One of the most famous artists in the world – Frida Kahlo is more than a highly appreciated artist, she is an icon. Her portrait is part of pop culture. The thick unibrow above those two dark eyes, the flowers in her hair and her long colorful dresses have circled the globe so many times. Her volcanic character and bisexual affairs added another layer to her controversial reputation. But it was her inner strength that made her unforgettable – the power to paint her raw pain, to take out of her soul all that agony and put it on canvas like an X-ray of her soul.
It is very hard to believe that she used to be in the shadow of her husband, Diego Rivera. In 1938, she had her first New York exhibition and Vogue called her “Madame Diego Rivera”. Little did they know back then, that she would become one of the most famous painters ever.
The Beginning of Pain and Art
A horrifying tram accident in 1925, when she wasn’t even 18, left her paralyzed for several months and left scars forever. She had to wear orthopedic corsets almost all her life and you may recognize them in her paintings. It was then when she turned to painting as she couldn’t do anything else.
Some people say that it is then when she actually began to paint, but Frida took drawing lessons at a very early age from printmaker Fernando Fernández. She was already working for Fernández as an engraving apprentice when the accident took place. Frida had a great interest in science, as well as in art, so when she found herself trapped in bed she considered to start a career as a medical illustrator to combine her two passions.
Self portrait in a Velvet Dress is the first serious work that Frida has ever done. The first self-portrait created for Alejandro Gomez Arias, her boyfriend from school who was with her when the tragic accident happened. He left her soon after this, as their relationship started to crumble.
Frida created this portrait for him, as a token of love. Luckily, this portrait touched his heart and they were back together in no time. This is a gesture that Frida will repeat later on in her life – she offered paintings as gifts and tokens of love, either with the thought of rejoining in mind or just to mark the end of a relationship.
Her early work is very much inspired by the Italian Renaissance period, while her later work becomes more personal, authentic, raw and surreal. It becomes more Frida as she discovers her voice.
They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.Frida Kahlo
If you look at her portraits done in that time, you can notice that they are really accurate. That is because she had a large mirror placed above her bed so that she could see herself. This isolation made her forget what she was told to see and she started to see things again through her own eyes and perception. Frida reconfigured the whole world and her own reality. She left room for the artist in her to breath and grow.
Her pain translated into painting will become a theme in most of Frida’s works. She carried a great deal of pain along her life and her paintings talk vividly about all her emotions.
I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.Frida Kahlo
The Broken Column is one of her most famous paintings, incredibly powerful and painful to look at. You can almost sense the great amount of pain that she felt while working on it. Nails cover her face and body and her neck and torso are split in half just like in an earthquake. However, despite all this suffering that she is telling in her artworks, Frida always shows triumph too. She looks straight, her whole body is straight, sustained by the corsets from time to time and she is overcoming all this tumult that she carries.
I am my own muse. I am the subject I know best. The subject I want to better.Frida Kahlo
Frida’s strength is that rare feature that makes her a heroine and an icon. She went through so many things in her life from polio to the tram accident, miscarriages, spinal injuries and finally the amputation of her leg in only 47 years of life, up to her early death. Still she was a force of nature, struggling with her pain, capturing it and locking it in her art. Frida continued to live and fight with the same passion and lust for life. She turned pain into beauty and that is one of her greatest legacies.
Frida first saw Diego when she was only 16. He was hired to paint the school’s Simon Bolivar auditorium at the school that Frida was attending. Students were not allowed to watch El Maestro at work, but Frida used to skip classes and sneak inside to watch Diego paint. She was so fascinated by this artist whom she called Panzon, which means “fat belly”.
In 1925, the tragic accident took place. Frida was liberated from her bed and home only in 1927. She began to hang out again with her school friends, who were all at university and involved in politics. She engaged in these subjects as well and soon enough enrolled in the Mexican Communist Party.
It was there where she was introduced to several artists, exiled Cuban communists and of course… Diego Rivera. Her one and only Panzon whom she had met a few years before. Frida asked Diego if he thought her paintings are worthy enough and if she could pursue a career as a painter. Diego was very much impressed by her work and their relationship became closer. One year later, they got married even though no one approved of their relationship. They called it “the marriage between an elephant and a dove”…
An unusual energy of expression, precise delineation of character and true severity… They had a fundamental plastic honesty, and an artistic personality of their own… It was obvious to me that this girl was an authentic artist.Diego Rivera
(talking about Frida’s works)
Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair is another interesting and important painting. Frida is a very feminine character, wearing traditional Mexican dresses and flowers in her hair, yet in this painting she strips off her femininity. The moment when she painted this is also very important. It was 1940, just after the violent divorce from Diego, in late 1939. This portrait is a statement. She shows that she is independent both financially and as a woman and it also talks about her bisexual side.
In just one year, since her first exhibition in New York where she is called “Madame Diego Rivera”, Frida becomes Frida Kahlo – independent, fiery and fearless.
Diego and Frida reconcile at a later date, as they both realize they aren’t monogamous and both had other affairs, but they love each other deeply. Dr Leo Eloesser, Frida’s physician and confidant played a major role in this. They exchanged numerous letters between 1932 and 1951 that remained hidden for more than 50 years, after Frida’s death.
Great secrets were revealed with these letters. One of them is that Frida felt heartbroken that she couldn’t offer Diego a child, then she hated New York where they both traveled and even lived. Lastly, the letters prove the great implication of Eloesser in their reconciliation.
I am that clumsy human, always loving, loving, loving. And loving. And never leaving.Frida Kahlo
The Affair with Trotsky
One of Frida’s greatest affairs was with Leon Trotsky, the Soviet revolutionary, who arrived in Mexico in 1937 with his wife, Natalia Sedova. He was promised political asylum and they both stayed with Diego and Frida. When the Spanish Civil War started in 1936, Frida and Diego were on the Republicans’ side and they contributed greatly to raise money for the fights against Franco.
Very soon after Trotsky’s arrival, they began to exchange love letters and engaged in a secret affair. Frida used to speak in English so that Natalia didn’t understand, but it was obvious from her body language and not at all subtle advances towards Trotsky. Diego somehow turned a blind eye to all of this to give him more freedom in his own affairs.
Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky is the painting she did after their breakup. She got tired of Trotsky very fast, so she ended the affair by offering this painting. He did hang it in his work office, but when they left their house, he left the painting behind.
Nothing is absolute. Everything changes, everything moves, everything revolves, everything flies and goes away.Frida Kahlo
The Women in Frida’s Life
The passion of an artist reflects in all his being. Frida’s passionate way of living reflected not only in her art, but also in her life and in all her relationships. The many love affairs made her vibrate even more. Both men and women stepped into her personal space, turning into her secrets…
Georgia O’Keeffe was one of Frida’s lovers and one she truly loved. They met in the United States, when Frida was traveling with Diego there for long period of times and they would often be seen together flirting and being very close. One time, when Georgia was hospitalized, Frida wrote “I thought of you a lot and never forget your wonderful hands and the color of your eyes.” She continued saying “If you are still in the hospital when I come back I will bring you flowers, but it is so difficult to find the ones I would like for you. I would be so happy if you could write me even two words. I like you very much Georgia.”
Josephine Baker is another famous personality who is known to have had relationships with both men and women, although she kept the affairs with women secretly. They both were seen many times together and although nothing is for sure, many people thought that they were an item. Sometimes, a gaze… a smile… a touch… says more than anything else.
Paulette Goddard, who was one of Charlie Chaplin’s wives, was romantically involved with Diego Rivera. Like many other women who had affairs with Diego and with Frida as well, Paulette was no exception. The same happened with photographer Tina Modotti, who actually helped Frida get involved romantically with Diego. But somewhere in between or even after, she enjoyed both 🙂
Chavela Vargas was one of Frida’s darlings too! They had a wonderful love affair and Chavela talked openly about it only when she was in her 80s. It was then when she publicly declared her sexual orientation. Chavela was born in Costa Rica and ran away to Mexico when she was only 17. There she found the musical opportunities that she was looking for and after almost 8 decades of residence, she got the Mexican citizenship. She started to attend artistic circles in the mid 1940s and that is when she met Frida and their beautiful love story began.
Nothing is worth more than laughter. It is strength to laugh and to abandon oneself, to be light. Tragedy is the most ridiculous thing.Frida Kahlo
Frida’s Legacy & Women’s Empowerment
Frida is a symbol of strength and power. A woman who overcame all the obstacles and made bliss out of her pain, made stunning art out of her agony, loved with all her heart and poured everything that she was into her work. She created a legacy of female power that still shines today. She changed the status quo. The themes that she touched upon in her paintings were not openly discussed before. A woman’s pain was something taboo, was not a subject of interest.
Pain, pleasure and death are no more than a process for existence. The revolutionary struggle in this process is a doorway open to intelligence.Frida Kahlo
Frida talked so bluntly about her pain, while she expressed herself freely, opening the doors for so many female artists after her. Frida lived in a patriarchal society in Mexico, where women’s needs came second and a woman without a man, without her husband was lost. That is why her Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair becomes more powerful and valuable, considering the circumstances.
At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can.Frida Kahlo
Frida was a volcano and she had traveled through hell, so she had the freedom to speak truthfully about her feelings, to be raw and sincere and she gave light to pain. Kahlo painted agony in colors and played with the most vibrant shades to portray pain and suffering and all the female emotions that were locked until then. Untold…
I believe that Frida opened that door, in so many ways. She mixed both feminine and masculine traits in her works, showing a new side of femininity, told from the point of view of a woman. Many men have told a woman’s story before, but few women dared to discover this secret.
You deserve the best, the very best, because you are one of the few people in this lousy world who are honest to themselves, and that is the only thing that really counts.Frida Kahlo