Viva la Vida: the Endurance of Frida

Frida Kahlo was a painter.
Frida Kahlo married Diego Rivera. Divorced him. Married him again.
Frida Kahlo was still a painter.

The 1933 headline, below, hopefully shocks in its blatant sexism and denigration of a widely adored artist. It also serves as a stark reminder that, during her own lifetime, Kahlo was not the celebrated icon we know her as today. As her face becomes a globally recognisable brand, it is important not to lose her story, & art, along the way. Join Generally Gothic as we “Gleefully Dabble” into the history of this continuously significant woman.

‘Wife of the Master Mural Painter Gleefully Dabbles in Works of Art’, The Detroit News, 1933.

Though actually born 3 years previously, Kahlo named 1910 – the start of the Mexican Revolution – as her birth year, and referred to herself as a ‘daughter of the revolution’. This may have been political, or to conceal her age; at 6 years old, polio kept her from starting school with her peers. Instead, she spent this time with her father, whose own academic career had ended early due to illness. Alongside the very unladylike pursuit of sport, he encouraged her interest in his own profession: photography.

Close-up, Frida as a young woman, in drag, via Flashback.com

Early portraits of Kahlo reveal a defiant young woman dressed ‘as a man’. Although concealing her polio-affected right leg may have been an influence, contextually, this was undeniably bold behaviour. Along with her open bisexuality & adultery – her claimed list of extramarital lovers includes singers, artists, and politically active individuals as diverse as Leon Trotsky and Josephine Baker – this put Kahlo on the feminist map in the 1980s & 90s.

She was surrounded by political and emotional turmoil, through revolution and illness. She was bold and defied norms, dressing and loving against society’s expectations.

‘The Broken Column’, Frida Kahlo, 1944, via fridakahlo.org

Born in a blue house, built by her father, and in which she would later die, Kahlo was surrounded by pain and suffering her whole life. She grew up through the Mexican Revolution, surrounded by violence, turmoil, & illness, only to experience a life altering accident at age 18.

During the collision of a streetcar and the bus on which she was travelling, Kahlo’s hip was impaled by a detached handrail, her spine & pelvis were fractured, and her future attempts at achieving motherhood were doomed. This event led to a life of chronic pain, medical procedures, and ironically put an end to her own studies towards becoming a doctor.

Whilst in the initial recovery period – the second at this point in her early life, the first due to polio – Kahlo again turned to her father & took up painting under his influence.

Frida Kahlo photographed in a New York hospital, via fridakahlo.org

The result is largely biographical, punctuated by a series of suffering self-portraits; she spent much time isolated, in bed, with nothing but her own reflection for inspiration. Her body of work, which includes portraits, paintings, diaries, body casts, politically-charged outfits, and even her home, is unmistakably bold and often vibrantly colourful despite being unfalteringly dark, thematically.

Beloved for the truth in her work & representation for a variety of minorities, she inspires strength. Although death pervades her painting, Kahlo, the artist, was born in the moment that she survived.

‘Girl with Death Mask’, Frida Kahlo, 1938, via fridakahlo.org

In Kahlo’s own simple, penetrating words

“I paint flowers so they will not die. “

&

“My painting carries with it the message of pain.”

the essence of her artwork and enduring existence is encapsulated: in immortalising the beauty of the flowers, the reality of her multifaceted pain is made eternal.

~

“I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do.
I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.”

– Frida Kahlo

Want more? Why not read about Bram Stoker’s Muse or check out this poem about Virgina Woolf next?
Leave a comment and let Generally Gothic know who you’d like to see profiled.

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