Artist Frida Kahlo was considered one of Mexico's greatest artists who began painting mostly self-portraits after she was severely injured in a bus accident. Kahlo later became politically active and married fellow communist artist Diego Rivera in 1929. She exhibited her paintings in Paris and Mexico before her death in 1954.
Family, Education and Early Life
Kahlo was born Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderón on July 6, 1907, in Coyoacán, Mexico City, Mexico. Kahlo's father, Wilhelm (also called Guillermo), was a German photographer who had immigrated to Mexico where he met and married her mother Matilde. She had two older sisters, Matilde and Adriana, and her younger sister, Cristina, was born the year after Kahlo.
Around the age of six, Kahlo contracted polio, which caused her to be bedridden for nine months. While she recovered from the illness, she limped when she walked because the disease had damaged her right leg and foot. Her father encouraged her to play soccer, go swimming, and even wrestle — highly unusual moves for a girl at the time — to help aid in her recovery.
In 1922, Kahlo enrolled at the renowned National Preparatory School. She was one of the few female students to attend the school, and she became known for her jovial spirit and her love of colorful, traditional clothes and jewelry.
While at school, Kahlo hung out with a group of politically and intellectually like-minded students. Becoming more politically active, Kahlo joined the Young Communist League and the Mexican Communist Party.
Frida Kahlo's Accident
On September 17, 1925, Kahlo and Alejandro Gómez Arias, a school friend with whom she was romantically involved, were traveling together on a bus when the vehicle collided with a streetcar. As a result of the collision, Kahlo was impaled by a steel handrail, which went into her hip and came out the other side. She suffered several serious injuries as a result, including fractures in her spine and pelvis.
After staying at the Red Cross Hospital in Mexico City for several weeks, Kahlo returned home to recuperate further. She began painting during her recovery and finished her first self-portrait the following year, which she gave to Gómez Arias.
Frida Kahlo's Marriage to Diego Rivera
In 1929, Kahlo and famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera married. Kahlo and Rivera first met in 1922 when he went to work on a project at her high school. Kahlo often watched as Rivera created a mural called The Creation in the school’s lecture hall. According to some reports, she told a friend that she would someday have Rivera’s baby.
Kahlo reconnected with Rivera in 1928. He encouraged her artwork, and the two began a relationship. During their early years together, Kahlo often followed Rivera based on where the commissions that Rivera received were. In 1930, they lived in San Francisco, California. They then went to New York City for Rivera’s show at the Museum of Modern Art and later moved to Detroit for Rivera’s commission with the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Kahlo and Rivera’s time in New York City in 1933 was surrounded by controversy. Commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller, Rivera created a mural entitled Man at the Crossroads in the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center. Rockefeller halted the work on the project after Rivera included a portrait of communist leader Vladimir Lenin in the mural, which was later painted over. Months after this incident, the couple returned to Mexico and went to live in San Angel, Mexico.
Never a traditional union, Kahlo and Rivera kept separate, but adjoining homes and studios in San Angel. She was saddened by his many infidelities, including an affair with her sister Cristina. In response to this familial betrayal, Kahlo cut off most of her trademark long dark hair. Desperately wanting to have a child, she again experienced heartbreak when she miscarried in 1934.
Kahlo and Rivera went through periods of separation, but they joined together to help exiled Soviet communist Leon Trotsky and his wife Natalia in 1937. The Trotskys came to stay with them at the Blue House (Kahlo's childhood home) for a time in 1937 as Trotsky had received asylum in Mexico. Once a rival of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, Trotsky feared that he would be assassinated by his old nemesis. Kahlo and Trotsky reportedly had a brief affair during this time.
Kahlo divorced Rivera in 1939. They did not stay divorced for long, remarrying in 1940. The couple continued to lead largely separate lives, both becoming involved with other people over the years.
While she never considered herself a surrealist, Kahlo befriended one of the primary figures in that artistic and literary movement, Andre Breton, in 1938. That same year, she had a major exhibition at a New York City gallery, selling about half of the 25 paintings shown there. Kahlo also received two commissions, including one from famed magazine editor Clare Boothe Luce, as a result of the show.
In 1939, Kahlo went to live in Paris for a time. There she exhibited some of her paintings and developed friendships with such artists as Marcel Duchamp and Pablo Picasso.
Kahlo received a commission from the Mexican government for five portraits of important Mexican women in 1941, but she was unable to finish the project. She lost her beloved father that year and continued to suffer from chronic health problems. Despite her personal challenges, her work continued to grow in popularity and was included in numerous group shows around this time.
In 1953, Kahlo received her first solo exhibition in Mexico. While bedridden at the time, Kahlo did not miss out on the exhibition’s opening. Arriving by ambulance, Kahlo spent the evening talking and celebrating with the event’s attendees from the comfort of a four-poster bed set up in the gallery just for her.
After Kahlo’s death, the feminist movement of the 1970s led to renewed interest in her life and work, as Kahlo was viewed by many as an icon of female creativity.
Frida Kahlo's Most Famous Paintings
Many of Kahlo’s works were self-portraits. A few of her most notable paintings include:
'Frieda and Diego Rivera' (1931)
Kahlo showed this painting at the Sixth Annual Exhibition of the San Francisco Society of Women Artists, the city where she was living with Rivera at the time. In the work, painted two years after the couple married, Kahlo lightly holds Rivera’s hand as he grasps a palette and paintbrushes with the other — a stiffly formal pose hinting at the couple’s future tumultuous relationship. The work now lives at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
'Henry Ford Hospital' (1932)
In 1932, Kahlo incorporated graphic and surrealistic elements in her work. In this painting, a naked Kahlo appears on a hospital bed with several items — a fetus, a snail, a flower, a pelvis and others — floating around her and connected to her by red, veinlike strings. As with her earlier self-portraits, the work was deeply personal, telling the story of her second miscarriage.
'The Suicide of Dorothy Hale' (1939)
Kahlo was asked to paint a portrait of Luce and Kahlo's mutual friend, actress Dorothy Hale, who had committed suicide earlier that year by jumping from a high-rise building. The painting was intended as a gift for Hale's grieving mother. Rather than a traditional portrait, however, Kahlo painted the story of Hale's tragic leap. While the work has been heralded by critics, its patron was horrified at the finished painting.
'The Two Fridas' (1939)
One of Kahlo’s most famous works, the painting shows two versions of the artist sitting side by side, with both of their hearts exposed. One Frida is dressed nearly all in white and has a damaged heart and spots of blood on her clothing. The other wears bold colored clothing and has an intact heart. These figures are believed to represent “unloved” and “loved” versions of Kahlo.
'The Broken Column' (1944)
Kahlo shared her physical challenges through her art again with this painting, which depicted a nearly nude Kahlo split down the middle, revealing her spine as a shattered decorative column. She also wears a surgical brace and her skin is studded with tacks or nails. Around this time, Kahlo had several surgeries and wore special corsets to try to fix her back. She would continue to seek a variety of treatments for her chronic physical pain with little success.
Frida Kahlo’s Death
About a week after her 47th birthday, Kahlo died on July 13, 1954, at her beloved Blue House. There has been some speculation regarding the nature of her death. It was reported to be caused by a pulmonary embolism, but there have also been stories about a possible suicide.
Kahlo’s health issues became nearly all-consuming in 1950. After being diagnosed with gangrene in her right foot, Kahlo spent nine months in the hospital and had several operations during this time. She continued to paint and support political causes despite having limited mobility. In 1953, part of Kahlo’s right leg was amputated to stop the spread of gangrene.
Deeply depressed, Kahlo was hospitalized again in April 1954 because of poor health, or, as some reports indicated, a suicide attempt. She returned to the hospital two months later with bronchial pneumonia. No matter her physical condition, Kahlo did not let that stand in the way of her political activism. Her final public appearance was a demonstration against the U.S.-backed overthrow of President Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala on July 2nd.
Frida Kahlo Museum
The family home where Kahlo was born and grew up, later referred to as the Blue House or Casa Azul, was opened as a museum in 1958. Located in Coyoacán, Mexico City, the Museo Frida Kahlo houses artifacts from the artist along with important works including Viva la Vida (1954), Frida and Caesarean (1931) and Portrait of my father Wilhelm Kahlo (1952).
Frida Kahlo Biography
The Biography.com website
September 28, 2020
A&E Television Networks
April 22, 2020
Original Published Date
April 2, 2014
Frida's Not-So-Jewish Heritage
For many years, it was believed that Frida's father, Carl-Wilhelm Kahlo, though German, had Hungarian-Jewish parents. Which would make Frida part-Jewish. Research has now proven all of that to be untrue. Carl-Wilhelm was born into German Lutheran family.
So why the confusion? The following article from The Jerusalem Post addresses this question.
In part, the article says:
"For decades now, ever since an international revival of interest in the paintings and life of Mexico's Frida Kahlo, art historians and critics, including this writer, have been writing that Frida's photographer father was Jewish, possibly of Hungarian origin. A new book devoted to Guillermo Kahlo and his photography reveals that he had no Jewish genes and stemmed from a long line of German Protestants. Frida herself was probably the source of the claims to her Jewish connection. But why? My guess is that German connections during the Nazi era were an embarrassment to her. Communists in particular were strongly anti-Nazi and Diego Rivera, Frida's great love and sometime husband, was an active communist. So of course was the nominally Jewish founder of the Red Army, Leon Trotsky, who was Frida's lover in Mexico City before he was murdered with an ice pick, at Stalin's orders. In 1949 [sic. 1939], Frida actually wrote to her father inquiring about his origins. The letter survives. Carl Wilhelm Kahlo was born in 1871 in Pforzheim, to Lutheran parents whose antecedents, craftsmen, soldiers, gingerbread bakers and sluice keepers, have been traced back by Gaby Franger and Rainer Huhle to the 16th century. Carl Wilhelm fell out with his family and at age 19 emigrated to Mexico, changed his name to Guillermo and began work as an accountant before discovering photography."
She wanted her birth to coincide with the beginning of the Mexican Revolution
Frida Kahlo was born on July 6, 1907 in Coyoacan, Mexico City, but she often told people she was born in 1910, 3 years after her actual birth, so that people would directly associate her with the Mexican Revolution that began in 1910. Kahlo became an embodiment of Mexican culture, especially indigenous culture, but she herself wasn't fully Mexican: her father was born Carl Wilhelm Kahlo in Germany, either of Jewish and Hungarian ancestry, as Frida claimed, or from a long line of German Lutherans, as some new research argues. Frida's mother, Matilde Calderon, was of indigenous Mexican and Spanish descent.
Her work 'Roots' set the record for a Latin American Piece of Art
Frida Kahlo was a central figure in the Neomexicanismo Art Movement in Mexico which emerged in the 1970s. Her art has been called folk art due to traditional elements and some call it Surrealist though Kahlo herself said, "They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn't. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality." In May 2006, her self-portrait Roots sold for US$5.6 million dollars setting an auction record for a Latin American piece of art.
Frida Kahlo's face is on Money
The 500 Mexican peso bill is unique in that it contains two portraits, one on each side. The duo are the famous couple, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, two of the country's most celebrated artists and personalities. The 500 peso bill was released to mark the centennial of the Mexican Revolution and contains the Diego Rivera quote written in tiny script: “It has been said that the revolution does not need art, but that art needs the revolution. That is not true. The revolution needs revolutionary art. ”
She became a painter after a near fatal accident
On September 17th 1925 Frida and her friend Alex was riding in a bus when it crashed into a street trolley car. Recuperation after the bus accident took over a year, during which time Kahlo gave up her pre-med program and began painting. Her father, an artist, lent her his oil pants and brushes, while her mom commissioned a special easel, so that Kahlo could paint in her hospital bed, and had a mirror placed in the canopy, enabling Kahlo's self-portraiture.
She is known as the master of Self-Portraits
In her career, Frida Kahlo created 143 paintings out of which 55 are self-portraits. Kahlo said, "I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best." Her self portraits often include interpretations of physical and psychological wounds. Frida Kahlo's self-portraits are considered among the finest ever created. Her most famous self-portrait is perhaps Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird.
Frida's painting is the first work by a 20th-century Mexican artist to be purchased by an internationally renowned museum.
In 1939, the Louvre bought Kahlo's The Frame, making it the first work by a 20th-century Mexican artist to be purchased by an internationally renowned museum. Despite such an accomplishment, Kahlo was still known for most of her life, and the 20th-century, as the wife of Diego Rivera, whom she married in 1929. Since the 1980s, though, Kahlo has been known for her own merit. Several biographies have been written and movies about her life have been made. Her former home, La Casa Azul, is now a museum. The largest exhibit ever of her paintings, held last summer for the 100th anniversary of her birth, broke all attendance records at Mexico's Museum of the Fine Arts Palace, although it was only open for 2 months.
Frida Kahlo was a bisexual
Kahlo's marriage with Rivera was tumultuous with both having multiple affairs. Frida had affairs with both men and women. Rivera even had an affair with Kahlo's younger sister Cristina which infuriated Kahlo. They divorced in 1939 but remarried a year later. Although their second marriage was as troubled as the first, Kahlo remained married to Rivera till her death.
She had an affair with the founder of the Red Army
The founder of Red Army, the famous Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky came to Mexico to receive political asylum from the Soviet Union. He first stayed with Rivera and later had an affair with Kahlo. Kahlo created a painting titled Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky to commemorate her brief affair.
Frida Kahlo is a close friend of American artist Georgia O'Keeffe
The two painters met in December 1931, at the opening of Rivera's big solo exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art. According to one of Rivera's assistants, the famed muralist later bragged that his wife had been flirting with O'Keeffe. Frida Kalo writes a few letters to Georgia O'Keeffe - an artistic rock star nearly twice her age, whom she'd befriended while she living in New York.
She became famous decades after her death
Kahlo died 20 days after her 47th birthday on July 26, 1954. A few days before her death, she wrote in her diary: "I hope the exit is joyful - and I hope never to return - Frida". Kahlo was moderately successful during her lifetime and it was only several years after her death that her work became widely acclaimed. During her lifetime she was mainly known in Mexico as Rivera's wife, now she is popular worldwide and Rivera is known as her husband.
Two famous movies have been made on her life
Numerous articles, books and documentaries have been made about Kahlo's life and art, including the bestseller Frida: The Biography of Frida Kahlo (1983) by Hayden Herrera. The movie 'Frida, naturaleza viva' was released in 1983 and was a huge success. In 2002 another biographical film 'Frida', in which Salma Hayek plays her role, grossed over $US 50 million and won two Academy Awards.
'The Suicide of Dorothy Hale' (1939) Hale's friend Clare Boothe Luce, an ardent admirer of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, almost immediately commissioned Kahlo to paint a portrait of their deceased mutual friend, so that in Kahlo's words: "her life must not be forgotten". Luce wanted an idealized memorial portrait and was doubtless expecting a conventional over-the-fireplace portrait for her $400. After being shown in March in Paris, the completed painting arrived in August 1939: Luce claims she was so shocked by the unwrapped painting that she "almost passed out.” The words at the bottom read: "In the city of New York on the twenty-first day of the month of October, 1938, at six o'clock in the morning, Mrs. Dorothy Hale committed suicide by throwing herself out of a very high window of the Hampshire House building. In her memory [...*] this retablo, executed by Frida Kahlo."
* The words "Mrs. Clare Boothe Luce commissioned" were painted out of the legend by Isamu Noguchi at Luce's request after Kahlo delivered the commission.
'The Two Fridas' (1939) Painted shortly after her divorce from Diego in 1939, the portrait shows Frida's two different personalities. One is the traditional Frida in Tehuana costume, with a broken heart, sitting next to an independent, modern dressed Frida. She said it expressed her desperation and loneliness with the separation from Diego.