“He does well for a little boy, but it is I who am the big artist.”
-Frida Kahlo in reference to her husband, Diego Rivera, a revered Mexican painter
Frida Kahlo was born on July 6th, 1907 in her parents’ small, bright blue house in Coyoácan, Mexico. Later in life, she would change her birth year to 1910, not in a vain attempt to decrease her age but to align her birth with the Mexican revolution, which lasted from 1910 to 1920.
Frida grew to become particularly attached to her father, a German-Hungarian photographer, who encouraged her to participate in unconventional activities for a woman all her life, such as art and sports. Frida described her mother, on the other hand, as both loving and distant at the same time, simultaneously understanding and cruel, suggesting a difficult, rocky relationship between the two women.
At just six years of age, Frida contracted polio, which became just the first of many health issues that would plague her life. As a result of the disease, her right leg grew much shorter and thinner than her left, something she tried to hide by wearing long skirts or even loose-fitting pantsuits.
Despite the mockery she endured at school about her disfigurement, Frida developed an energetic, active personality. Her limp did not stop her from excelling at many different physical activities, including swimming, boxing and soccer.
Frida’s education and a fateful accident
When she was 15, Frida was accepted into one of the most prestigious high schools in Mexico. There, she started a political discussion group, developing a strong social awareness, centered around feminism and communism.
Perhaps because of her experience with polio and the struggles she associated with her leg, she wanted to become a doctor and studied hard to get the required grades.
These dreams were cut short one fateful day in mid-September, 1925, when Frida was on her way home from school and the wooden bus she was riding in collided with a streetcar. The accident injured Frida so severely that doctors didn’t think she would survive. She had a broken collarbone, two broken ribs, her pelvis, and spine were fractured in three different areas, her foot was crushed and her shoulder dislocated.
When she awoke in a hospital bed several weeks later, the first thing she asked for was art supplies. It is there and then that her passion for painting really began, propelling her life in a completely new direction. Frida was bedridden for over a year, using an easel her father had designed that allowed her to illustrate while lying down.
Focusing mainly on self-portraits, she began expressing her physical discomfort through her art. Her paintings forced people to look at her as who she was, even if her pain made the viewer uncomfortable. She depicted herself both honestly and strikingly, proudly exhibiting her unibrow, her jewelry and the flowers she often wore in her hair.
Three years after her life-altering accident, Frida met Diego Rivera, a celebrated painter, at a party and asked him to examine her work to decide whether or not she had professional potential. The two started dating shortly after and married a year after. They were often called “the elephant and the dove,” referring to Diego’s tall and heavy stature, compared to Frida’s small and fragile one.
“I suffered two grave accidents in my life. One in which a streetcar knocked me down… The other accident is Diego,” Frida later said of her husband. Their marriage was difficult and plagued by affairs on both sides, most memorably that of Diego and Frida’s sister, Cristina. Notably, Frida was quite open about her relationships to women, at times going so far as to seduce Diego’s mistresses to get back at him for cheating. She became known to have a hot temper, getting into regular, passionate and loud fights with her husband.
Frida got pregnant several times, but all the pregnancies ended in miscarriages. This severely depressed her, as is visible in her painting, ‘Henry Ford Hospital’, which features her lying on a white bed stained with blood, her body twisted in agony and an umbilical cord connecting her to the image of her desired son.
Frida found solace in animals and kept dogs, monkeys, parrots, and pigeons as pets. She loved to be photographed and spent much time with children, whom she always treated as her equals.
In 1939, Frida and Diego got divorced, only to remarry a year later. Frida expressed her pain about the separation in one of her most famous paintings, ‘The Two Fridas’, which shows two versions of herself holding hands. One has a broken, bleeding heart, staining her white dress, while the other one looks healthy and happy, a picture of a young Diego dangling from her palm.
After their remarriage, Diego wrote to Pablo Picasso, urging him to view Frida’s work: “I recommend her to you, not as a husband, but as an enthusiastic admirer of her work. Acid and tender, hard as steel and delicate and fine as a butterfly’s wing, lovable as a beautiful smile, and profound and cruel as the bitterness of life.”
An exhibition in a hospital bed
Frida continued painting with growing success, while her physical health deteriorated quickly and she became increasingly reliant on pain medication. As she spent an increasing amount of time in hospitals, her painting focused on her broken spine more intensely than ever before.
Understanding the bleak chances of her recovery, photographer Lola Alvarez Bravo organized Frida’s first-ever solo art exhibition while she was being treated. Although doctors prescribed bed rest for Frida, she attended the opening by having her hospital bed directly delivered to the location in an ambulance.
In 1953, her right leg was amputated due to gangrene. This only increased her mental health issues and sent her spiraling into a full-fledged pain killer addiction. Feeling her death approaching, Frida wrote in her diary: “I hope the exit is joyful. And I hope never to return.”
Frida Kahlo died of pneumonia a few days after her 47th birthday in 1954. She passed away in her parents’ house, the same place she’d been born in. Her last paintings are focused on the combination of her political activism and her health, including ‘Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick’ and ‘Frida and Stalin’.
Bigger than life itself
Even now, a century after her birth, Frida Kahlo’s legacy lives on and her popularity is only growing. She is a symbol not of an ideology or an art style, but of her life itself – of who she was without any of the labels others would try to impose on her.
Bonnie Clearwater, director of art at the NSU Art Museum in Fort Lauderdale, tells the New York Times: “The paintings are Kahlo’s way of saying: ‘This is how I thought. This is how I lived. Remember me.’”
Remembered she will be.