Frida Kahlo, in full Frida Kahlo de Rivera, original name Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderón was a Mexican painter known for her many portraits, self-portraits, and works inspired by the nature and artifacts of Mexico.
She painted using vibrant colors in a style that was influenced by indigenous cultures of Mexico as well as by European influences that include Realism, Symbolism, and Surrealism. Many of her works are self-portraits that symbolically express her own pain and sexuality.
Kahlo was born on July 6, 1907, in Coyoacán, Mexico City, Mexico. Her father, Wilhelm (also called Guillermo), was a Germanphotographer who had immigrated to Mexico where he met and married her mother Matilde. Frida’s mother was a devout Catholic of primarily indigenous, as well as Spanish descent. She had two older sisters, Matilde and Adriana, and her younger sister, Cristina, was born the year after Kahlo.
The Mexican Revolution began in 1910 when Kahlo was three years old. Later, however, Kahlo claimed that she was born in 1910 so people would directly associate her with the revolution. In her writings, she recalled that her mother would usher her and her sisters inside the house as gunfire echoed in the streets of her hometown, which was extremely poor at the time. Occasionally, men would leap over the walls into their backyard and sometimes her mother would prepare a meal for the hungry revolutionaries.
Frida Kahlo began to paint in 1925, while recovering from a near-fatal bus accident that devastated her body and marked the beginning of lifelong physical ordeals. Over the next three decades, she would produce a relatively small yet consistent and arresting body of work. In meticulously executed paintings, Kahlo portrayed herself again and again, simultaneously exploring, questioning, and staging her self and identity. She also often evoked fraught episodes from her life, including her ongoing
struggle with physical pain and the emotional distress caused by her turbulent relationship with celebrated painter Diego Rivera.
Soon after marrying Rivera in 1929, Kahlo changed her personal and painting style. She began to wear the traditional Tehuana dress that became her trademark. It consisted of a flowered headdress, a loose blouse, gold jewelry, and a long ruffled skirt. Her painting Frieda and Diego Rivera (1931) shows not only her new attire but also her new interest in Mexican folk art.
Their marriage often was tumultuous. Notoriously, both Kahlo and Rivera had fiery temperaments and both had numerous extramarital affairs. The openly bisexual Kahlo had affairs with both men (including Leon Trotsky) and women; Rivera knew of and tolerated her relationships with women, but her relationships with men made him jealous. For her part, Kahlo became outraged when she learned that Rivera had an affair with her younger sister, Cristina. The couple eventually divorced, but remarried in 1940. Their second marriage was as turbulent as the first. Their living quarters often were separate, although sometimes adjacent.
During the early 1930s, Kahlo and Rivera resided in San Francisco, Detroit, and New York as Rivera worked on murals. She also accomplished key pieces such as Self-Portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States (1932) and Frieda and Diego Rivera (1931), the former conveying her impressions of the competition between environment and commerce in the two regions.
In 1933 Kahlo and Rivera returned to Mexico, where they lived in a newly constructed house comprising separate individual spaces joined by a bridge. The residence became a gathering spot for artists and political activists, and the couple hosted the likes of Leon Trotsky and André Breton, a leading Surrealist who championed Kahlo’s work.
Active communist sympathizers, Kahlo and Rivera befriended Leon Trotsky as he sought political sanctuary from Joseph Stalin’s regime in the Soviet Union. Initially, Trotsky lived with Rivera and then at Kahlo’s home, where they reportedly had an affair. Trotsky and his wife then moved to another house in Coyoacan where, later, he was assassinated.
Kahlo received a commission from the Mexican government for five portraits of important Mexican women in 1941, but she was unable to finish the project. She lost her beloved father that year and continued to suffer from chronic health problems. Despite her personal challenges, her work continued to grow in popularity and was included in numerous group shows around this time.
In 1953, toward the end of her short life, Frida was excited to be opening her first solo exhibition in Mexico.
Frida Kahlo died on 13 July 1954, after suffering more and more health problems. Her husband died three years later. Today Frida and Diego’s home, La Casa Azul, is a very popular museum, dedicated to Frida’s life and work. It displays paintings by Frida and Diego, as well as many objects from their life, to help tell the story of one of the most important artists in the twentieth century.
During her life, Frida created 143 paintings including 55 self-portraits. Kahlo said, “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.”
After her death, the rise of feminism in the 1970s led to Frida become a feminist and LGBT icon.