Frida Kahlo – WARP By: Giulia Olsson
Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderon was born on July 6, 1907 in her parents’ home, La Casa Azul, in Coyoacan, Mexico, right outside Mexico City. Kahlo’s father, Mr. Guillermo Kahlo, came from a family of German Lutherans, and he was the son of the
painter and goldsmith, Jakob Heinrich Kahlo; artistic talent had always been pre- sent in the family. Kahlo was the third of four daughters and because of this, claimed that she grew up in a world surrounded by females. This would be preva- lent in her works later on. Kahlo grew up during the Mexican Revolution that be- gan in 1910; she would say she was born in 1910, instead of 1907, so others would associated her directly with the revolution. At times, she would come in direct con- tact with revolutionaries, as they would jump the walls of La Casa Azul for a meal.
Kahlo was not known for being a healthy woman. At the age of six, she contracted polio, causing her right leg to become thinner than the left. Kahlo was also affected by spina bifida, a disease that alters spinal and leg development. She suffered a fa- mous traffic accident during her teenage years that turned her attention away from the study of medicine at the time and into art. Because of the accident, Kahlo lived a life of pain, and she remained immobile for over three months, but never fully gained comfortable mobility. She began drawing her famous self-portraits and said that, “I paint myself because I am often alone and I am the subject I know best.” Kahlo survived over thirty operations during her life.
Pain always embellished Kahlo’s works. She painted personal experiences –mar- riages, divorces, miscarriages, operations, and more. Of 143 paintings, over a third are self-portraits, and they all share an element of either physical or psychological wounds. Kahlo always claimed that, “[She] painted [her] own reality.” Pain was an important figure in Kahlo’s works, but so was Mexican culture. Although at times characterized as folk art, Kahlo’s work has mostly been categorized as “surrealist.”
Kahlo filled her paintings with the colors and forms of Mexican folk art, but also her reality in imaginative ways.
Kahlo married the famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera at the age of 22 (1929). Although he was twenty years her senior, Rivera recognized Kahlo’s talent as an artist and found her work uniquely Mexican, and in time, fell in love with her. Like the rest of her life, this relationship brought Kahlo much pain and the disapproval of her family. They suffered infidelities, career pressures, divorce, remarriage, and Kahlo’s inability to have children. Rivera also had an affair with Kahlo’s younger sister, Cristina. The marriage left Kahlo hurt, and she is quoted as once saying, “I suffered two grave accidents in my life…One in which a streetcar knocked me down and the other was Diego.”
To the surprise of many, Kahlo was an active Communist. She was a friend of Leon Trotsky, the Russian Marxist revolutionary and theorist, as he sought political sanc- tuary from Stalin’s Soviet Union. He lived in La Casa Azul with Kahlo and Rivera for some time. Kahlo’s last public appearance was at a Communist street demon- stration in Mexico City in early July of 1954. Kahlo passed away shortly after that, at the young age of 47, on July 13th, 1954 from pulmonary embolism, although it is suspected she died from an overdose; there was no autopsy. When she was asked what was to be done with her body once she passed away, Kahlo callously would reply, “Burn it… I don’t want to be buried. I have spent too much time lying down… Just burn it!” Her ashes are placed in an urn in La Casa Azul. Her home became a museum after her death and is now known as the “Museo Frida Kahlo.” Her last diary entry read, “I hope the end is joyful – and I hope never to return.” There in doubt Kahlo suffered more than anything else.
Although well known for her self-portraits, Kahlo’s art has been remembered for passion, pain, and intense, vibrant colors. She has created over 200 paintings, drawings, and sketches related to her life experiences – mostly emotion and physi- cal pain from her illness and from her relationship with Rivera. Her work has been widely celebrated across the world, but mostly in Mexico as a symbol of national and indigenous tradition. Furthermore, Kahlo has been celebrated by feminists around the world for depicting the truth behind the female experience.
Surrealism and Kahlo
Although some consider her a folk artist, Kahlo is mainly categorized as a surreal- ist. Surrealism was originally a literary movement that originated in the late 1910’s and early 20’s that released the uncensored imagination from the subconscious. It was pioneered in France under the leadership of French poet, André Breton. Soon enough, Surrealism wasn’t just a literary movement, but a movement in every form of art. In visual and written work, Surrealists explored Freud’s notion of the dream-work and the relationship of the unconscious to reality. They detached themselves from habitual thought processes. Surrealism was an art made from pure imagination, and surrealists often painted images of hysteria, primitive art, and hallucinatory experiences. Some leading surrealists include Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Kahlo herself, and Man Ray.
Kahlo was surrealist in the sense that she painted completely from her imagina- tion, although all of her work was based on her personal reality. In her painting, Without Hope (1945), Kahlo is lying in bed awake, with her dreams coming out of her mouth. She dreams of death, as shown by the skull, and she also dreams of food. Kahlo looks thin, and because her dreams are coming out of her mouth and she dreams mostly of animals, it is safe to assume Kahlo was hungry after one of her many surgeries. Another example is Kahlo’s The Wounded Dear (1946). Kahlo’s face is on a deer’s body as it is moving through a forest with nine arrows through its side. Here, Kahlo is trying to portray her pain.
Media – Technique – Influences
Kahlo’s technique is influenced by her father and her husband. Unlike many art- ists, Kahlo was self-taught, but she created intensely colored paintings that fused elements of surrealism, fantasy, and folklore into one single piece. Kahlo worked mostly with oil on canvas, and was originally influenced by Rivera. Kahlo’s paint- ings also all have an element of Mexican culture and heritage, which are always de- picted by powerful colors. Kahlo was influenced by her own life; all of her works have an element of truth from an experience she either took pleasure or pain in, but mostly always the latter.
21st Century Comparison
Frida Kahlo can be compared to 21st century artist Lari Pittman. Like Kahlo, Pitt- man is inspired by folk art. He loves symbolism and uses it to convey themes of love, violence, and mortality. Although these are usually not the themes Kahlo would convey, they both use art as a way to send out a bigger message. However, like Kahlo, Pittman demonstrated the nature of beauty, pain, and pleasure through his work. His pieces are quite exaggerated and have a surrealist nature to them. Unlike Kahlo, Pittman is an American currently living in Los Angeles. Pittman en- joys directing the viewer’s attention to bittersweet experiences and the value of sen- timentality in art.
I visited Mexico City with my family in 2007, and of course, we made the trip to the Museo Frida Kahlo. At the time, I did not know much about Kahlo herself, but af- ter touring her house and taking a look at her personal belongings, Kahlo quickly became one of my favorite artists. Although very physically debilitated, I thought Kahlo had an interesting and powerful outlook on life. In her home, I could still feel her presence.
One of my favorite things about Kahlo’s work is her ability to express her emotions so easily in paintings. Although she suffered frequently, her work still consists of beautiful, passionate colors, and as a surrealist, Kahlo sent viewers messages in the most creative and thoughtful manners. It is not necessary to read Kahlo’s biography to understand the story of her life. All you need to do is look at her work and interpret, and I think that is truly fantastic.
Kahlo had an amazing ability to weave her personal life and Mexican tradition into her works in a manner that was not overwhelming and obvious. Kahlo displayed what it was like to be a woman – she painted the difficulty of giving birth and her portraits often lead me to think that she was a woman, who like most, suffered from a lack of self-esteem. A beautiful lady, Kahlo almost always painted herself very short of that. Kahlo was a passionate artist who did not hide anything, but was fearless to show the world what her life was like, and through her paintings, she screamed and sent us a message.
Portrait of Luther Burbank, 1931, oil on Masonite, 87 x 62cm.
Henry Ford Hospital (The Flying Bed), 1932, oil on metal, 30.5 x 38cm.
My Birth, 1932, oil on metal, 30.5 x 35cm.
The Wounded Deer, 1946, oil on canvas, 22.4 x 30cm.
My Grandparents, My Parents and Me, 1936, oil and tempera on metal, 30.7 x 34.5cm.
The Frida Kahlo Foundation. “Frida Kahlo Biography.”
The Smithsonian. “Frida Kahlo.”
The Frida Kahlo Website. “A Tribute to Frida Kahlo.” http://www.fridakahlo.com/
The Guggenheim Museum. “Surrealism.”
PBS. Art 21. “Lari Pittman.” http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/lari-pittman