Though there were only two major public showings of her work during her lifetime, Frida Kahlo is widely admired and respected today as one of the finest painters to emerge from Mexico during the last century. Kahlo’s distinctive self-portraits, which make up a significant portion of her oeuvre, have made her one of the most recognizable artists of the twentieth century. Her biography, like her work, has continually fascinated audiences and influenced artists.
Born outside Mexico City in the house where she would live for most of her life, Frida Kahlo was never formally trained as a painter. Her father, Guillermo Kahlo, was the son of Jewish immigrants from Germany; her mother, Matilde Caderòn, was of Spanish and Indian heritage. Her father, a well-known photographer, encouraged Kahlo’s interest in art, her independent thinking, and her intellectual curiosity.
Kahlo suffered from significant physical pain as a result of disease and accident. A childhood bout with polio left both Kahlo’s legs damaged. Ten years later, Kahlo was riding a bus that was struck by a trolley car and a piece of metal pierced her back and pelvis. Because she was bedridden for a prolonged recovery period, her parents customized an easel to allow her to paint while lying down. The injury caused Kahlo chronic pain and the need for frequent operations throughout her life, nearly forty in all.
Not long after her initial recovery, Kahlo joined the Young Communists League, a leftist political group that included many artists. The League was led by one of its founders, the famous Mexican mural painter, Diego Rivera. Though Rivera was nearly twice her age, Kahlo married him in 1929. Their marriage was an explosive one, full of dramatic fights, love affairs, a divorce, and a remarriage; Kahlo often referred to her union with Rivera as her second accident after the trolley car collision. She had affairs with both men and women, including a particularly famous relationship with Leon Trotsky, who briefly lived in her home. In spite of their difficulties, Kahlo longed to have children with her husband, but as a result of her complicated medical conditions she suffered numerous miscarriages. Regardless of these trials, the couple became the central figures of a circle of international artists and intellectuals in Mexico. They remained involved in leftist politics and activism throughout their lives and both painters explored their convictions in their art.
Among the artists Kahlo associated with were noted surrealists, including André Breton. Though she resisted the label, Kahlo was often linked with the surrealist painters and her work was shown in Europe in that context. Her bold, colorful paintings demonstrate her interest in indigenous traditions and Mexican culture. Her art often incorporates elements of Mexican mythologies and in many self-portraits Kahlo wears native clothing and jewelry. Her self-portraits are often described as feminist explorations of sexuality, pain, violence, and grief. Late in her life Kahlo became addicted to pain medication and her painting suffered; works from this period lack the clarity and precision of her earlier canvases.
Though many embrace Kahlo as a pioneering feminist artist, others have minimized the attention her work has achieved as merely the result of interest in her life and personality. Some contend that Kahlo was a “one painting painter,” whose self-absorbed work fails to achieve anything beyond autobiographical expression. These critics claim that problematic elements in the painter’s biography have been overlooked—such as her feverish devotion to Stalin and the likelihood that many of her operations were unnecessary attempts to gain her husband’s attentions—in order to make her a feminist hero.
In any case, there can be no argument with the powerful influence her work has had in the art world of the late twentieth century. The subject of several major exhibitions, biographies, and a Hollywood film, Kahlo has become an icon of feminist art and Mexican cultural patriotism.