A Gaze Into the Life of Frida Kahlo
When an art peasant such as I take on the challenge of writing about such a great person as Frida Kahlo, I realize it is only fair to the reader that happens upon this blog that I summarize my background again. I am not an artist or an art critic. I have no degree in art. I love reading, writing, history, football and art, in no particular order. I love spending time in libraries, museums and wandering through art fairs. I look for something that will make me linger at an artist’s booth or at a painting or even at an historic site. So when I walk away some part of the visit stays with me. I’ve been changed in some small way by the artist. And that change stays with me long after I have left the building or site. I will write more on the Linger Factor in the next post.
Why did I choose Frida Kahlo as my first artist to blog and feature on the podcast? I knew nothing about her. My daughter had loaned me the movie ‘Frida’ which I returned to her months later without watching. So when I spoke to her of my study of art and desire to learn more of what makes good art and the history of it, she stated that Frida would be a great first choice, and added quite smugly, that I would have known that if I HAD watched the movie! She was right.
What I’ve written is focused on my fascination and curiosity for Frida. They are points in her life that revealed the artist to me and helped me understand and appreciate the love people have for her. By no means is my summary all inclusive. What follows is a review of what touched me starting with an abbreviated timeline.
A Brief Timeline
- Born: July 6, 1907 Magdalena Carmen Freida Kahlo Calderon
- Polio: 1913 (Six years old)
- Trolley Accident: 9/17/1925
- Her sketch of the trolley accident: 9/17/1926
- Marriage to Diego Rivera: 1929
- Painting of Frida and Diego Rivera: 1931
- Georgia O’Keefe: 1932 and 1938
- The news article “Wife of the famous mural painter gleefully dabbles in works of art: 1933
- Her first solo show in New York: 1938
- Travels to Paris: 1939
- Louvre purchases her painting, ‘The Frame’: 1939
- Divorce from Diego Rivera: 1939
- Re-marriage to Diego Rivera: 1940
- Her painting ‘The Broken Column”: 1944
- Death: July 13, 1954
This timeline is relevant to this piece. For a deeper dive into her history click on https://www.theartstory.org/artist/kahlo-frida/life-and-legacy/#nav
Initially as I looked at her artwork I wasn’t connecting to her. That is until I looked at her painting The Broken Column. Before I read any interpretations of an artist’s work or speak to an artist or art historian, I take in the art as a very personal experience and to identify if any part of it touches something in me. At this point I had looked at several of her paintings and understood that she was telling us her story. The events in her life and paintings were interesting and definitely worth studying. Then that hard to define connection hit me.
As I looked at the pain she endured and my eyes moved up to her face in her painting, The Broken Column, I stopped and gazed into her eyes. I lingered. I could not pull away. I found life in those eyes. It took my breath away. Her eyes were full of life as if the pain she endured depicted in the painting meant nothing. Her painting was simply a story of her life, but did not define her life. The set of her jaw and expression of her mouth was repeated in most of her paintings. She seemed to be defiant, against all odds.
I was captured on a very deep level and I went back to her other paintings with new eyes. Though I would often come back to her life-like gaze in The Broken Column. Now the beauty of art and literature is that it connects with us each in its own unique way or not at all. Despite our similarities we each have a pallet of unique experiences that adds color to our life. As you continue to read, I hope you will discover your own connection with her. It was through writing this blog that I came to understand my connection with her.
Her 1931 painting of her and Diego took on a completely different meaning. Initially, she did not appear to be this strong female capable of inspiring respect and love. She had painted herself in a subservient role. At least that is what I thought. The fact is he was 6’1” and 300 pounds; she was a mere 5’3” and 100 pounds. And that is what she painted. Her reality and her sense of being a wife of two years. The expression on her face, the set of her lips, and the look in her eyes was as similar as they are in so many of her paintings and photos. She exudes a wild horse spirit that refuses to be lassoed.
And that spirit was hers long before Diego and the trolley accident.
She had polio when she was six which left her with a limp. During her recovery she was not around other children. This pattern of being alone would repeat throughout her life. While it was reported that her mother was rigid and tended toward uncontrollable outburst, her father, Wilhelm Kahlo, a German immigrant saw spirit and intelligence in her as a child.
While her sisters went to the convent school, her father sent Frida to the German College in Mexico City. There she read the writings of European philosophers which strengthened her political and societal views. He saw something in his daughter that defied the times and the norm. She would prove him right throughout her all too short life.
‘Kahlo had a horrible experience at the German School where she was sexually abused and thus forced to leave. Luckily at the time, the Mexican Revolution and the Minister of Education had changed the education policy, and from 1922 girls were admitted to the National Preparatory School. Kahlo was one of the first 35 girls admitted and she began to study medicine, botany, and the social sciences. She excelled academically, became very interested in Mexican culture, and also became active politically.’
Frida’s self portraits are revealing of her nature, style, artistry and soul. Her quotes give us further insight into her intelligence, humor and character. Photos of her confirm she painted her reality and her sense of who she was as a person. The facial and physical features and stances are so consistent and confirming. You can look at her artwork at https://artsandculture.google.com/project/frida-kahlo
On September 17, 1925, at age 18, Freida was in a trolley accident. The fact that she survived when being pierced from her collarbone through her pelvic floor by a handrail would be remarkable by today’s medical standards, but can you imagine how hard it was to save her in 1925? A glimpse of Frida’s sense of self can be heard in her own words.
“It is a lie that one is aware of the crash, a lie that one cries. There were no tears in me. The crash bounced us forward and a handrail went right through me, the way a sword pierces a bull.”
The event resulted in a change in the direction of her life. When she was released from the hospital, she was bedridden at home for nearly a year. Her father fashioned an easel for her to paint, and placed a mirror above her so she could see herself. She completed a sketch a year later of the trolley accident.
Most of her works are self portraits. In her words, quoted as follows.
“I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.”
“My painting carries with it the message of pain.”
“I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint”
All quotes of Frida Kahlo
Her spirit is both strong and vulnerable, and above all else, so very honest. And I believe that honesty is what made her a great painter and person.
She also used letters to stay in contact with classmates. Her letters would often go unanswered and she began writing discourses and developing a unique conversational style.
‘…full of colorful descriptions and colloquial phrases. Indeed, before deciding to become a painter, Frida was forging a literary style that had a great expressive force, which she continued to develop throughout her life.’
Perhaps it was her relationship with Diego Rivera that led her to keep painting rather than writing. From my readings it seems that her pain and her ability to immediately transfer her current reality to canvas decided the path of her art. Diego caused her emotional pain through his many reported infidelities. And at one point he had an affair with Frida’s sister, Christine, which broke the marriage. Though they remarried a year later.
Two stories I’m quite fond of and speak to Frida’s nature and also give us a glimpse of her vulnerable side are her letter to Georgia O’Keeffe in March 1933 and the news article written by Florence Davies for the Detroit Free Press in 1933.
Frida had met Georgia O’Keefe in New York while Diego was painting his murals. She wrote the letter while they were in Detroit. Though little is known of their relationship the letter speaks of a deeply emotional connection at least on Frida’s side. The link to the letter is after the blog. One part of the letter that revealed her vulnerable side was this written statement by her.
“Was wonderful to hear your voice again. Everyday since I called you and many times before, months ago, I wanted to write you a letter. I wrote many, but every one seemed more stupid and empty and I tore them up.”
Haven’t we all felt that way a few times in our life?
It was reported that Georgia O’Keeffe had suffered a nervous breakdown and that seems to be the stimulus for Frida to have bravely written and mailed the letter to her. Why bravely? She showed an emotional side minus her protective sense of humor.
“I thought of you a lot and never forget your wonderful hands and the color of your eyes.”
Again, strong and vulnerable, and revealing.
In her art, Frida seems to paint the female body as it is, and also is further evidence of Frida painting with honesty.
Frida’s personality, humor and sense of self was revealed in a 1933 news article published in Detroit. Frida was 25 and had been married to Diego Rivera the world famous muralist for about 4 years. The link to the article, and a tremendous overview of the nature of the times for women in general, but certainly for those that challenged the status quo, can be found below. It is well worth the read. The part that most connected with me, not only in regards to Frida, but also to the journalist Florence Davies is the following.
‘Then her eyes begin to twinkle. “Of course,” she explains, “he does pretty well for a little boy, but it is I who am the great artist.” Then the twinkles in both black eyes fairly explode into a rippling laugh. And that is absolutely all that you coax out of her about the matter. When you grow serious she mocks you and laughs again. But Senora Rivera’s painting is by no means a joke:…’
No joke is right. Five years later she would have her own solo show in New York, and the following year travel to Paris. In 1939, the Louvre bought her painting ‘The Frame’ a 1938 self portrait, its first purchase of a twentieth century Mexican artist.
Odd things catch my attention like her signing her letter to Georgia O’Keeffe “Frieda” not Frida which we usually see. I wondered why she dropped the ‘e’? The reason was presented in a review of her life after her diary was released. According to the report she dropped the ‘e” in Frieda to distance herself from her German heritage. She identified most strongly with her Mexican culture in dress and in support of its political revolution. It makes sense to me that she dropped the ‘e’ due to her strong cultural and political views.
I found a connection with her painting The Broken Column, and that has led me on a wonderful journey of discovery. Her life is inspiring. Her words to me are as great as her actual paintings. Though perhaps whether we paint or write or sculpt or build or sing, our own reality as hers, will be revealed, if we have the courage to be honest.
And as I close, I imagine Frida would have mocked my efforts to understand her life and art, chiding, “What? Do you have nothing better to do?
My Response, “No. I do not.”
Her diary was discovered and is replicated in a couple of books whose links are shown at the end. They are well worth the time spent to read and study. An interesting discovery for me was on the front cover she had written ‘Alas Rojas” loosely translated to ‘Red Wings’.
“Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?”
It’s time to wrap up this rather long blog and if I’ve not tweaked your curiosity about Frida Kahlo, then perhaps more of her words will inspire you.
On labeling her style:
“They thought I was a Surrealist but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams or nightmares. I painted my own reality.”
If you dare to express yourself through art:
“I really don’t know whether my paintings are Surrealist or not, but I know that they are the most honest expression of myself, taking no account of the opinions and prejudices of others.”
Her strength, her humor. Despite polio and the trolley accident and prejudices and enduring life long pain, she dared to live.
“Nothing is worth more than laughter. It is strength to laugh and to abandon oneself, to be light. Tragedy is the most ridiculous thing.”
“I tried to drown my sorrows, but the bastards learned how to swim, and now I am overwhelmed by this decent and good feeling.”
And to give heart to the reader, the aspiring artist within you, and my favorite quote:
“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.”
If you travel to Mexico City, be sure to pay a visit to Frida’s home, The Blue House which is now a museum and probably a pretty good place to linger.
And now raise your glass and toast Frida Kahlo, and her life well lived.
Your time is valuable and I appreciate you sharing it with me. Thank you.
Websites researched to create blog- The Eyes Have It, Frida Kahlo
And to discover other artist, artworks and their story: