Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderon was born in Coyoacan, Mexico on 6 July 1907, as the second daughter to her parents. Her mother, Matilde Calderon y Gonzalez, was of Spanish/Native American descent, while her father, Guillermo Kahlo, was a German/Hungarian professional photographer with European roots.
Kahlo’s leg was deformed as a result of a polio infection she contracted in her early childhood. Her fate was then sealed in 1925, when, at the age of 18, the bus she was travelling on collided with a tram. Her then boyfriend Alejandra Gomez, who was also a passenger on the bus, escaped without a scratch, but Kahlo suffered injuries that impacted the rest of her life. Her body was punctured and impaled by a handrail; her spine fractured at several points and her pelvis was also severely damaged.
The doctors considered her condition so hopeless that they did not even want to treat her, yet, she miraculously survived. Due to her injuries her torso was enclosed in a supportive corset, but a painting kit she received from her father encouraged her to take up painting. Her mother ordered a custom-made easel for her, hung over her bed, which allowed her to paint even when lying. All day long she could see nothing but her own reflection in the mirror installed above her bed, so she started painting self-portraits and drew on the plaster covering her body. “I will paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.” (Walter, 2005)
Frida Kahlo’s life was in fact influenced by two factors that are important for posterity: her sense of physical imperfection and her relationship with Diego Rivera. “I suffered two accidents in my life, one in which a streetcar knocked me down … the other accident is Diego.” (Richmond, 1994) The only visual proof of Frida’s life changing accident is a pencil sketch, which she created one year after the unfortunate incident in 1926. In this drawing she presents the scene from her own perspective, her own image hoovering above and overlooking her injured body lying on the ground. Even though the artist never returned to this subject in her life, the crash hugely contributed to and influenced her oeuvre.
Frida first met the muralist Diego Rivera while she was still at secondary school, and it was already then that she decided to once marry him. Rivera was twenty-one years her senior and had a reputation for being a womanizer, but it did not bother Frida at all. What’s more, she adored him almost selflessly. She was head over heels with the sturdily built painter; in their passionate relationship she could experience incomparable love, but at the same time, Diego’s temperament and passion sent her to the pits of hell. For his sake she learned how to cook, grew her hair, gave up her masculine outfits and started wearing richly decorated traditional Tehuana pieces. The couple got married on 21 August 1929, against the will of Frida’s mother, who was a devout Catholic and objected to this marriage.
Diego’s work took them to the United States for some time, but Kahlo constantly suffered from homesickness. She found the environment foreign, the people made a bad impression on her and she was extremely lonely. She forgot about her sorrows for a while when realising that she was pregnant. Despite the doctors’ warnings and all the risks associated with her pregnancy she decided to keep the foetus. Unfortunately, this decision led to tragedy.
The most shocking moment of Kahlo’s life, maybe even more shocking than the bus accident, was her miscarriage in 1932. While recovering in hospital, she painted the picture entitled Henry Ford Hospital, 1932, which depicts her shattered dreams. It was also the year in which her mother passed away. Although they had a rough-and-tumble relationship, Frida felt extreme pain when losing her mother, and she felt desperately lonely and lost in the US.
In the painting Kahlo’s far-from-perfect, naked body lies motionless on a disproportionately large bed soaked with blood, with six red ribbons clenched in her fists. The items floating at the ends of the ribbons symbolise the artist’s sexuality and her failure to become a mother. The ribbon connecting the giant embryo above her head and her womb symbolises the umbilical cord, while the still-born foetus is Dieguito, whom she desperately wanted to be born. In this picture the snail refers to the painfully slow process of miscarriage, while in other works of hers it represents sexuality and insemination.
The anatomical cast and the pelvic bones can be associated with Kahlo’s fractured spine and injured womb, while the metal device in the left bottom corner refers to part of her operation. The orchid, a gift from Diego, is a symbol of emotions for her. The painting’s composition suggests that the disproportionateness of randomly chosen objects and their removal from their real context carried no significance for the artist. Instead, she put the emphasis on expressing her own emotional state.
She painted this picture after one of her spine surgeries. It shows a split upper body and a column fractured into pieces in place of her own spinal column. The split body is held together by white, one might say, erotic straps resembling a corset. Frida’s distraught body is covered with nails, which symbolise physical and mental pain. The two biggest nails protrude from the heart, and tears are flowing from her eyes that captivate the viewer. “The clothes she holds below her waist resembles a shroud which covers her legs – as her extravagant dresses did in life – in preparation for her burial.” (Haynes, 2006)
The melancholic mood of the painting is intensified by the barren, desolate desert, which refers to infertility: no living organism can survive either in the desert, or in Kahlo’s womb. The artist portrayed herself as a victim; the painting is a cavalcade of symbols that can be easily deciphered by the viewer. Although Kahlo was discovered by André Breton, a figurehead of Surrealism, and he considered Kahlo a Surrealist too, this picture cannot be labeled as such, because the artist portrays reality from her own perspective, just like in any of her other paintings. “I never painted my dreams, I painted my own reality.” (Raquel Tibol and Christina Burrus, 2005). This is exactly the secret behind Kahlo’s paintings: she saw the reality that surrounded her from a different angle.
“I think that honours should be given to people while they are still alive to enjoy them, not when they are dead.” (Raquel Tibol and Christina Burrus, 2005) The most righteous moment in Kahlo’s life was, when in 1953 she was finally given the opportunity to hold an exhibition in her own country at Lola Alvarez Bravo’s Gallery. At this time, she was again left confined to bed but not even this fact could stop her to attend her own solo exhibition. Frida Kahlo died on 13 July 1954, at home at Casa Azul. During her life Kahlo lived in the shadow of Diego Rivera, and only after her death that she was truly accepted as an artist.
Frida Kahlo was a woman who turned suffering into something beautiful, who was honest instead of being chaste and created masterpieces out of pain. She was a woman whose life was desperately hopeless, yet who passionately loved this desperately hopeless life. Kahlo’s life could have taken another direction had she not boarded the bus at that very moment. Her art is ruthless, brutal, tragic, extroverted and at the same time beautiful. “The first women in the history of art to treat, with absolute and uncompromising honesty, one might even say with impassive cruelty, those general and specific themes which exclusively affect women.” (Kettenmann, 2009)
She is one of the few painters whose private and artistic lives mingle so spectacularly and undeniably. Her entire work is interwoven with pain. Her paintings portray her own life, her pain and happiness, and at the same time, art is her own therapy. She expressed her inner world through her works of art, and from her loneliness, she found refuge in painting.