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posted on 06.23.09

Frida Kahlo was a Mexican Surrealist artist, life-long admirer of Stalin, and wife of world-renowned muralist, Diego Rivera.  She was born in 1907 in a house called La Casa Azul, in the town of Coyoacán, Mexico, three years before the Mexican Revolution.  By the end of her life at age 47, Frida had produced approximately 200 paintings.


Frida's parents were of mixed ethnicity.  Her father, Guillermo Kahlo, was a Hungarian Jew who had been raised in Germany and was a successful photographer and painter.  Her mother, Matilde Calderon, was from Mexico, a religious woman of indigenous and Spanish origins.  When Frida was seven years old, she contracted polio, a disease that left her with one leg shorter and thinner than the other.  Nonetheless, she developed into an athletic teen, part sprite, tomboy and seductress.  Although  a promising student in other subjects, she excelled in the arts. Frida's early exposure to art was through her father, Guillermo, who taught her photography including retouching and coloring techniques.  She also apprenticed to printer, Fernando Fernandez, who taught her how to draw by copying prints.  These experiences were perhaps the beginning of Frida's path to becoming an artist.  However, it was not a career she would seriously embark upon until later.  At the age of 15, she entered the National Preparatory School to prepare to become a medical doctor. 


Frida's steps into the world of art was a gradual process, shadowed by her intent to become a medical doctor in order to support herself.  If one believed in destiny, perhaps it was her fate to suffer the terrible incident that precipitated her ascent into art. During a bus accident in Mexico, young Frida, who was only 18 at the time, was impaled by a handrail that went through her back and caused damage to her uterus, broke her spinal column, collarbone, ribs and pelvis and fractured her left, polio-afflicted leg.  Confined to bed during the long recuperation period, Frida's mother ordered a special painting easel over her daughter's hospital bed that enabled her to paint. First Self Portrait was painted during this time, inspired by her need for self-exploration and a plea for attention, a double dialogue that pervades most of her paintings.


Many of her paintings are self-portraits.   Frida once said, "I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone... because I am the person I know best."  Frida was in control when she painted and many of her self-portraits indicate this sense of control.  The self portraits are magnetic, drawing us to her relentless charismatic gaze, pulling us in with eyes that grip us in an awareness of only her, leaving a lingering feeling of curiosity about the strikingly featured unsmiling woman.  Although Frida's later work are categorized as Surrealism, her art actually depicts personal narratives intertwining life and death.  Many of her later works are dreamlike and unnerving yet there is a logical theme to them, one that embodies Frida's life and not a dream world she was trying to emote.   A well known quote by Frida goes as follows, "I never knew I was a surrealist till Andre Breton came to Mexico and told me I was." 


Frida had a strong sense of Mexican national identity and this was due in large part to the charged political environment in Mexico, the influence of her husband Diego Rivera, and her (and Diego's) participation in communistic and revolutionary activities that began during her teen years to the last days before her death.  Throughout most of her life, Frida expressed her ties to The People or La Raza, not only her in art but in her style of dress, behavior and immediate personal surroundings and home.  Frida embellished her work directly from Mexican popular culture, where the metamorphosis of humans into plants or animals, myths, dreams, reason and fantasy are commonly entwined in Mexican oral and visual artistry.   In the imagery of the works she painted, her cultural background took a central role, taking symmetry with the vivid earthiness of Mexican and Aztec mythologies, while invoking personal demons she hung on to for inner strength and creative inspiration.


Some of Frida's paintings have both religious and Communist iconologies, a contradiction of philosophies.  An example of this, is the painting entitled, Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick, 1954, in which Marx is depicted as a saint or God, with a peace dove on his left side while two large hands from the heavens on either side of Frida to give her support without her fallen crutches, while another large hand, on Marx's right side, strangles an American eagle that has the head of a caricature of Uncle Sam.   In another painting, My Nurse and I, 1937, Frida combines Christian symbolism (Madonna and Child) with pre-Hispanic iconography.  Celebration of her ancestral background is obvious in the painting of My Grandparents, My Parents and I, 1936.  She depicts her Mexican heritage in the painting Four Inhabitants of Mexico, with a pre-Spanish artifact in the middle that represents Mexico's pre-colonial past and of herself as a 4 year old, oddly detached from her surroundings. 


Frida wrote in her diary, "I will write to you with my eyes, always." If viewing some of Frida's more graphic paintings for the first time without any knowledge of her unconventional life, one's first response may be one of discomfort. Yet upon learning more about Frida, it makes sense to see the corsets featured in her paintings, painted as if they were part of her very skin and body.  These images were a statement of personal imprisonment as she was forced to wear eight different corsets for many years due to her physical disabilities.  Her bisexuality is depicted in the Two Nudes in a Forest, 1939, in which there are two female forms with similar features but different skin tones in an intimate forest setting.  Her brushstrokes suspend not only her life of physical suffering and unrequited loves, but also the wide spectrum of her world through the backgrounds filled with elements from Mexico's tumultuous political period, remnants of colonial Mexico, the effects of rapidly changing world economy and communication, tied together by Aztec symbolisms of life and death and Catholic iconology.


Frida was unable to carry a child to full term. This personal tragedy and her love, protectiveness, obsession, and frustrations with her husband, Diego, are manifested through paintings of an adult Rivera, held by Frida like a baby, in works such as, The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Diego, Me and Senor Xolotl, 1949 or his three eyed head embedded on the forehead of a self-portrait of a tearful Frida entitled, Diego and I, 1949. A tragic miscarriage that occurred during her trip in Detroit with Rivera, is clearly depicted in a painting entitled, Henry Ford Hospital, 1932.  In this painting, Frida is lying naked and weeping on a blood soaked bed, while she holds red ribbons to a male fetus, a snail, an orchid, a female torso and an autoclave. 


Frida is as much alive today as she was during her short lifetime, perhaps even more so. In early 2000, after a movie of her life featuring Selma Hayak as Frida, was released and did very well in the box office, Frida became a cult persona, further fostered by feminism, commercialism, and Mexican national identity.  Afterwards, contemporary society found Frida's artwork everywhere, from mini-refrigerator magnets to the sporting of her uni-brow. Shortly after the movie was released, one of her self-portraits was sold for over five million dollars, the first time that a Latin American work of art achieved such a value. A self-portrait of Frida even graced a 34-cent U.S. postage stamp, which was quite ironic given the United States' history of anti-communism and that Frida openly disliked American culture.


One of Frida Kahlo's greatest accomplishment was in opening a wider dialogue on cultural awareness and sexuality, particularly from a feminine perspective as during her time, very few of her paintings conformed to the more male dominated art world. Her compelling paintings heighten our own vulnerabilities about life in general, reaching out to people who have known similar pain and suffering, or intriguing those who can only imagine what it would have been like to live her life. One of her more memorable quotes was, "I paint my own reality. The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to, and I paint whatever passes through my head without any other consideration."  She painted what was in her head and that was her reality and her art.

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