Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo
As this self portrait makes startlingly clear, the life and art of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo are inextricably intertwined with that of Diego Rivera, her mentor, husband and largest artistic influence.

It’s also difficult to separate her from her times and the other strong-willed and influential people she encountered in her life, from political figures like Leon Trotsky (she and Rivera were supporters of Communism when it seemed more like a social revolution than an excuse for another bunch of totalitarian governments), to the avant garde artists in Paris who were ripping up the fabric of art and making some bizarre new material out of its remnants.

Kahlo is often referred to as a Surrealist. You will occasionally hear me rant about the casual misuse of that term, and Kahlo, who associated with the original Surrealists and knew exactly what was and wasn’t Surrealism, did not consider herself a Surrealist; saying: “They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”

She later came to despise the intellectual snobbery and coldness of Breton and the other Paris Surrealists, saying of them, “They are so damn ‘intellectual’ and rotten that I can’t stand them anymore….I [would] rather sit on the floor in the market of Toluca and sell tortillas, than have anything to do with those ‘artistic’ bitches of Paris.”

Kahlo was, to say the least, outspoken, both verbally and in the confrontational, in-your-face directness of her paintings. Many of her works are self portraits and, in essence, all of her work is autobiographical. In a time when her contemporaries in Mexico, like Rivera, were painting large, bold murals depicting the noble struggles of the poor and downtrodden workers, and Mexico’s 1910 revolution, Kahlo chose a much more intimate, though no less bold, path for her art.

Her self portraits look at first, in spite of their imaginative overtones of symbolism and visionary art, to be very direct and honest appraisals. After comparing them to some photographs, however, I think they were actually intentionally (perhaps subconsciously) harsh, almost always emphasizing her mustache and “unibrow” effect which, while visible in photographs, seem much more pronounced in her paintings. I see her work as self-critical; it is hard edged and at times is obviously an expression of pain, disappointment and emotional turmoil.

She paints her images with an undeniable force of personality and a painting style that borrows some of its power from traditional Mexican art forms, as well as the image juxtapositions employed by the Surrealists, the melodramatic murals of her husband and his comtemporaries, and the bold primitivism of artists like Rousseau.

The personal and self-confessional nature of her work, her feminist and communist beliefs, and the turmoil of her life, have made her something of a hero to many, and she is sometimes exemplified as a victimized woman; though I find it hard to see someone of such obvious strength of will and force of character as a timid victim.

She did have great difficulties to overcome, however. Her life with, and two marriages to Rivera were filled with infidelity and difficulties from the outset. Her painting career began in convalescence from a trolley accident as a teenager, that crushed many bones and broke her back in three places. In her later years she said: “I have had two accidents in my life – the streetcar crash and Diego Rivera”. She also had polio as a child and was in physical pain much of her life and unable to have children. Lest we get all misty-eyed, there is also indication that she was not the kindest or nicest individual herself, and was often not spoken well of by artists and others who encountered her.

I’ll point out here that I have not seen Frida, the popular movie about her which starred Salma Hayek, nor have I seen the documentaries on PBS or A&E. I have also not seen her originals in person, so my knowledge of her life and work comes from images in print or online.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of her birth, and the Museum of the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City, her birthplace, has mounted the largest ever exhibition of her work, Frida Kahlo 1907 — 2007 National Homage, which runs from now through August 19, 2007. The museum does not have images online, but I’ve gathered some other resources for you below.

Exhibition links via Art Knowledge News

17 Replies to “Frida Kahlo”

  1. Another very informative post, Charley. Frida is not one of my favorite artists, but she needs to be better known. Once again, I’ll be directing my blog readers to lines-and-colors. Thanks.

  2. About twenty years ago her work was exhibited along with Rivera, Botero and other Mexican artists at the Bronx Museum of Art. I’ve read that that touring exhibit is what brought her work to the attention of many North Americans. I saw the the Salma Hayek film, I also saw a Mexican movie about her. The Mexican movie was made more than two decades ago. She was self dramatising, but I like her work.

  3. Love,love love, I really love Frida Kahlo.
    By the day when my teacher gave me a book about her. Her life and her personality capture me, her energy in the suffering..her masterpieces shows all of her existence..so strong, so communicative..

  4. C: Great post…thank you for the links to the international sites for FK. I hadn’t seen some of those particular pieces of work. I too was not a big fan of Frida until I was hit by a drunk driver and spent last five years in recovery with a broken pelvis, hips and legs. After watching the Hayek movie, I began to appreciate both FK’s work, her struggles with recovery and the health care system of the 21st century….thank God for titanium, pain meds, hip replacements, massage and physical therapy, etc.

    You made a point about her portraits that resonated with me: her work being harsh and not reflecting her actual looks. I tend to avoid looking at a mirror and when I do I am always shocked that my face is my usual “happy go lucky self” …that my reflection is not contorted in a horrific grimace of what I am actually feeling. In her portraits FK painted what she felt she looked like not what she actually saw in a mirror and therein lies the greatness of her work. I, however, am a 21st century gal, working on quiet, serene pieces of art that help me reduce my stress and pain. The “anger, pain and fury”…those emotions I use to help me get through my physical therapy, so I can walk… not wheel to my studio.

  5. One more comment….thank God for Mac laptops, Photoshop, Illustrator, Flash, the Internet, DVDs, CDs, your blog, forums, email, cable TV!!! What a blessing technology is to those of us who are bedridden. In the movie, I absolutely cringed watching her paint from her bed on a canvas that was strapped to her bedposts.

  6. Yep, I really loved the movie which caused me to seek out the art. I’m not sure it’s accurate to describe Kahlo herself as a communist or even political to any great extent. I think it was more an association by virtue of Rivera’s overt and proud political beliefs and (especially) connections.

    I always had the sense that Kahlo had a wildly swinging moodstate, more often than not influenced by her state of health at any given time (she had many operations as well). So if anyone had a justification for projecting negativity/depression in the world, it was her. But I would have thought reports of her behaviour were fairly balanced out: good v bad. She was as much known as a partygoer and pursuer of good times as she may have been for her temper and bad moods. Or am I wishfully projecting? I should seek out a book.

  7. i really like her work so far, i am learning about her in my art class. her background is really interesting and the fact that she went through so much – the car crash etc . and was still able to paint is really inspirational 🙂 her works seem to be representational of her life experiences and thats why i find them so interesting.

  8. fridas work is very inspirational and thinks its real eye opener to viewers…its a bold statment which creates a mood….very effective and interesting..

  9. I think it’s beautiful. And she absolutely was a communist! If you read her diary it explicitly says that she was loyal to the communist party and that she wanted to use her work to further the interests of the communist party. Not to mention all the ‘viva Lenin’ doodles, etc.
    But anyway. Her work is amazing and beautifully symbolic and evokes her personal pain like i’ve never seen any artist evoke any kind of emotion or sense before.

  10. What is the name of this particular work? It’s incredibly similar to “Diego on my Mind” but I’ve never seen this one before.

  11. i thunk her eyebrows need some waxing and shaping at a salon because man she aint gonna get anywhere with that big caterpillar!!! btw visit ma website it is sa swagalicious ohhhhh yeahhhh boyyyyy!!!!!!!

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