By: Heather Waldroup
Frida Kahlo was a female Mexican painter of mixed heritage, born on July 6, 1907 and lived 47 painful years before passing away on July 13, 1954. Within her short life, Frida was slightly crippled from polio, suffered from a serious streetcar accident that left her infertile, married famous muralist Diego Rivera, divorced, remarried Rivera, became a political activist and rose to fame through her oil paintings all before succumbing to her poor health. She was an intelligent female in a society that wanted women to be pretty, submissive wives and mothers. She struggled with cultural demands of her gender in a time when women were demanding a change in their role. All these aspects of her life, and more, affected her art. She was a modern woman but her art had an indigenous background. Her most common genre was self-portrait and through a dramatic views of herself, she was capable of showing her view of the world. Frida was an active member of global society and was a powerful speaker for her beliefs through her art. Her art was controversial and attracted attention. She gained global recognition of her work because it’s complex and provocative, demanding discussion.
Frida Kahlo’s art seems very closely tied to the ups and downs of her marriage and her health. Her and her husband, Diego Rivera, had an unconventional, rocky relationship. There was a lack of fidelity on both parts. Diego was a well-known womanizer and it is thought that Kahlo reacted in kind as vengeance. A struggle exists between an artist and their work, I can only imagine the battles that occur when two artist marry. Within the beginning of their marriage, Frida painted Frida and Diego Rivera (Figure 1). At the time, Rivera was already a well known muralist twenty years her senior and her painting was thought to be no more than a hobby for a quiet wife. Throughout the years they knew each other, they continually painted the other. Frida overlaid his face on her forehead in Diego on my Mind (Figure 2) within which she also wears a dramatic, traditional Mexican headdress. Often times, in her self-portraits she’s wearing traditional Tahuana dress, as in Figure 1. Their marriage seemed to deteriorate in time with Kahlo’s rising success (Lindauer, 1999) until they divorced in 1939. Often times she has been criticized for focusing too much on her work instead of being the docile wife expected of her. The two remarried later that year but it was a financial arrangement and they did not share a marital bed.
While her husband is a common theme so are issues of her health. She often depicted her physical pain and struggle with graphic self-portraits. She “usually located narrative impact . . . directly onto her own body.” (Zavala, 2010) During her accident, she was impaled by a metal pole in her torso that exited through her vagina, breaking her pelvis in the process. She had extreme pain and struggled with the aftermath of her accident. The Broken Column (Figure 3) shows Kahlo’s nude torso with nails in her skin and her torso torn open to reveal a cracked column. The cracked pillar could be representative of the “broken column” of her spine. She was told she would most likely never carry a pregnancy to full term and this turned out to be true, unfortunately. After one of her miscarriages, Kahlo painted Henry Ford Hospital (Figure 4). It depicts the once again nude Kahlo on a bloody hospital bed, crying and holding images of a baby and a pelvis. She went through over 30 surgeries to try to repair the damage and she was just left in more pain. She’d started to lose faith in medicine when she painted Tree of Hope (Figure 5) where a prone, assumed Frida lies cut up and bleeding on a gurney while another Frida in a traditional dress holds a back brace. These self-portraits were a way for her to process the pain she felt. “In Frida’s work oil paint mixes with the blood of her inner monologue.” (Tibol, 1993) They are disturbing images that invoke fear in the viewer. Her pain is so blatantly displayed in her blood and nakedness that can be felt so strongly by the viewer. She demands you feel it with her direct stare.
Kahlo invoked such strong reactions to her work because they challenged traditional values with modern ideas, mixed with often violent and sexualized imagery. She used her art to bring attention to the mistreatment of women and to aid the feminist movement. A Few Small Nips (Figure 6) was painted after she read in the newspaper about a man who stabbed his cheating wife. Frida was herself a sexually promiscuous woman who’d had affairs with both men and women (Lindauer, 1999) so she would feel invested in how such women are viewed. She fought against the expectation of the meek female dressed up in lace and bows. She painted Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (Figure 7) in which she’s wearing a man’s suit and has sheared her hair off. Men felt extremely threatened by this and took it as an assault on all males after her divorce from Rivera. They insinuated her to be a fallen woman and their fury further showed the social imbalance (Lindauer, 1999).
There was an excess of disparity in her art between the traditional and the modern. This is shown most clearly in two of her pieces: My Dress Hangs There (Figure 8) and Self-Portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States (Figure 9). Both paintings have clear American references, as well as other global iconography, as drastic comparisons to traditional Mexican culture. In Figure 8, the US capitol is centered and the Statue of Liberty is in the background. Capitalist iconography is represented by the billboard of a well-dressed woman and the gas pump, all placed in a metropolitan setting with the populous barely noticeable at the bottom of the painting. The artist’s Tehuana dress hangs in the center, offering the juxtaposition of the two. Figure 9 shows the inequality between the two nations with the artist straddling the line separating them. On the Mexican side there are symbols representing ancient Mexican religion and flowers are growing out of the dirt. The American side is completely urbanized. The paintings are considered her most politically explicit because they “portray the corruption, alienation and/or dehumanization” of Americans (Lindauer, 1999). Both of these pieces would’ve sparked discussion in the early 1930’s when they were painted. Nothing makes a topic more well known than controversy.
Frida Kahlo’s harsh life produced provocative images that challenged society. She was wise beyond her years and was a fiery, rebellious spirit. She was a member of las pelonas in college, a group of young, Mexican women who cut their hair, learned how to drive cars and wore androgynous clothing. While consulting a specialist on another serious spinal surgery, she told her physicians to send him every, to write him letters describing her character, so he would understand that she’s a fighter (Lindauer, 1999). She taught painting to youth across Mexico, affecting hundreds of lives with her mentorship. In her final days she left the hospital, despite doctors’ orders, to participate in a political protest. She was in a wheelchair, having lost a leg to gangrene, sickly thin, with colorful yarn tied into her hair. The things she saw and experienced led to the dramatic works that flowed from her brush. She hadn’t planned to follow in the artistic footsteps of her photographer father and grandfather. Yet, look at the silver lining of the tragedy of her accident. Instead of becoming a doctor, she painted pictures that made people talk and discuss. She is now recognizable worldwide for her unique self-portraits.
Zavala, Adriana. Becoming Modern, Becoming Tradition: Women, Gender, and
Representation in Mexican Art. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State UP,
Lindauer, Margaret A. Devouring Frida: The Art History and Popular Celebrity of Frida
Kahlo. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1999. Print.
Tibol, Raquel. Frida Kahlo: An Open Life. University of New Mexico Press, 1993. Print.