much higher for it.
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