Fearless in the face of tragedy: The trials and tribulations of Mexico’s greatest feminist icon

Ria Sarkar – For Eikowa

Tormented and tragedy-ridden, Frida Kahlo’s short life was not a happy one. As history has shown, the greatest artists in every era were ironically the ones who suffered the most and died young. Take the legendary Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh, who went mad and died in penury, or one of the greatest Italian Renaissance artists Raphael, who lived a dangerously passionate life only to die a mysterious death. Most of them succumbed to alcohol, drugs or delicate health and were only appreciated much after their demise. Kahlo’s story is much the same with the only silver lining being, that she was able to reach the peak of her artistic career within her lifetime and gain recognition for it. Through her visionary works, she carved a niche for herself as a feminist icon in the overtly male dominated era of Modernism.


The Body as a cage: Coping with lifelong ill-health

Kahlo was born in 1907 to a German father and Mexican mother. Throughout her life she dealt with trauma after trauma, and despite her unerring will to overcome them, they still overtook her mind and came across strongly in her works. The first incident came very early at a mere age of six, when she contracted polio. Left with a limp even after recovery, Frida was a fighter and did not let a slight cripple get in the way of her ambitions.

But it was twelve years later in 1925 that Kahlo’s life changed forever. She met with a grave accident while travelling in a bus that crashed into a tramcar, suffering serious injuries to her right leg and pelvis. The accident left her unable to have children, which had a deep impact on Kahlo’s personality and would later come to define her inimitable style of painting. It was the year after her accident that she painted her first self-portrait, while she was still convalescing.


Frida Kahlo painting in bed

Post 1944, Kahlo’s health deteriorated considerably and she underwent multiple operations on her spine and crippled foot. In her short life of 47 years, the artist suffered a broken spinal column, a broken collarbone, broken ribs, a broken pelvis, eleven fractures in her right leg, a crushed and dislocated right foot, a dislocated shoulder and other complications which affected her reproductive ability. She had several miscarriages and went through bouts of chronic depression. Most of her paintings were made from her bed with the help of a special wooden easel that her father had constructed for her.


Frida painting in bed, anonymous photographer, 1940. Image courtesy: Frida Kahlo Museum.

After a prolific decade (1940-50) during which Frida produced some of her best works, the years that followed saw the physical, psychological and artistic downfall of Frida Kahlo. In early 1950, her physical state reached a crisis, and she had to be admitted to a hospital in Mexico City, where she remained for a year. In 1953 she was offered her first and only solo show in Galeria de Arte Contemporaneo, Mexico, mostly because of the fame and popularity of works made in the previous decade. Despite her fragile state, she arrived at her own show in an ambulance and was carried into the gallery on a stretcher.

At this point in life she had succumbed to drugs and alcohol to deal with her joint pains and depression. Soon after her last public appearance in July 1954, she died in her sleep of a supposed embolism. Her last diary entry read: ‘I hope the end is joyful – and I hope never to come back – Frida.’ This last declaration led many of her close friends to suspect a possible suicide.

Relationship with Diego Rivera

There is conjecture amongst people who have done research on her life that the later operations may have been a ploy of holding the attention of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, who was also her husband of twenty years from 1929-1954, with a two-year gap in between where they got divorced and remarried. Despite their passionate love for each other Diego was unfaithful and had affairs with numerous women, which led Frida to retaliate with her own set of heterogeneous and lesbian relationships. In her later years Kahlo was known to say,“I suffered two grave accidents in my life. One in which a streetcar knocked me down… The other accident is Diego.”


Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera with Fulang Chang, 1937

Creating a Persona

The works that Kahlo created during her lifetime are hailed as iconic primarily because until that point, her treatment of subject matter and bold projection of femininity was never seen before. Since the Renaissance period very few women artists had the opportunity to compete in the masculine dominated world of art, and while Kahlo’s privileged familial ties allowed her to level the plane with artists of her generation, in hindsight it was not such an easy task. She produced a weighty body of work in her short life, which embodied femininity in a realistic manner without projecting an idealized realm of women in domesticated roles. She depicted vanity and beauty as openly as the reality of cruelty and suffering.

Surprisingly though, Kahlo amused herself by living behind a façade in which she pretended not to consider her work important. Hayden Herrera writes in his famous biography of the artist, ‘she preferred to be seen as a beguiling personality rather than as a painter.’ Her carefully crafted getup with long gowns and skirts of rich fabric, often teamed with an elegant floral headgear created an arresting look that eventually became her signature style. She favored long skirts in order to cover her crippled foot but carried them off with such élan that it became a style statement. Her fragile health is completely overshadowed and indeed forgotten by this bold, dominant persona that she projected of herself onto the canvas, as well as to the public. With no attempt at pruning facial hair and sporting an exaggerated unibrow, her style was a peculiar blend of female elegance teamed with a masculine touch. This challenging and immensely captivating look created quite a stir in the Mexican art circle, and together with Rivera by her side, Kahlo became an important personality in the art world. Whether it was intentional or not, her signature style went on to achieve iconic status.

Key works and their interpretations

What is truly fascinating about Kahlo is that despite her struggles and frequent incapacitation, she created around two hundred paintings, drawings and sketches during her lifetime of which fifty-five were self-portraits. Physical limitations further channeled her imagination into creating an alternate life, which she lived through her works. While some of them are uncomfortably gory with blood, guts and nudity that portray the absolute unabashed reality of her life; her paintings also show the persona that Kahlo invented and exhibited to the public. Despite the highly imaginative nature of her works, Kahlo dismissed any assertions of her paintings depicting dreams or the surreal. “They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”

She declared that both Frida, the invalid as well as Frida, the persona were her reality.

A Few Small Nips (1935)

One of her early works, A Few Small Nips was made right after Kahlo learned that her husband Diego was having an affair with her sister Cristina. To demonstrate her apparent distress she chose a subject that ran along the same lines. News of a gory murder case was running in the tabloids where an unfaithful woman was murdered in an act of jealousy. Kahlo tries to draw a parallel between her situation and that of the deceased woman in the painting. The murderer stands casually over the body of his unfaithful lover with one hand in his pocket and the other holding a knife. The woman’s naked body has been mutilated with numerous gashes and cuts, and blood spattered all around her bed and on the man’s shirt. Above his head, two doves bear a ribbon inscribed “Unos Cuantos Piquetitos” which means “But it was just a few small nips!” These same words from which the painting takes its title, were used by the murderer to defend himself in court.


Kahlo, Frida, A Few Small Nips, 1935, Oil on metal, 15 x 19 in, Collection of Dolores Olmedo Foundation, Mexico City

The image below is a photograph showing Kahlo sitting in front of the same painting in the background. Her expression is troubled and she folds her arms protectively in front of her. But despite her inner pain, she has tried to put up a brave front, maintaining a faint sense of hubris.


The Two Fridas (1939)

One of her largest works measuring almost 6 x 6 ft, The Two Fridas was created around the time of Kahlo’s divorce to Diego Rivera. This painting received widespread critical acclaim because it is conceptually superior to many of her other works, and gives a whole new meaning to portraying the ‘self’.

It is a double self-portrait that shows two Fridas representing two sides of herself. The two women are seated on a green bench amidst a stormy background, clasping each other’s hands. The Frida on the left is wearing a white European style dress holding a pair of scissors that has cut an artery and is bleeding out. She represents the artist’s reality as the woman that Rivera rejected, which is evident by the attire and the exposed heart in her chest. The Frida on the right is dressed in traditional Mexican apparel and holds a small locket with Rivera’s photograph. Her heart is still intact and she represents the woman that Rivera still loves. Kahlo’s despair at losing Diego is portrayed as a splitting of the self- where one part mourns over her broken heart, while the other mourns a former version of her – one that Diego originally fell in love with.

The stormy sky in the background and a bleeding heart are symbols that the artist borrowed from Catholicism and Aztec Ritual Sacrifice.


Kahlo, Frida, The Two Fridas, 1939, Oil on canvas, 68 x 68 in, Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City

Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940)

Kahlo gained fame and popularity as an outspoken communist in Mexican politics, but as an artist she was known primarily for her self-portraits. In her collection of works, fifty-five were self-portraits and mostly featured bust-length images of herself along with birds and animals populating the frames.

A somber-looking Frida faces the viewer wearing a necklace of thorns around her neck. Blood can be seen trickling down from where the thorns have cut into the skin, symbolic of her physical and psychological wounds. A hummingbird, originally a luck charm for falling in love (in Mexican folklore) now hangs lifeless on her neck, signifying the departure of love from her life after her failed marriage. A black cat and a spider monkey can be seen behind her shoulders. Kahlo often incorporated flora and fauna in the background of her portraits to juxtapose the fertility of nature with her own barrenness. The animals in her works were actually her own pets that lived at her house.


Kahlo, Frida, Self-Portrait, 1940, Oil on canvas on. Masonite, 24½ x 18¾ in, Harry Ransom Humanities. Research Center, Austin, US

The fact that Kahlo was unable to bear children created a permanent chasm in her life, especially after undergoing several miscarriages. To deal with this she always kept pet animals around her – monkeys, dogs, birds and a deer. In the image below Frida poses with Fulang Chang the spider monkey, who was a gift from Diego. Kahlo kept it and others as surrogates for her unborn children.


Fritz Henle, Frida in Front of Studio with Monkey, Coyoacán, 1946, Bentley Gallery

Tree of Hope (1946)

Another famous double self-portrait, Kahlo painted Tree of Hope after a major surgery on her spinal column which was unsuccessful and resulted in many complications that further deteriorated her health. On the left side of the painting Kahlo shows herself post-surgery, lying with her back facing the viewer on a hospital gurney; while on the right she sits wearing a beautiful red dress holding a body brace and a flag in her crossed arms that reads “Tree of Hope, Remain Strong”. The painting is divided into two halves by the presence of the sun on the left as a symbol of blood sacrifice in Aztec rituals, and the moon on the right symbolizing womanhood. Deep rifts run across the ground below them suggesting mental unrest of the artist and the irreparable damage that her body has incurred.


Kahlo, Frida, Tree of Hope, 1946, Oil on Masonite, 22 x 16 in, Isadore Ducasse Fine Arts, New York

A rare photograph of the artist before her surgery which was probably used later as a reference for the painting shows a playful and coy Frida without her usual getup. 


The Little Deer (1946)

A deeply though provoking painting, in The Little Deer Kahlo’s head is placed on a stag which is bleeding as it has been pierced by multiple arrows. She used her own pet deer “Granizo” as a model for this painting. Despite its wounded state, the Frida-personified-deer is portrayed sitting elegantly in a clearing on the forest floor. Her usual floral headgear is replaced by the beautiful antlers of the stag. On the lower left corner of the painting Kahlo inscribed her name along with the word ‘Carma’, which was a result of her recent interest in Eastern religions and mysticism. In this painting she combines the Eastern word “Carma” with the ancient Aztec symbol of the deer symbolizing the right foot, subsequently alluding to her crippled leg. The arrows represent her physical injuries as well as her emotional pain caused by her turbulent relationship with Diego. 


Kahlo, Frida, The Little Deer, 1946, Oil on Masonite, 8 7/8 x 11 7/8 in, Collection of Mrs. Carolyn Farb, Houston

Icon, inspiration and muse : Remembering Frida

“Feet, what do I need them for if I have wings to fly.” ~ Frida


Nickolas Muray, Frida, Pink/Green Blouse,  Coyoacon, 1938, Bentley Gallery

A powerful voice that exalted feminine power, Kahlo’s fighting spirit came across in her writing as well as her artworks. Despite her inner turmoil, just like the paintings even her sayings possess a determined will to express herself.

Over the years many films and documentaries have been written about the artist’s life, the most famous being a Hollywood film titled ‘Frida’(2002) directed by Julie Taymor and starring the famous Mexican-American actress Salma Hayek. The film was critically appraised and was also Salma’s breakthrough role that won her several nominations for Best actress in Hollywood’s most prestigious Awards (Academy Awards, Golden Globe, etc.). Apart from films, there have been a large number of biographies written about the artist as well.

Kahlo’s legacy of radical feminist works is a major contribution to twentieth century art and her signature style inspires artists and scholars till today. The house that she and Diego lived in, which was also her family home – La Casa Azul (The Blue House) in Coyoacán, Mexico City has been turned into a museum since 1958.

Categories: Art

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