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 left her mentally and physically scared for life. It changed the course of her life forever.
It was during her months of convalescence that Frida began to take painting seriously…“to combat the boredom and pain” she said. “I felt I still had enough energy to do something other than studying to become a doctor. Without giving it any particular thought, I started painting.” It was the beginning of a life-long career for Frida.
Aside from a few art classes in high school and browsing through art books from her father’s collection, Frida had no formal training in the arts. As Frida developed her artistic skills, her paintings evolved into her own unique style, heavily influenced by other people, artists, cultures and life itself. She experimented with different styles and motifs and shocked the art world with her “surrealist” style works and paintings with sexual references.
Wilhelm (Guillermo) Kahlo, Her Father:
Frida’s father, a professional photographer by trade, was also an amateur painter. It was he who first sparked Frida’s interest in art. Frida would often accompany her father on his painting excursions into the nearby country side. He also taught her how to use the camera and how to retouch and color photographs. While Frida was recovering from the bus accident, Guillermo gave Frida his box of paints and brushes and encouraged her to paint.
Fernando Fernandez, a friend of Frida’s father, was a well known and respected commercial printmaker. He hired Frida to work with him after school and taught her how to draw and copy prints by the Swedish Impressionist Anders Zorn. Fernández was surprised at her talent.
19th Century Mexican Portrait Painters:
Early on in her newly found artistic career, Frida had no style of her own and her early paintings reflected the motifs and styles of other artists that she admired. Frida’s first self-portrait was “Self-Portrait in a Velvet Dress” in 1926. It was painted in the style of the 19th Century Mexican portrait painters who were greatly influenced by the European Renaissance masters. This self-portrait was Frida’s interpretation of Botticelli’s “Venus”. Frida used this style in other portraits that followed: “Portrait of Alicia Galant” (1927) and a portrait of her older sister; “Portrait of Adriana” (1927).
Another characteristic that Frida borrowed from the 19th Century Mexican Portraits is the inscribed banderole across the top or bottom of a painting. These inscriptions served to identify the sitter for the portrait or to describe the purpose or meaning of the painting. One example where this element was used is “Portrait of Eva Frederick” (1931) where she identifies the portrait sitter and then herself as the artist. In another 1931 double portrait, “Frieda and Diego Rivera”, she uses the banderole to proclaim that the portrait was painted “…for our friend Mr. Albert Bender“. In “Portrait of a Woman in White” (1930), the banderole was included but not inscribed, leaving the sitter or inspiration for this portrait unknown to this day.
Also borrowed from the 19th Century Mexican Portrait painters was the use of a background of tied back drapes. Frida used this motif in several of her paintings, first in “Self-Portrait – Time Files” (1926), and later in “Portrait of a Woman in White” (1930), “Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky” (1937) and others as well.
Diego Rivera was a well known muralist in Mexico. While Frida was attending classes at the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria school, Diego was painting his mural “Creation” at the school’s Amphitheatre. Frida would often go there to watch him paint and admire his work.
After recovering from the bus accident, Frida learned that Diego was painting another mural at the Ministry of Education in Mexico City. Although she did not know him personally, she admired him and his work enormously…so much that she wanted his opinion of her own work. She bundled up four of her paintings, boarded a bus and set out for the Ministry building. When Frida arrived she recalls: “I was bold enough to call him so that he would come down from the scaffolding to see my paintings and to tell me sincerely whether or not they were worth anything“. One of the paintings she brought to show was her first self-portrait “Self-Portrait in a Velvet Dress”. After viewing the paintings, Rivera remarked that he was most interested in the self-portrait “…. because it is the most original” he said. The other three he said, “…seem to be influenced by what you have seen”. He told her to go home and paint another painting and he would come by and see it. After seeing the new painting Rivera told Frida: “You have talent…” and encouraged her to continue painting. If Rivera had not responded to her paintings with a positive attitude, it may well have been the end of Frida’s career as a painter.
In 1928, Frida painted a portrait of her younger sister, “Portrait of Christina, My Sister”. The style and motif of this painting is in sharp contrast with the dark gloomy Renaissance portraits of the previous year. In this portrait, the background colors are light and airy and the dark heavy Renaissance gowns have given way to white sleeveless attire. The elongated features of the previous portraits are now true to form. Subtle signs of influence by Diego Rivera are evident in her choice of color and background and the stylized tree and larger branches in the foreground.
Frida and Diego were married on August 21, 1929. After their marriage, Diego encouraged Frida to paint in the style of the Mexican popular art, a “folkloric” style of painting. He suggested that she paint the indigenous and working class people of Mexico as he did in his own murals. From that encouragement came the painting “Two Women”. This painting very closely resembles the characteristics of a Rivera mural…the bright colors, the style and the figures. It’s almost as though it were a close-up of a section of one of River’s murals. A lot of the characteristics of this painting would be used in many of her paintings that followed.
In his lifetime, Diego Rivera was considered the “Master of Murals”. He painted numerous murals mostly in Mexico and the United States. Frida would often accompany him to the site where he was painting his next masterpiece. More than once Frida appeared as a figure in his murals.
While Diego painted murals that were measured in several square feet, in 1945 Frida painted her own mural on canvas that was measured in just inches, 24″ x 30″ (61 x 75cm). She called it “Moses” or “Nucleus of Creation”. The inspiration for the theme of the painting came from a Sigmund Freud book that she had just finished reading: “Moses the Man and Monotheistic Religion”. The mural style of the painting was inspired by Diego.
Her Mexican Roots:
Frida was involved in a circle of Mexican artists and intellectuals who were devoted to the beliefs of the artist Adolfo Best Maugard. In a 1923 book, Maugard wrote about returning Mexican art to its native roots. Paintings he said, should reflect the elements and form of the 19th Century Mexican painters. The group would call this “folkloric” style of painting “Mexicanism” and it would be reinstated back into the world of “fine art”. The Americans labeled this movement the “Mexican Renaissance”.
In her second self-portrait, “Time Flies”, Frida employs the “Mexicanism” style. In this portrait the motif has taken on a very “folkloric” style with vivid and varied colors. Simple cotton peasant clothes replace the sophisticated Renaissance velvet dresses that adorned the subjects of her previous paintings. The jewelry she is wearing is a testament of pre-Columbian and colonial cultural influences. One can only observe from this painting that Frida acknowledges her deep roots in the Mexican culture. To further support her national identity, the dominant color used in this portrait are red, white and green….the colors of the Mexican flag. This self-portrait greatly influenced Frida’s search for her own unique style of painting.
To please Diego, Frida would often wear the style of dress typically worn by the native women of the Tehuana region of Mexico. These long floor length richly decorative costumes were not only strikingly beautiful but also enabled her to hide the physical deformity of her right leg. When traveling abroad Frida attracted a lot of attention and even inspired a clothing line in Paris.
In many of Frida’s paintings she presented herself wearing this style of attire….probably because it was the style of clothing Diego preferred and she wanted to please him. She first appears in this style of dress in the 1931 double portrait “Frieda and Diego Rivera”, a painting that was probably based on a wedding photograph. After that painting there were others that followed: “Self-Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States” (1931), “Tree of Hope, Keep Firm” (1946), “Roots” (1943), and two of her very last paintings in 1954, “Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick” and “Self Portrait with Stalin”. In two other paintings, the Tehuana dress appears but Frida is not wearing it: “Memory” (1937) and “My Dress Hangs There” (1933). The painting in which the Tehuana costume plays the most significant role is “The Two Fridas” (1939). In this double self-portrait, painted shortly after her divorce, Frida appears twice. The Frida wearing the Tehuana costume represents the Frida that Diego loved and the other Frida in the European dress is the Frida that has been betrayed by adultery and divorce. Most notably was the 1948 painting “Self Portrait” and the 1943 painting “Self Portrait as a Tehuana” in which she appears in full Tehuana costume.
Frida and Diego were both very politically motivated and active in Mexico. They were both members of the Communist Party of Mexico (PCM) in 1928 but both left the party because they did not agree with the party’s alignment with Stalinism. In the beginning of her painting career, politics had little influence on her art. But, in 1948, Frida again joined the PCM and that inspired her interest in proclaiming her political allegiance on canvas.
In 1951, Frida’s health had diminished to the point where some days she was not able to paint at all. In her diary she wrote that she was concerned that her health was preventing her from painting and that any time she could paint it would be to “…serve the party ” and ” …benefit the Revolution “.
During her last years, Frida painted mostly still life but would politicize them by adding a flag, a peace dove, or inscriptions. One of her last self-portraits in 1954 entitled “Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick” was a strong political statement in support of the PCM. Following that painting she immortalized Stalin in “Self-Portrait with Stalin”, another painting with an obvious Communist theme. When Frida died in July of 1954, she left an unfinished portrait of Stalin on the easel in her studio…a testament to the fact that, when she was able, she wanted to paint to “…serve the party ” and “… benefit the Revolution “.
Pre-Columbian Culture and Mythology:
Artifacts from the Pre-Columbian period had a profound influence on Frida’s paintings. They were to be found everywhere in the Kahlo/Rivera residence. Diego collected sculptures and idols of various sizes and Frida collected jewelry of the period. She would sometimes appear in her self-portraits wearing pieces from her collection: “Self-Portrait – Time Flies” (1926), “Self-Portrait with Monkey” (1938), “Self-Portrait with Braid” (1941) and others.
Pieces from Diego’s collection would also appear in many of her paintings or serve as models or inspiration for a painting. Her 1932 painting “My Birth” in which she paints “…how I imagined I was born“, a statue of the Aztec Goddess Tlazolteolt may have been the model. In “My Nurse and I” from 1937, the “Nurse” is wearing a Teotihuacán mask and the “Madonna and Child” pose may have been modeled after a pre-Columbian statue. Pre-Columbian artifacts can be found in other paintings as well: “The Four Inhabitants of Mexico City” (1938), “Girl with Death Mask” (1938), and “Self-Portrait with Small Monkey” (1945).
In a 1949 painting entitled “The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Myself, Diego and Señor Xólotl” , Frida uses ancient Mexican mythology as the theme. The mythical earth goddess Cihuacoatl, from which all life springs, gently cradles Frida in a “Madonna and Child” pose.
Exvoto Retablo Paintings:
Another form of primitive art that influenced Frida’s painting was the “Retablo” or “Votive” style of painting. Retablos are religious paintings with three common elements: a scene depicting a tragedy or some one with an illness, a Saint or martyr that intervened to “save the day” and an inscription describing the event. This type of painting was usually small in size, about 8″ x 10″, and painted on tin. They were commissioned by the person depicted in the Retablo or friends or close members of the family who were grateful for the intervention. They were inexpensive and usually painted by an anonymous armature artist. The Rivera’s had a collection of more than 200 Retablos. Frida would often take elements from these votive paintings to create her own style of Retablo. Her 1940 painting, appropriately titled “Retablo”, is probably her best example of an original style Retablo. However, Frida did not paint this Retablo. She bought the painting and altered it to resemble her own tragic bus accident of 1925. Her 1932 paintings “Henry Ford Hospital” and “My Birth” are both typical “Frida style” Retablos.
“Gringolandia” (The United States)
Frida traveled to the United States on several occasions. The first, in November of 1930, she and Diego moved to San Francisco where Diego had been commissioned to paint murals. From there the couple moved to Detroit, Philadelphia and then New York City. This first exposure to the American culture would have a profound influence on paintings that followed.
Towards the end of their extended stay in the United States, Frida was homesick for her native Mexico. She did not feel at home in the “New World” and had grown weary of America and the Americans. In a letter to a friend in Mexico she expressed her dislike for the “gringo” people saying “…they are boring and they all have faces like unbaked rolls (especially the old women)”. In another letter she wrote: “…I find that Americans completely lack sensibility and good taste….”
Frida desperately wanted to return to Mexico but Diego resisted. He was enjoying his new found popularity and was fascinated by the industrial progress in the United States…a reoccurring theme in many of his murals. Serious disagreements arose between the couple and each time Diego convinced her that it was in their best interest to remain in America.
Her ill feelings towards “Gringolandia”, the title she gave the United States, were expressed on canvas in “Self Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States” (1932) and “My Dress Hangs There” (1933). In the self portrait, Frida stands on the borderline between two difference worlds….the industrialized United States on one side and her beloved native Mexico on the other. Wearing a pink Mexican style dress and holding a Mexican flag, there is no doubt as to which side of the border she wants to be on. In “My Dress Hangs There”, Frida paints a collage that depicts the American “Capitalistic” way of life. Filled with symbols of modern American industrial society, it portrays social decay and the destruction of fundamental human values. This painting is unusual, not only because of its collage style, but also in that Frida herself does not appear in the painting….probably a testament to that fact that she doesn’t want to be there.
Events in Frida’s Life:
Probably the one thing that influenced the theme of Frida’s paintings most of all was her own life. Based on real life events, she painted the biography of her life. An art critic once wrote: “It is impossible to separate the life and work of this extraordinary person. Her paintings are her biography”.
Many of Frida’s paintings, especially the self-portraits, capture her own personal emotions and feelings about an event or crisis in her life: her physical condition, her inability to have children, her philosophy of nature and life and most of all her turbulent relationship with Diego. Unfortunately most of those “life events” were tragic and unpleasant events and many of them related to Diego’s “womanizing” and infidelity.
Often when Frida was upset with Diego, she would paint a self-portrait to express her emotions at the time. To the untrained eye, most of Frida’s self-portraits look like just another self-portrait. But, within her paintings are clues that reveal her inner emotions and thoughts at the time the painting was executed. The facial expressions in her self-portraits are, for the most part, without emotion and don’t reveal her true mood…it’s everything else in the painting that are the clues; the backgrounds, the colors, the theme, and the style. All of her self-portraits have a story to tell.
In the 1930s while Frida was in the United States with Diego, she became bored and restless. To calm her emotions, Diego suggested that she paint a series of paintings related to important events in her life. Her first painting in the series was “My Birth”. The painting captured two significant events in her life: her own birth and the death of her mother. Although the painting was executed in a Retablo style, the unfurled scroll at the bottom was never inscribed to reveal the significance of the event portrayed.
Another painting in the “life events” series was her 1937 painting “My Nurse and I”. The event captured in this painting is that she, as a baby, had to be breast fed by a wet-nurse because her own mother was not able to do so. An important event because it probably prevented Frida and her mother from forming a mother/child bond…a broken bond that lasted a lifetime.
One dramatic self-portrait that could probably also be included in her “life events” series is the 1939 painting “The Two Fridas”. This painting is a classic example of how she expressed her emotions towards Diego on canvas. This double self-portrait of two different Fridas was painted just after Diego and Frida divorced. The Frida on the right is the Frida that Diego once loved while the other Frida is the Frida that Diego betrayed and rejected.
Frida’s 1937 painting “Memory” captures an event that devastated her marriage. In this painting she expresses her anguish over Diego’s affair with her younger sister Christina. The size of the broken heart at her feet symbolizes the intensity of her emotional pain.
A 1941 self-portrait entitled “Self-Portrait with Bonito”, is another example of a self-portrait that appears to be just that…a self-portrait. But hidden within the brush strokes of this painting are her true emotions of sadness over the death of her father. Dressed in black, she mourns his passing. On her shoulder is her beloved parrot Bonito who comforts her. She often turned to her pets for comfort in times of sadness and loneliness. The background is alive with plants and insects. The painting is a dichotomy of life and death….a common theme in other Kahlo painting.
Sex and Infertility:
After Frida and Diego separated in the summer of 1939, they each lead separate lives. While Diego continued his sexual escapades, Frida engaged in some of her own….sometimes with other women. Sexual overtones eventually found their way into a number of Frida’s still life paintings. The fruits were shaped or cut open in such a way as to symbolize male or female sex organs, seeds became sperm cells and flowers became wombs. Sometimes the sexual references were subtle, for example in her 1938 painting “Fruits of the Earth”, and sometimes more obvious as in “Still Life (Tondo)” from 1942. As you view her earlier still life paintings, you will observe the sexual influence in a number of them to some degree. After 1950, sexual overtones gave way to political statements.
Frida’s obsession with not being able to bear children also produced some paintings that were all about sex and fertility. Two obvious paintings are: “Flower of Life” (1943), and “Sun and Life” (1947). In other paintings the fertility element appears but is not the dominate theme. For example in the two family portraits that she painted, she also included an unborn fetus. In “My Grandparents, My Parents and I” (1936), the fetus is Frida, but in the 1950 family portrait “Portrait of Frida’s Family”, the unborn fetus is the child that she never had. In “Moses” (1945), the fetus is Diego.
In April of 1938, French poet and Surrealist André Breton and his wife, the painter Jacqueline Lamba, visited Mexico. They stayed with Guadalupe Marín, Diego River’s previous wife, and meet the Kahlo-Riveras. When Breton saw Kahlo’s unfinished “What the Water Gave Me” painting, 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”. Until Breton’s arrival on the scene, people who saw Kahlo’s paintings saw just what she wanted them to see….painted images on the surface. But Breton saw beyond that…he saw the images as a surrealistic masquerade of her own emotions and pain.
Although Frida created works that were considered by others to be “Surreal”, she did not follow the accepted conventions of the “Surrealism” movement. She simply used her own style of surrealistic elements to paint her own reality. Frida never considered herself to be a “Surrealist” and, in fact, rejected that label. “They thought I was a Surrealist,” she said, “… but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams…I painted my own reality”.
Although Frida did not consider herself a true “Surrealist”, in 1940, she participated in the “International Exhibition of Surrealism” at the Galería de Arte Méxicano. She exhibited the two largest paintings of her career…two paintings labeled by others as “Surreal”: “The Two Fridas” (1939) and “The Wounded Table” (1940).
Pain and Pills:
In 1951, after some 30 operations, Frida was left broken mentally and in severe physical pain. She was only able to endure by taking painkillers and even then some days was not able to paint at all. As time passed, the pain increased and so did the dosage of painkillers…sometimes taken with alcohol. As a result, the heavy use of drugs greatly influenced the quality of her paintings. The once precise execution of detail in her paintings had now turned to looser, hastier, almost careless brushwork, thicker application of paint and a lack of detail. In 1954, just before her death, a friend remarked that Frida tried to paint a small painting for him but it never got further than a few dabs of paint.
There are two 1954 paintings that bear witness to the devastating affect the drugs had on her paintings: “Self Portrait with a Portrait of Diego on the Breast and Maria Between the Eyebrows”, and “Self Portrait with Stalin”. It is difficult to look at these blurred smeared blotches of paint on canvas knowing that she was once a master of detail. One look at these paintings and it was obvious that Frida was being robbed of her talent. One can only imagine the emotional pain and frustration Frida must have felt when she too looked at these paintings. It was not uncommon for Frida to destroy a painting that she didn’t like. She may have wanted to destroy these two crudely executed paintings but they were both probably spared because they were “politically motivated”.
On a rainy morning in Coyoacán, Mexico, Frida Kahlo was born in the house that her father built just a few years earlier. Her relationship with her father was very warm and close but in contrast, her relationship with her mother was very cold and distant and remained that way throughout her life. At age 18 Frida was involved in a terrible bus accident that changed her life forever. At age 22 she married a ‘womanizing” man 21 years her senior. Their turbulent relationship survived through the good times, the bad times, through divorce and remarriage, infidelities, living together and sometimes apart. As a result of the bus accident and three miscarriages, Frida was left childless and often turned to her pets and dolls for comfort during times of despair and loneliness. She smoked, she drank, at parties she often used foul language to shock her friends and was not above “stretching” the truth to embellish the stories she told.
She painted her own reality, she said, and traveled the world to show and some times shock the art world with her creative works. She at times lived in two different worlds and was torn between her love for Diego and the love for her native Mexico. She was politically active, but not always “politically correct”, and in the end devoted her painting to her political convictions. She endured more than 30 operations in her lifetime that left her scared both physically and mentally. Despite the years of pain and suffering, she continued to do what she loved doing best….paint. Once when hospitalized she said: “When I get out of here there are three things that I want to do….paint, paint, and paint.” And paint she did. Although more than once she considered suicide, it was her love for Diego and her passion for painting that kept her alive. In the end it was the painkillers she took to survive that stripped her of her ability to paint. On a rainy night in Coyoacán, Mexico, Frida Kahlo passed away in the house where she was born 47 years earlier.
It was an extraordinary life for an extraordinary woman. Although Frida is gone, her legacy lives on in the more than 200 paintings, drawings and sketches that she left behind. We can no longer view her paintings as just self-portraits or still life but to search for the true meaning and emotion hidden beneath the paint…
Viva la Vida… Viva la Frida…