Frida Kahlo was born in 1907 in Coyoacan, Mexico. At first glance, looking through her paintings, one notices that she did a lot of self-portraits over the years. Frida was truthful when she said, quote: “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.” I also noticed there were quite a few disturbing, bloody paintings depicting seemingly helpless women with surgical scars. I looked into her biography in order to learn the meaning of all of this macabre subject matter.
Kahlo endured lifelong health problems during her relatively short life of only 47 years. At the age of six, she was afflicted with polio, which caused one leg to be much thinner than the other. For most of her life she wore long, colorful skirts to disguise her defect. Then at the age of 18, Kahlo was in a major bus accident and she suffered a whole list of serious injuries: a broken spinal column, collarbone, ribs, pelvis, eleven fractures in her withered leg, a crushed right foot, and a dislocated shoulder. In addition, an iron railing punctured her abdomen and uterus, ruining her ability to ever have children. She spent three months in a full body cast and had pain her entire life, sometimes to the point of requiring many hospitalizations. She had as many as 35 operations to repair the various injuries, thus the theme of many of her paintings.
The one good outcome of the bus accident is that Kahlo painted to occupy her time during her various recoveries, and decided to forgo the study of medicine which was her original life plan. Her mother had a special easel made so she could paint in bed, and her father gave her a box of oil paints and some brushes. She was self-taught and eventually went on to create 143 paintings, of which 55 are self-portraits. She said, “I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”
Kahlo’s other influences included her native Mexican culture and her stormy relationships, shown in an almost primitive style, along with her use of bright colors and emotional symbolism. She is considered a Mexican surrealist.
At the age of 22, Kahlo married the famous Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera, who was 20 years older than her. They had a very contentious, stormy, yet passionate marriage, divorces, and then remarriage. There were many affairs on both sides; and Kahlo was rumored to have had affairs with both men and women.
Kahlo’s work was very different from her contemporaries but that allowed her to go on and become one of “Mexico’s greatest and most shocking of painters.” She was popular in her day and had many fans. One interesting story is about the day of her cremation. Many mourners came to the crematorium to witness the event. At one point the sudden blast of heat from the open incinerator doors caused her body to bolt upright. On fire, her hair blazed around her head in a giant halo; a very dramatic goodbye from a very dramatic artist.
An excellent website about the life of Frida Kahlo, with many photographs is found at http://www.pbs.ord/weta/fridakahlo .