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The Portraits and Pain of Frida Kahlo


It wasn't until several decades after her death at just 47 that Frida Kahlo's art started to be appreciated in a significant way. Before that she was rather unfairly known as just the flamboyant wife of mural painter Diego Rivera. Today, Kahlo is seen as a powerful force in modern art, and specifically in the fields of self-portrait, and the depiction of indigenous tradition, and the female experience.

Many groups have embraced Kahlo. Mexicans love her for loving Mexico. Feminists admire her for her brutally honest depiction of the female form. Anyone who has a physical disability can relate to her struggles with her own body. The LGBT movement has adopted her as an icon for her sexual ambiguity and openness during a repressed era. Socialists value her for her belief in communism.

Kahlo was afflicted by polio as a child, and, at the age of 18, she was seriously injured when the bus she was travelling on was hit by a tram. A lengthy recovery period meant that the young Frida switched from student life to thinking art was her future.

L'autobus by Frida Kahlo

Rivera was an integral part of her life even though he relentlessly cheated on her with other women, including Frida's sister. She married him in 1928, divorced him in 1939 and remarried him in 1940. Kahlo accompanied him around the United States as he travelled to complete commissions. During these prolonged stints abroad Frida developed her own style. She had her own exhibitions in New York and Paris in the late 1930s, but Rivera remained the primary draw when the couple stepped out. In the end, Frida discovered her independence and had her own affairs (with both sexes), including a lengthy one with photographer Nickolas Muray. After World War II, she continued to paint but her health became more and more of a struggle.

Kahlo probably created no more than 200 paintings but she reinvented the self-portrait genre. Her images mimic the classic deep portraits of the colonial era but they are surreal as Frida tended to include whatever was on her mind. Her work often features roots. They could represent growth or connections to the past. She also used medical imagery including blood and wounds, but this is hardly surprising considering the bus accident, the numerous operations (seven in 1950 alone) and her miscarriages. These bloody images are shocking but their honesty was to make her a hero for later generations of women. You will also see gender, race and class in her paintings. And there are pets, including monkeys.

My subjects have always been my sensations, my states of minds, and the profound reactions that life has been producing in me.

One of Kahlo's few champions during her life was Surrealist artist André Breton, who claimed she was part of the movement even though she was far removed from its European roots. Today, she has champions across the globe.

For a concise introduction to her work and life, we recommend Kahlo by Andrea Kettenmann, published by Taschen. Kahlo also wrote a diary, often troubling to read, during the final 10 years of her life.

She is the first woman in the history of art to treat, with absolute honesty, one might even say with impassive cruelty, those general and specific themes which exclusively affect women.
Self Portrait with Monkey by Frida Kahlo
Self Portrait with Monkey by Frida Kahlo

10 Facts About Frida Kahlo

  1. Kahlo's father, Guillermo Kahlo, was a noted photographer, who took numerous stunning portraits of his daughter. His images of Mexico are historically important as he recorded churches, roads, landmarks, and important buildings at the start of the 20th century.
  2. Polio made Frida Kahlo's right leg shorter than her left. Bullied as a child over her limp, she became comfortable wearing men's pants and suits as a youth and, in adulthood, wore the long traditional Mexican skirts that hid her leg from view. Her Mexican attire made her an instantly recognizable figure in the American art crowd.
  3. Several people were killed in the 1925 bus accident. Kahlo suffered a broken pelvis, legs, ribs and collarbone. The artists experienced pain for the rest of her life and the injuries meant she could not have children. She endured many operations over many years in an effort to repair the damage.
  4. In 1929, she married Rivera. The marriage was reported in the world's media as Rivera was a big name in art. Mexico simply knew them as "Diego and Frida."
  5. In 1938, Kahlo was commissioned by Vanity Fair publisher Clare Boothe Luce to paint a posthumous portrait of actress Dorothy Hale, who had committed suicide. The resulting painting showed Hale falling from her apartment and her bloodied body on the ground. The shocked Boothe Luce almost destroyed the portrait instantly after removing it from the crate.
  6. Although André Breton championed her work, Frida's visit to France in 1939 did not go well. She referred to the surrealist crowd as "those cuckoo lunatic sons of bitches."
  7. Kahlo had to wear many corsets during his life to support her spine. She decorated some of them with imagery such as a hammer and sickle, and a foetus, and her own broken bones and flesh.
  8. Kahlo's right leg was amputated at the knee due to gangrene in 1953. Against doctor's orders, she participated in a demonstration against the CIA invasion of Guatemala and died 10 days later.
  9. La Casa Azul, Kahlo's home (The Blue House) in Coyoacán, on the outskirts of Mexico City, was opened to the public as a museum in 1958. Frida's ashes are housed in The Blue House along with many more of her artifacts, including her wheelchair, Tehuana dresses, and painting equipment.
  10. In 2016, a Frida Kahlo painting sold for $8 million. Its title translated into English as 'Two Nudes in the Forest'.
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