I Am My Own Muse

Frida Kahlo

Artist: Frida Kahlo
Born: 6 July 1907, Mexico City, Mexico
Nationality: Mexican
Movement: Naïve art, Modern art, Surrealism, Magical Realism, Symbolism, Naturalism, Primitivism, Social realism, Cubism
Died: 13 July 1954, Mexico City, Mexico

The small pins that pierce Kahlo’s skin reveal that she still hurts following illness and accident and her signature tear reveals the ongoing battel with the subsequent psychological overflow. Typical of Kahlo, the use of visual symbolism of physical and psychological pain in an attempt to understand suffering. Prior to Kahlo the language of grief, death, and self, had been explored by some male artists, notably Goya and Munch, but it had not been dissected by a woman. Kahlo entered an existing language, and expanded it to make it her own. By exposing her own body in a broken and bleeding state Kahlo opened the viewer from the inside out to explain human behaviour. Throughout her career, she repeated motifs to create and articulate a means of discussing the most complex aspects of female identity.

Frieda and Diego Rivera, 1931, oil on canvas. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Following repeated miscarriages, she used Surrealism to ask the question to what extent does motherhood or its absence impact on female identity, irreversibly altering the meaning of maternal subjectivity. Umbilical symbolism often in the form of ribbons, it becomes clear Kahlo is connected to all that surrounds her, and she is a ‘mother’ without children. She worked obsessively with self-portraiture reflecting on her deep interest in identity, particularly her mixed German-Mexican heritage as well as in her roles as artist, lover and wife.

Kahlo used religious symbolism throughout her work. She appears as the Madonna with her fur babies, the Virgin Mary cradling her husband, the painter Diego Rivera, Saint Sebastian, a prophet and as the martyred Christ-figure recalling her accident when she was impaled on a metal bar.

Henry Ford Hospital, 1932, oil on canvas. Dolores Olmedo Collection, Mexico City, Mexico

Prior to Kahlo women who had tried to communicate or express the wildest and deepest of emotions were labelled hysterical or insane – while men were aligned with the melancholic creative type. Remaining artistically active and productive allowed Kahlo that women can be melancholy rather than depressed, and these terms are not gendered.

Kahlo was at La Cas Azul in Coyocan, Mexico City. Her father was a German immigrant and her mother of mixed Spanish and Indian ancestry. Kahlo was raised in a strict religious home. Her mother’s rigid, religious fanaticism affected Kahlo’s childhood deeply. At the age of six, Kahlo suffered from polio; her recovery isolated her from other children and left her with permanent damage to one leg causing her to walk with a limp. She was close to her father after her illness and he enrolled her at the German College in Mexico City where she read the writing of European philosophers such as Goethe and Schopenhauer. Kahlo’s lifelong interest in her mixed roots provided her approach to both life and art.

Weeping Coconuts (Cocos gimientes), 1951, oil on board. Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Kahlo was sexually abused and forced to leave the German College. The Mexican Revolution and the Minster of Education had changed national policy on education and from 1922 girls were admitted to the National Preparatory School and Kahlo was one of the first 35 girls admitted. She studied botany, medicine, and social sciences. Academically excellent she became interested in Mexican culture and politically active.

In 1922 Diego Rivera was painting the Creation mural in the amphitheatre of Kahlo’s school. Upon seeing his work, she experienced an infatuation and fascination that she would explore later in life. In 1923 Kahlo fell in love with Alejandro Gomez Arias and they were romantically involved until 1928. The pair were together when on the way home from school in 1925, when they were both involved in a bus accident, for Kahlo it was near fatal. She suffered multiple fractures throughout her body. He was hospitalized and bound in a plaster corset for a month then bedridden at home for many more months. During her recovery, she abandoned her medical pursuits due to her medical circumstances and turned her focus to art.

What the Water Gave Me, 1938, oil on canvas. Private collection

During her convalescence at home Kahlo’s parents made her a special easel, gave her paints, and set a mirror above her head so that she could paint self-portraits. She spent hours confronting her existential questions raised by her trauma. Drawing from the acute pictorial realism from her father’s photographic portraits she approached her portraits with the same psychological intensity. Kahlo was well enough to leave her bedroom by 1927 and re-kindled her relationship with the Cachuchas group which had become more political. She joined the Mexican Communist Party and familiarized herself with the artistic and political circles in Mexico City. She became friends with Tina Modotti, a photojournalist, and the Cuban revolutionary Julio Mella. In June 1928 Kahlo was introduced to Diego Rivera, one of Mexico’s most famous artists. He was impressed with the honesty and originality of her painting and assured her of her talent. The two began a romantic relationship and were married in 1929. The couple moved to Cuernavaca in the rural state of Morelos and Kahlo devoted herself to her painting.

From the early 1930s, Kahlo’s work had evolved into a more assertive Mexican identity, influenced by her exposure to the modernist indigenist movement in Mexico and eagerness to preserve Mexican culture during the rise of fascism in Europe. Distancing herself from her Germanic roots she changed her name from Frieda to Frida and took to wearing traditional Tehuana dress. During the early 1930s Kahlo and Rivera lived in San Francisco, Detroit, and New York whilst Rivera was creating various murals. Kahl also completed seminal works including Self Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States and Frieda and Diego Rivera. While in San Francisco she met Dr. Leo Elosser, a surgeon who became her closest medical advisor until her death.

The Broken Column, 1944, oil on Masonite. Dolores Olmedo Collection, Mexico City, Mexico

After the unveiling of Rivera’s controversial mural for the Rockefeller Center, New York, the couple returned to Mexico. They moved to a house in San Angel made up of two separate wings joined by a bridge, an appropriate set up as their relationship was under immense strain. Kahlo had numerous health issues and at this time Rivera had an affair with her younger sister which, understandably, hurt Kahlo more than her husband’s other infidelities. Kahlo was also having extramarital liaisons, including the Hungarian photographer, Nickolas Muray.

While separated from Diego, after he had an affair with her sister, Kahlo was living in her own flat away from San Angel. She had a short relationship with the Japanese – American sculptor. Isamu Noguchi. Both socially and politically conscious they remained friends until Kahlo’s death.

Kahlo joined the Fourth International (a communist organization) in 1936 and used La Casa Azul as a meeting place for international intellectuals, artists, and activists. She offered the house to the exiled Russian Leon Trotsky and his wife to use as a residence once they were granted asylum in Mexico.

The Wounded Deer, 1946, oil on Masonite. Private Collection

In 1938, during a visit to Mexico City, André Breton, the founder of Surrealism, was enchanted with Kahlo’s paintings, and wrote to the art dealer, Julien Levy, who invited Kahlo to hold her first solo exhibition in New York. Kahlo travelled to the USA without Rivera and caused a media sensation with her colourful and exotic, but traditional Mexican costumes. Her exhibition was a success. Kahlo enjoyed some months socializing in New York. In early 1939 Kahlo sailed to Paris to exhibit with the Surrealists in Europe. That exhibition was not as successful, Kahlo returned to New York to unsuccessfully continue a love affair. She then returned to Mexico City and requested a divorce from Rivera.

Kahlo returned to La Casa Azul after her divorce. She also moved away from smaller paintings and began working with much larger canvases. Kahlo and Rivera remarried I 1940, and as Kahlo’s health deteriorated their relationship became less turbulent. Between 1940-56 Kahlo often had to wear supportive back corsets to help with her spinal problems, as well as suffering from skin infections and syphilis. Her father died in 1941, exacerbating her depression and her health. Often housebound, Kahlo found pleasure in surrounding herself by animals and in tending the garden at La Casa Azul.

The Two Fridas, 1939, oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, Mexico City, Mexico

Throughout the 1940s Kahlo’s work grey in notoriety and acclaim and was included in several group shows in the US and in Mexico. Her work was included in Women Artists at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery, New York, in 1943. The same year. Kahlo accepted a teaching position at a painting school in Mexico City and acquired some devoted students with whom she undertook some mural commissions. Kahlo continued to struggle making a living with her art but received a national prize for her painting Moses in 1945 and The Two Fridas painting sold to the Museo de Arte Moderno in 1947. Meanwhile, her health continued to deteriorate. In 1950 she had complicated surgery to straighten her spine which sadly failed and from then onwards was confined to a wheelchair.

Kahlo continued painting in her final years and also continued her political activism, including protesting nuclear testing by Western powers. She exhibited one final time in 1953 at Lola Alvarez Bravo’s gallery, her first and only solo exhibition in Mexico. Kahlo was brought to the opening in an ambulance, with her four-poster bed placed in the centre of the gallery so she could be there for the duration of the opening event. Kahlo died at La Casa Azul in 1954.

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