After the century in which Vincent van Gogh lived, the early twentieth century was a period of continuous change in politics, economy, and society. The revolutionized printing press liberated the people’s minds from the curtains of naiveté and transformed the society into a modernized culture where freedom of expression is highly valued. Frida Kahlo was a female Mexican artist who often noted through her expressive self-portraits which are characterized by her solid and thick eyebrows similar to a man. Her paintings reflect the pain, her dreams, and her life hidden from the public view.
The Life and Works of Frida Kahlo
Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderon was born in July 6, 1907 in the small but historic town of Coyoacan in Mexico (Souter, 11; Johnston, 6; Frida Kahlo Foundation, “Frida Kahlo Biography.”). Her ancestry consisted of Jewish and German descent; the origin of her name ‘Frida’ comes from the German word ‘frieden’ which means ‘peace’ (Frida Kahlo Foundation, “Frida Kahlo Biography.”). However, the artist abandoned the German spelling and used the name ‘Frida’ ever since. When she was six, she contracted polio, a viral disease which causes the limbs to shrink from its normal size. Her disability prevented her from walking for nine months (Johnston, 6; Frida Kahlo Foundation, “Frida Kahlo Biography.”). She disguised this by wearing long billowing skirts (Frida Kahlo Foundation, “Frida Kahlo Biography.”). Biographical accounts claimed that Frida Kahlo became interested in the turbulent world of politics through the stories of the Mexican Revolution. Johnston added that:
“As early as three years old, young Frida would sit and listen to the stories of the war through the discussions of her family; the Mexican Civil War was a period in the Latin American History wherein the native Mexicans revolted to obtain their right to vote” (8).
As a member of the minority knew the oppression that prevailed in the society she lived in. At that time, Mexico was still influenced by the old Spanish traditions. Just like the laws they had implemented in their colonies, the peninsulares or the pure Spanish residing in Mexico only had the right to vote simply because they were rich and held the extensive haciendas that produced massive incomes (National Endowment for the Humanities, “The Mexican Revolution: November 20th, 1910”). The emergence of the mestizos jokingly called the ‘half-breeds’ rose arm-in-arm versus the Mexican government to liberate the Mexicans from greedy encomenderos; these are the people who governed lands and the head of the la encomienda system which is similar to the feudal society in Europe (National Endowment for the Humanities, “The Mexican Revolution: November 20th, 1910”). In her youth, the young Frida was the opposite of the women of her time. She experimented with various fashions; repeatedly trying both dresses made for men and women (Johnston, 9). Scholars studying Kahlo’s life discovered her few surviving daguerreotype portraits in which the artist, together with her sisters, brother, and mother; Frida wore a suit that contrasted the whole picture (Johnston, 9). In an age wherein women only enjoyed few liberties, Kahlo was the woman who started the unisex fashion; she donned suits because it gives her freedom of movement whilst she also wore colorful dresses reflecting the native Mexican fashions to show the world that despite her taste towards male attires, she also has a feminine side too. Kahlo grew up in a feminine environment and educated by her mother as a proper woman by teaching all of them to cook, sew, and household management. Despite all of this, the young Kahlo remained attached to her father. Her father wanted to obtain an education. Kahlo started her schooling by the age of 15 and attended one of the most well-renowned schools in Mexico; The National Preparatory School located Mexico City (Johnston, 9). Whilst studying, she witnessed the struggle of the citizens towards the government.
Painter of Anguish: The Car Accident, Miscarriages, and Personal Identity
“I never painted dreams; I paint my own reality.”
- Frida Kahlo, 1953 (qtd. from Haynes, 1).
The bus accident in 1925 was a turning point in Frida Kahlo’s career as a student to painter. In order to escape her own pains, she started painting herself. Kahlo’s love for painting and photography was due to the efforts made by Guillermo Calderon (Souter, 19) and latter by her husband, the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Additionally, Souter suggested that:
“Frida had been taught by her father the art appreciation. Part of her education was to copy popular prints and drawings of other artists. To ease financial situation, Kahlo worked as an apprentice for Fernando Fernandez, who was a friend of her father. With encouragement she received from the two men, Frida painted with enthusiasm from the things she collected and soon grew up to love art itself” (Souter, 20).
Her marriage to Diego Rivera in 1929 was not a happy one. Their relationship suffered tragedies such as her miscarriage as well as her husband’s numerous affairs with other women. Frida was a rebel; a contrast of the meek women of her time. In her defense, she proved the saying ‘what men can do, women can play better’ when she started having affairs with other artists such as the Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi and Leon Trotsky (Garber, 114). Kahlo painted a hundred and one paintings mostly comprised by self-portraits. A posthumous recognition was given to her by the artists from her circle; most of them described her work as a powerful masterpiece and a queer one because it is very different from the art that was popular in her era. Like van Gogh, her style was often misunderstood due to vast images pertaining to nudity, in which she exposed herself without clothes and her bosom seen by the public. It is a taboo for women to expose their breasts to men and yet Kahlo enjoyed depicting herself in nude. Scholars have often argued that some of her paintings reflect the bisexuality of Frida Kahlo particularly in her works called Two Nudes in the Forest and Self Portrait with Cropped Hair. The Two Nudes in the Forest painted on metal using oil pigments was created in 1939 depicting two naked women (one white and one a native). The white woman sleeps on the lap of the brown woman as if they had already found their refuge away from the restrictive norms of the society. In the left side of the picture, Kahlo placed a monkey, a symbol of sin quite hidden from the public view. The painting was mostly comprised with earth tones ranging from darker and lighter shade of greens to mahogany brown and chestnut. Wavy lines form the tree branches and stems. Kahlo emphasized the two naked women by placing them at the center and making them large enough to be seen by the audience. The monkey on the other hand was of the least importance; hence, she placed it camouflaged by the bigger leaves. Meanwhile, smooth brushstrokes and the metal’s smooth surface gave its luster, brilliance, and smooth texture. This painting now resides in the gallery of Mary Anne Martin. Moving forward, the painting Self Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940, oil on canvas) details Kahlo’s experimentation in abandoning the restrictive norms of the era. A woman in her status would not consider cropping her hair similar to a man’s. This painting strongly implied Kahlo’s tomboyish attitude. Like in one of her pictures, Kahlo wore a suit and seated herself on a chair like in a careless and haphazard way. Remnants of her cropped hair were scattered all around the picture. Hayden Herrera, Kahlo’s biographer once commented that her “carnal lips beneath a slight mustache characterized her nature as androgynous; her heterosexual and homosexual and autoeroticism along with her intense erotic world of imagination. Frida Kahlo’s masculinity became more evident in her late forties.” (qtd. from Garber, 114-115). In her right hand, she holds a pair of scissors which also symbolizes that Kahlo will no longer remain imprisoned from the tradition. This implies a hidden message that she is a modern woman who can compete with men. Without her earrings, her portrait would appear as man but Kahlo’s earrings symbolized that although she can be androgynous and odd, she is also a woman. This painting is under the care of Museum of Modern Art in New York. Painting was simply her way to cope up with her tragedy from the accident and miscarriage. Her self-portraits are the products of her reflection from the mirror. Her paintings are often bold-colored and darker. She used wavy lines which gave her paintings almost surreal quality. She also incorporated size to place emphasis on the subjects that she wanted to tell to the public indirectly. Additionally, she makes her images larger and often includes a variety of themes in order to catch the viewer’s attention. For example, the painting The Two Fridas also completed in 1939 was made out of her misery from her divorce with Rivera. The first Frida clad in a European white dress symbolizes her nature as a mestiza; a term often incorporated with people with mixed origins. On her right hand she was holding surgical scissors; probably the device she used to tore her chest and exposed her heart to the public. The central artery which was considered by scholar Janice Helland as the connection of the ‘luminous consciousness’ also meant the merging of two cultures; this is the only line that connects the European Frida to the Mexican Frida wearing a Tehuana dress (Helland, 402). The Mexican Frida has a full heart and she held a small portrait of a man (assumed to be Diego Rivera by scholars) on her left hand. This painting shows her sorrow at the same time her dual ancestry and her unique nature that separates her from the conventional Frida to the rebellious woman who lived under the heat of the Mexican sun. Kahlo used pastel colors such as moss green, purples, whites, and gray in order to express her emotions. The background was surrounded by a grayish-white that expresses her loneliness and despair after the divorce. Furthermore, scholar Haynes argued that inspiration for Kahlo’s Two Fridas was mainly due to a diary entry about her “memory of an imaginary friend from her childhood” (Haynes, 6). This painting had been the subject of psychoanalysis in which the two Fridas symbolizes the innocence in which she once had (white Frida) whilst the Mexican Frida depicted as bold, and tainted with colors showed a woman who survived the issues of her life.
“Rooted in nostalgia, the remembered friendship describes her association with her ‘self’ which might be understood in psychoanalytical terms of id and ego; consciousness versus unconsciousness whose connection was severed by a perceived unloving relationship with her mother.” (Haynes, 7).
The painting of two Fridas can be seen on the National; Institute of Fine Arts in Mexico City in the year 1947 but a replica was also enshrined at the Frida Kahlo Museum in Coyoacan (Frida Kahlo.org, “The Two Fridas, 1939 by Frida Kahlo”). Another painting she made was the probably the most tragic in her life. The painting Henry Ford Hospital was gruesome and fantastically accurate of its depiction of her ordeals as a mother and a woman. For a woman giving birth is a terrible ordeal, as a mother giving birth is a joy and yet a lonely event where she witnessed the loss of her child. The painting shows a naked Kahlo lying on a hospital bed, crying as she imagined all the painful struggles she endured. The main emphasis of the picture was her and the baby. Circling the picture were the images she recalled from her ordeal including the image of a woman’s womb symbolizing the nine-month period pregnancy; her injured pelvis, dead baby, and many others. In the background she included the picture of the city which also meant to imply that while the worlds continue its journey, she was suffering from the loss of a loved one. The image was painted using dark and solemn hues mainly to express her grief. Shapes of the woman’s womb, pelvic bone, and her baby were accurate as to show Kahlo’s knowledge in anatomy since she studied Medicine (Frida Kahlo Foundation, “Frida Kahlo Biography”) before the bus accident. There is no surreal or imaginative in this picture but pure straightforwardness. She used lines in order to depict human anatomy as it is. The light purple flower symbolizes the loss of her beloved child in which she nurtured for nine months inside her body. This intimate painting is now in a possession of a private collector.
Frida Kahlo was an artist shaped by her painful life ordeals. She is a true symbol for feminism because she gave women the knowledge to empower themselves as well as to look inside their hearts as well. She is a rebel who bended the restrictions, a competitive woman, and above all a talented artist who created inspirational artworks that is unique, beautiful, and showed a distinct cultural heritage; a mixture of the New World and the Old World. Even today, Frida Kahlo still triumphs as one of the pioneers of women arts.
“Frida Kahlo Biography.” Frida Kahlo Foundation. 2002. Web. 21 Jun 2015.
Garber, Marjorie. Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life. New York: Routledge, 2000. Web. Google Book.
Haynes, Anne. “Frida Kahlo: An Artist ‘In Between.’” Journal of Identity and Marginality. eSharp 6:2. (N.d): 1-18. Web. 21 Jun 2015.
Helland, Janice. “Culture, Politics, and Identity in the Paintings of Frida Kahlo.” Msu.edu. (n.d.): 397-406. Web. PDF File.
Johnston, Lissa. Frida Kahlo: Painter of Strength. Minnesota: Capstone Press, 2007. Web. Google Book.
Souter, Gerry, Frida Kahlo. Ho Chi Minh City: Parkstone International, 2011. Web. Google Book.
“The Mexican Revolution: November 20th, 1910.” National Endowment for the Humanities. N.d. Web. 21 Jun 2015.
“The Two Fridas.” Frida Kahlo.org. n.d. Web. 21 Jun 2015.