“The only thing I know…” Frida Kahlo once said “… is that I paint because
I need to.”
“I paint my own reality…I paint what ever passes through my head without
any other consideration.”
“I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the subject
I know best.”
As a young woman, becoming a painter was not a part of Frida’s career goals. Her goal in life was to become a doctor but a tragic accident at age 18 changed the course of her life forever.
Frida’s life began where it ended… in the “Blue House” built by her father in Coyoacán, Mexico, then a suburb of Mexico City. Her official birth certificate says she was born Magdalena Carmen Frieda Calderon at 8:30am on July 6th, 1907. But, in later years, Frida proudly claimed to have been born on July 7th, 1910, to coincide with the date the Mexican Revolution began, but actually she changed the date to simply make herself younger. She later changed the German spelling of her name from “Frieda” to “Frida”. She was the third of four daughters born to a Hungarian/German-Jewish father and a mother of Spanish and Mexican Indian descent.
Frida’s father, Wilhelm Kahlo, arrived in Mexico in 1891 at the age of 19. Once in Mexico, he gave up his German forename Wilhelm for Guillermo, traded his Jewish religion for atheism, and never looked back. He found employment at a fashionable jewelry store in Mexico City that was owned by German immigrant friends. Soon after his arrival in Mexico, he married Maria Cardena and had three girls with her, the second of which died days after her birth and his wife Maria herself died following the birth of their third infant, leaving Guillermo alone with his two young daughters. Kahlo was not a well man, he suffered from epilepsy throughout his entire life.
On the night of his wife’s death in 1898, Guillermo asked for the hand of Frida’s mother, Matilde Calderón y Gonzalez , a fellow worker at the jewelry store where Guillermo worked. Guillermo married Frida’s mother, Matilde Calderon y Gonzales, a native born Mexican. Matilde’s mother was Spanish and her father of Mexican/Indian descent. The Calderon-Kahlo marriage was not a match made in heaven. Matilde later confessed to her young daughter Frida that she did not love Guillermo. She only married Guillermo because he was German and he reminded her of a previous young lover who had committed suicide. Shortly after the marriage, Guillermo’s two young daughters from his previous marriage were sent away to a nun’s school. It was from Matilde’s father that Guillermo learned the art of photography and set himself up in business as a professional photographer.
When Matilde became pregnant with Frida, she had just lost her only son who died just days after his birth. After giving birth to Frida, Matilde was too ill to care for or even to feed her newborn daughter. Frida had to be breastfed by an Indian wet-nurse whom the Kahlo’s hired for that specific purpose. This may be the reason that Frida never formed a bond with her mother. Frida’s wet-nurse experience was the inspiration for her 1937 painting “My Nurse & I“.
At age 6, Frida was struck with polio affecting the use of her right leg. Her leg grew very thin, and her foot was stunted in its growth. During her nine month convalescence, her father made sure that she regularly exercised the muscles in her leg and foot. Despite their efforts, her leg and foot remained deformed. Frida attempted to hide it by wearing pants, long skirts or two pairs of sock on her right foot. She was cruelly nicknamed “peg-leg Frida” by her childhood classmates.
In 1922, after completion of her primary education at the Colegio Aleman, Mexico’s German school, Frida became a student at the Escuela National Preparatoria school, where she hoped to become a doctor. At this point in her life she had no interest in pursuing a career as an artist. At this school, Frida became a member of the “Cachuchas”, a political group that supported socialist-nationalist ideas and devoted themselves intensively to literature. The leader of this group was Alejandro Gomez Arias, a law student, journalist and later Frida’s lover.
During this same period, the “Mexican Renaissance” movement began. The government sponsored local artists to paint murals in churches, schools, libraries, and public buildings. It was at the Preparatioria school that Frida first learned of Diego Rivera, who was painting his mural “Creation” at the school’s Simon Bolivar Amphitheatre.
September 17, 1925 would become the day in which Frida’s destiny was changed forever. On that day, Frida and her boyfriend, Alejandro, got onto the bus to head home from school. Shortly afterwards, the bus was stuck broadside by a trolley car. Frida sustained multiple injuries; a broken pelvic bone, spinal column, and other severe injuries, leading doctors to doubt whether she would survive. She spent the next several months in bed recovering from the accident. Little did she know at the time that she would endure some 30 operations throughout her lifetime in an attempt to correct the damage sustained in the accident. Doctor’s told Frida that she would probably never be able to carry a child to full term. This accident changed the course of her life forever. It was during her months of convalescence that Frida began to take painting seriously. Her only previous artistic tuition had been a few drawing lessons from the commercial printmaker Fernando Fernandez, for whom Frida worked part-time as a paid apprentice.
Frida’s father, an amateur artist, gave Frida his paints and brushes and constructed an easel that sat on her bed. He hung a mirror on the underside of the bed canopy so Frida could see herself. She began by painting portraits of herself, friends and still life. Throughout Frida’s short life, she created 143 paintings, most of which were self-portraits and still life. Frida feared that after her death she would be forgotten and self-portraits were her way of immortalizing herself.
In 1926, Frida painted her first self-portrait: “Self-Portrait in a Velvet Dress“, her first serious work and the first of many self-portraits to come. It was painted as a gift for her boyfriend, Alejandro, who had left her and whom she hoped to win back. Alejandro admired Renaissance art and would often give Frida reproductions of Old Master paintings. “Self-Portrait in a Velvet Dress” is Frida’s interpretation of Botticelli’s “Venus” which Alejandro admired. Throughout the rest of her life, Frida painted nearly 60 self-portraits.
By the end of 1927, Frida’s health had recovered to the extent that she was once more living a largely “normal” life. She resumed contact with her old school friends and joined the Young Communist League.
At the start of 1928, a friend from her school days introduced her to a group of young people centered around the Cuban Communist Julio Antonio Mella, who was currently in exile in Mexico. One of the group members was the photographer Tina Modotti, the lover of Mella and an acquaintance of Diego Rivera. It was through Modotti that Frida finally met Diego Rivera. Frida later showed Diego some of her paintings and asked him what he thought of her own efforts and whether he considered her talented. “You have talent...” Diego told her and encouraged her to continue painting. Diego was not only impressed by her paintings but with Frida herself and began courting her. It was during their courtship that Diego suggested Kahlo begin wearing traditional Mexican clothing, which consisted of long, colorful dresses and exotic jewelry.
Diego incorporated a portrait of Frida into his “Ballad of the Revolution” mural in the Ministry of Public Education. She appears in a panel he called “Frida Kahlo Distributes the Weapons“. Dressed in a black skirt and red shirt, and wearing a red star on her breast, she is shown as a member of the Mexican Communist Party, which she in fact joined in 1928. Rivera continued to be a frequent visitor at the “Blue House”.
On August 21, 1929, in a civil ceremony in the townhall of Coyoacán, Frida Kahlo married Diego Rivera. She was twenty-two years old; he was forty-three. Frida’s mother did not approve of the union. She said that Diego was too old, too fat and worse yet he was a Communist and an atheist. Frida’s father was less resistant to the marriage. He understood that Diego had the financial means to provide for his daughter’s medical needs. On one of Diego’s frequent visits to the Kahlo home, Frida’s father took Diego aside and said, “My daughter is sick and always will be….she’s intelligent but not pretty…” “I see that you are interested in my daughter…eh..?” When Rivera replied that he was, Kahlo said, “She is a devil”. “I know…” Diego replied. “Well, I’ve warned you,” Kahlo said and left the room. Some of Frida’s friends were shocked by her choice while others saw it as a way to advance her own career as an artist. Frida’s mother described the marriage as being: “… the marriage between an elephant and a dove.“
Frida became pregnant but had to undergo an abortion because the fetus was incorrectly positioned due to her fractured pelvis. Frida disparately wanted a child but Diego did not want children partly because his painting commissions obliged them to travel a great deal.
Shortly after their marriage, Diego was expelled from the Communist Party after accepting another commission from the Mexican government. As a result of Diego’s expulsion, Frida also left the Communist Party.
During this period, the North Americans were very interested in the cultural development of the so-call “Mexican Renaissance” movement. The United States represented a powerful magnet for Mexican artists to profit from its more strongly developed art market. Rivera was determined to capitalize on the opportunity and accepted a commission to paint murals for the San Francisco Stock Exchange and the California School of Fine Arts.
On November 10th, 1930, the newly-wed couple left Mexico for a three-year sojourn in the United States. Their first stop was San Francisco where they remained until June of 1931 while Diego worked on a mural. During this period, the pain and deformity in Frida’s right leg worsened and she was hospitalized. There she met Dr. Leo Eloesser, a well-known surgeon. He became Frida’s friend and most trusted medical advisor for the rest of her life. Frida painted his portrait as an expression of her gratitude for his friendship.
In June, the Rivera’s returned to Mexico for five months. In November Kahlo and Rivera sailed to New York to attend the opening of Diego’s retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art on December 22.
Up to this point Frida had painted only to amuse herself and never considered herself to be an artist. She would often accompany Diego to his worksite and paint small paintingss on pieces of tin or board. In 1931, while in San Francisco, Frida painted “Frieda and Diego Rivera”, a folkloric style double-portrait that may have been based on a wedding photograph. The painting, shown at the “Sixth Annual Exhibition of the San Francisco Society of Women Artists“, was the first public showing of her work. A San Francisco newspaper article described the work as being “…valuable only because it was painted by the wife of Diego Rivera”.
In April of 1932, the couple moved to Detroit where Rivera had been awarded a commission from the Ford Motor Company to paint a mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Frida became pregnant once again but after only three and a half months her second pregnancy ended in miscarriage at the Henry Ford Hospital. Diego never wanted children and Frida knew it. She took quinine in an attempt to abort, but it did not happen right away. On July 4th, Frida was hospitalized because of severe hemorrhaging and later suffered a miscarriage. She spent the next 13 days recovering in the hospital. Her painting “Henry Ford Hospital” documents every aspect of the tragic event.
In early September of 1932, Frida received word that her mother was gravely ill. She and her friend Lucienne Block returned to Mexico. On September 15, Frida’s mother died after suffering from breast cancer and gall-bladder surgery just two days earlier. Despite Frida’s attempts to bond with her mother, they always remained distant. Frida recalled that “I have my father’s eyes and my mother’s body”. Frida was her father’s favorite daughter. “She is the most intelligent of all my daughters and the most like me.” he would say.
In October, Kahlo and Bloch returned to Detroit where Diego continued work on his murals. After completing the Detroit murals in March of 1933, Diego and Frida traveled to New York City where Rivera was commissioned to paint a mural in the Rockefeller Center. While Diego painted the mural, Frida painted “My Dress Hangs There“… a painting that expressed her discontentment with the United States, it social decay and its fundamental human values. In this painting, Frida expresses an opposite view to Diego who was expressing his approval of the industrial progress in his own mural. Frida was homesick and wanted to return to Mexico but Diego insisted that it was for the best if they stayed in the United States.
In early May, Rockefeller confronted Rivera about the use of Lenin’s portrait in the mural. Rockefeller pleaded with Rivera to paint over the portrait but Rivera refused. On May 9th, 1933, Rivera’s Rockefeller Center commission was abruptly terminated and the unfinished mural was destroyed. Four days later, General Motors canceled his Chicago World’s Fair commission. In June, Rivera accepted a mural commission for the New Worker’s School. After its completion in December, Frida and Diego returned to Mexico. Upon their return they move into a new double studio-house in San Angel designed and built for them by Juan O’Gorman. The house consisted or two separate structures and each side consisted of a studio and living quarters.
In early 1934, after being pregnant for 3 months, Frida’s third pregnancy and health was again in trouble. She underwent an appendectomy, an abortion, and an operation on her foot in which three toes were removed. Shortly afterwards Frida learned that Diego was having an affair with her younger sister Christina. Frida was devastated by the discovery and the couple separated. Frida left the house in San Angel for several months and took her own apartment in central Mexico City. Distraught over the affair with Christina and her separation from Diego, Frida painted nothing during that year. The following year she painted “A Few Small Nips” in which she projects her emotional pain onto another woman’s misfortune. By the end of 1935 Frida returned to the house in San Angel and she and Diego reconcile. Although reconciled, they lead separate lives….Frida on one side of the duplex structure and Diego on the other. The two separate quarters were connected on the top level by a bridge. The door leading to Frida’s side could be locked from the inside.
Despite all of the physical and emotional pain in Frida’s life, she was an outgoing person who used many 4 letter words in her conversations. She loved to smoke, drink tequila and sing off color songs to guests at the many parties she hosted. She loved telling dirty jokes just to shock her guests. People were taken by her beauty and everywhere she went, people stopped in their tracks to stare at her. Men wanted her and women wanted to be her. Beautiful, intelligent, and immensely talented, Kahlo was considered one of the most desirable women of her day. She was romantically linked with movie stars, artists, and politicians of many nationalities, many of whom came to visit her at the “Blue House” in Coyoacán.
In January of 1936, the Mexican Revolution erupted. Frida and Diego worked together on behalf of the Republicans, raising money for Mexicans fighting against Franco’s forces. In January of 1937, Leon Trotsky and his wife, Natalia Sedova, arrived in Mexico, where he had been granted political asylum, largely through Rivera’s intervention. They lived in Kahlo’s “Blue House” in Coyoacán until April 1939. Shortly after their arrival, Frida and Trotsky become close and engage in a secret relationship. But Frida soon grew tired of “the old man” as she called him, and the affair ended in July. After their relationship ended, Frida painted a self-portrait and gave it to Trotsky who hung it on the wall in his study. When the Trotsky’s moved from the Blue House Trotsky left the painting behind.
During 1937 Frida again began to paint and it was during this period that she produced some of best work. Four of Frida’s paintings were included in a group exhibition at the Galleria de Arte at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Her goal was to be financially independent of Diego through the sale of her art work.
In April of 1938, French poet and surrealist André Breton and his wife, the painter Jacqueline Lamba, visited Mexico in order to meet Leon Trotsky. They stayed with Guadalupe Marin, Diego River’s previous wife, and meet the Kahlo-Riveras. When Breton saw Kahlo’s unfinished “What the Water Gave Me“, the metaphorical self-portrait of what life had given her – floating on the water of her bathtub – he immediately labeled her an innate “surrealist“, and offered to show her work in Paris. “I never knew I was a surrealist” Frida said, “till Andre Breton came to Mexico and told me I was.” Julien Levy had written her earlier proposing a show and Diego pushed for it, claiming it would be good for her and her painting career.
In October, Frida traveled to New York for her first one-person exhibition at the Julian Levy Gallery. Twenty-five of Frida’s paintings were exhibited and the show was a great success. American collector and film actor Edward G. Robinson purchased four of Frida’s paintings, her first significant sale.
While in New York for her exhibition, Frida engaged in a relationship with the Hungarian born Nickolas Muray, a well known photographer. They had previously met while Muray was visiting Mexico from New York.
In January of 1939, Kahlo traveled to Paris to participate in “Mexique“, an exhibition in the Renou & Colle Gallery. The exhibition featured examples of Mexican painting, sculpture, photography and popular art. Frida stayed with the Bretons in Paris, where he had promised her a show. However, upon her arrival no arrangements for the show had been made and her paintings were being held in customs. Shortly after her arrival in Paris, Frida was hospitalized for a kidney inflammation. Once released from the hospital, she left the Breton’s residence and moved into the apartment of Mary Reynolds, a close friend of Marcel Duchamp.
Marcel Duchamp helped to arrange Frida’s entry into the “Mexique” exhibition. It opened on March 10th and also included the work of photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Breton’s own collection of Mexican popular art. The Louvre purchases her self-portrait “The Frame” from her exhibition…the first work by a 20th Century Mexican artist to be purchased by the Louvre.
After “Mexique“, Frida sailed back to New York where she broke off her relationship with Muray. In April she returned to Mexico and took up residence in the Kahlo “Blue House” in Coyoacán. During that summer, Frida and Diego separate. Over the years of marriage to Diego, Frida had learned that she received the most attention and affection from Diego when she was ill or in physical pain….rather it be real or imagined. Desperate to save their relationship, Frida again played the “sympathy” card and complained of sever back pain. But this time Diego trumped her hand with the “Divorce” card.
Devastated by the divorce, Frida once again turned to painting to express her emotions. The painting “Las Dos Fridas” (The Two Fridas) portrays two Fridas sitting side-by-side and hand-in-hand….one is the Frida that Diego rejected and the other the Frida that Diego loved.
Rivera’s rejection made Frida more open about her affairs, particularly her bi-sexual affairs with women. In the past Diego had many sexual affairs with other women and justified them to Frida by saying “it was just sex…like a handshake…nothing else…“. At this point Frida began to view sex as just another form of entertainment. “Have sex… take a bath… and have sex again…” was her new view of life.
In early 1940, Frida’s reputation as an artist began to soar and her paintings are shown at exhibitions in New York and San Francisco. While in San Francisco, Frida sought a second opinion from Dr. Eloesser regarding her physical condition. Dr. Eloesser rejected the Mexican doctor’s recommendation for more surgery. His tests on Frida revealed a severe kidney infection and anemia and recommended extended bed rest.
Dr Eloesser was also a close friend of Diego who was also in San Francisco at the time. While Frida was recuperating, Dr. Eloesser convinced Rivera to reconcile and remarry Frida. On December 8th, Diego’s 54th birthday, Frida and Diego were married for a second time. Shortly after the wedding, Frida returned to Mexico. Diego, wanted by Mexican authorities for questioning in the attempted assassination of Leon Trotsky, had to remain in the United States. In February, no longer under suspicion, Diego returned to Mexico.
On April 14th, 1941, Frida’s father died of a heart attack. The Rivera’s returned to the “Blue House” in Coyoacán to live and Diego used the house in San Angel only as his studio. Over the course of the next two years Frida’s notoriety continued to grow and her paintings were shown in exhibitions in Mexico City, New York, Boston and Philadelphia.
After the death of her father, Frida’s physical decline became more acute over the next few years. She underwent spinal taps, confinement in a series of corsets, and, over the next decade, several radical operations on her back and leg which she said did more damage than good. She become very depressed and started keeping a diary to document her emotional feelings in text and drawings. She continued to make entries in the diary until her death ten years later.
Despite her pain and heavy use of painkillers, Frida continued to paint and her works are shown in group exhibitions in Mexico. As yet Frida has not had a solo exhibition of her work in Mexico.
In 1950, Kahlo was hospitalized because of recurring spinal problems. She underwent a total of 7 operations on her spine during that year. Her hospitalization was due in part to a severe infection in a bone graft she received the previous year in New York. She spent most of the year in the hospital and most nights Rivera slept in a room next to hers. “When I leave this place [hospital]”, Frida said, “there are three things that I want to do….paint…paint…and paint“. She spent a total of nine months in the hospital.
Following her discharge from the hospital in 1951, she was confined to a wheelchair for much of the time. Full-time nurses were hired to care for her and give her injections of pain killers. She continued to paint but was only able to do so for short periods of time. Over the next 2 years she completed about 15 paintings, most of which were Still Life paintings of fruits and vegetables that she arranged on her bedside table.
Realizing that Frida was near death, Lola Alvarez Bravo wanted to honor her during her lifetime with her first solo exhibition in Mexico. The 1953 exhibit ran from April 13th thru the 27th at the Galería de Arte Contemporáneo. Frida’s doctor told her she was not well enough to attend the opening and she was not to leave her bed. But, in Frida style, she was determined to attend the opening. Her bed was loaded into the back of a truck and driven to the exhibition opening. Frida followed in an ambulance. Upon arrival, Frida returned to her bed and was carried inside to make her “Frida Style” grand entrance.
In August of 1953, gangrene on Frida’s right foot prompted doctors to amputate her right leg below the knee. Her physical and emotional condition worsened. Frida knew that the end was near.
In April of 1954, Frida contracted pneumonia and was hospitalized for two months. On July 2nd, while still convalescing, and against the advice of her doctors, she and Diego took part in a street demonstration against North-American intervention in Guatemala. This would be her last public appearance.
On the night of July 13th, Frida died in the “Blue House” where she was born 47 years earlier. The cause of death was officially reported as “pulmonary embolism”. Suicide was suspected but never confirmed.
Once when asked what to do with her body when she dies, Frida replied: “Burn it…I don’t want to be buried. I have spent too much time lying down…Just burn it!”
On the day following her death, mourners gathered at the crematorium to witness the cremation of Mexico’s greatest and most shocking painter. Soon to be an international icon, Frida Kahlo knew how to give her fans one last unforgettable goodbye. As the cries of her admirers filled the room, the sudden blast of heat from the open incinerator doors caused her body to bolt upright. Her hair, now on fire from the flames, blazed around her head like a halo. Frida’s lips appeared to break into a seductive grin just as the doors closed.
Her ashes were placed in a pre-Columbian urn which is on display in the “Blue House” that she shared with Rivera. One year after her death, Rivera gave the house to the Mexican government to become a museum. Diego Rivera died in 1957. On July 12th, 1958, the “Blue House” was officially opened as the “Museo Frida Kahlo”.