Women in the arts: Frida Kahlo
Merging life with art
There are few female artists as instantly recognisable as Frida Kahlo. Her traditional Mexican garb, middle parted hair, hint of an upper-lip moustache and that monobrow are the hallmarks of the incredible artist whose iconic self portraits rose to fame in the mid to late 20th century.
Born Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderón on July 6, 1907 in Coyocoán, Mexico City, her father Wilhelm was of German descent, while mother Matilde possessed Indigenous Mexican and Spanish heritage. Growing up as the third of four daughters, Kahlo contracted polio at age 6. The illness damaged her right leg and left her with a permanent limp, the first of many injuries in her short, but colourful life.
In 1922 Kahlo enrolled at a renowned prep school and started connecting with politically minded intellectuals, falling in love with fellow student, Alejandro Gómez Arias. In September 1925, aged 18, Kahlo and Arias were on a bus when it collided with another car. One of the steel handrails impaled Kahlo's hip, fracturing her spine and pelvis. As a result of her serious injuries, Kahlo was hospitalised for several weeks and it was during this time that she fortuitously took up painting.
Kahlo eventually traded in a planned medicine career for one as an artist and started to become politically active, joining the Young Communist League and Mexican Communist Party. In 1928 she became involved with well-known Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, who witnessed her talent and encouraged her art. They married in 1929 and soon Kahlo was taking up residence in various US cities where Rivera's work was commissioned.
During this time Kahlo began exhibiting her highly personalised works, becoming influenced by Surrealism in 1932. One of her works, Henry Ford Hospital, features a naked and bleeding Kahlo in a hospital bed with red cords attached to a foetus, a snail, a flower, and a pelvis. Focused largely on the emotional trauma of her second miscarriage (and her despair at being unable to bear children), it typifies the intense, dramatic and evocative self portraits that Kahlo became renowned for.
While Rivera and Kahlo's marriage was marred by numerous infidelities - most notably his with one of her sisters, and Kahlo's with exiled Soviet leader Leon Trotsky, they remained married, divorcing in 1939 - only to get married again the next year.
Throughout her career Kahlo developed friendships with other artists such as André Breton, Marcel Duchamp and Pablo Picasso, and by 1941 she was receiving commissions from the Mexican government. Many of her works, such as The Broken Column are almost cathartic in nature, reflecting a lifetime spent enduring serious operations and immense physical pain.
In 1953 she celebrated her first solo exhibition from the vantage of a four-poster bed set up in the gallery, but sadly a few months later part of her right leg had to be amputated to stop the spread of gangrene. By 1954, Kahlo was in and out of hospital and had become deeply depressed. In July she was diagnosed with bronchial pneumonia and on July 13 she passed away, aged 47. Her official cause of death is listed as a pulmonary embolism, although some have speculated it may have been a suicide.
Frida Kahlo's ashes and a collection of her works are on display in her beloved childhood home La Casa Azul (The Blue House) in Mexico. Her paintings are known to fetch millions at art auctions and she remains a true feminist and artistic icon to this day.
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