Even if you don’t know her by name, you’ve almost certainly seen her work. As one of the most prolific artists of the 20th century, Frida Kahlo’s legacy continues to draw fans from across the globe. Today, “Fridamania” has inspired numerous documentaries about her life, as well as a biopic called Frida, starring Salma Hayek.
Every year, thousands of adoring fans travel to see her small home in Mexico, while some of the largest museums in the world compete to exhibit her work. So, what makes Frida Kahlo’s legacy so powerful? Moreover, what makes Frida’s art stand out from other great painters and artisans of the 20th century? Let’s find out!
Frida Kahlo was born on July 6, 1907, in the heart of Mexico City. The small house in which she lived is known as “La Casa Azul,” or “The Blue House.” Today, it is a place of pilgrimage for all Frida fans. However, The Blue House holds many unfortunate memories from Frida’s upbringing.
At the age of six, Frida contracted polio. Bedridden for nine months, she later recovered, but the illness caused permanent damage to her right leg and foot. She would have a noticeable limp for the rest of her life. Nonetheless, her father encouraged Frida to practice sports such as soccer, swimming, and even wrestling — activities that were unheard of for girls in the early 20th century.
Frida was also one of the few female students to attend the prestigious National Preparatory School. This is where she first met the love of her life, Diego Rivera. At the time, he was commissioned to paint a mural called “The Creation” Sadly, their tumultuous relationship was rife with infidelities, separations, and reconciliations. One wouldn’t typically call their love story a happy one, but who can really say if they were happy? Their love was strong and passionate, yet painful and tragic.
Frida officially became an artist at the age of 18. In a tragic accident, Frida suffered numerous bone fractures, including injuries to the pelvis, spine, collarbone, and ribs. Passing the hours in bed, she began painting with a portable easel and box of paints provided by her mother. She finished her first self-portrait in 1926, marking the start of her illustrious career.
Dozens of other self-portraits followed, most of which were reflections — or, rather, sublimations — of her physical and mental experiences. These included her desire to have children despite many miscarriages, as well as her injuries, surgeries, bouts of depressions, and Diego’s affair with her sister, Cristina.
However, her life was not all pain and suffering. In fact, Frida’s unspoken motto was “Viva la Vida!” One source of her passion for living was the pride she held in her Mexican heritage and her enchantment with the indigenous culture of her native land. She was an avid collector of Mexican popular art and often drew from its motifs and techniques. Specifically, she adopted the format of retablos — small oil paintings on tin, wood, and sometimes copper. These pieces were often displayed in the home, much like religious altars. One popular example is her 1936 piece, “My Grandparents, My Parents, and I.” Frida also celebrated her heritage through her clothing, which often included colorful pre-Columbian jewelry and long folk dresses and skirts.
Although autobiographical, Frida’s paintings are not just depictions of herself and her immediate surroundings. Her works are full of symbolism and complex ideas which led the founder of surrealism, Andre Breton, to call her a surrealist — a label Frida would never accept. "They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn't. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality," she wrote in her diary.
Still, she had something in common with surrealists — most importantly, her interest in psychoanalysis. Freud’s concepts are most evident in Frida’s 1937 painting, “My Nurse and I.” In the painting, Frida is depicted as a baby with the head of adult Frida, held by her wet nurse who wears a pre-Colombian mask. Drops of milk falling from the woman’s breast echo the milky rainfall in the background. This is a reference to her nurse once telling Frida that rain is “the milk of the Virgin Mary,” giving life to the Earth’s plants and wildlife.
As a dedicated Communist, Frida was politically active throughout her life. She often depicted her political ideologies in works like “Self-Portrait Along the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States,” “Self-Portrait with Stalin,” “Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick,” and even her sensual self-portrait dedicated to the Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, with whom she had a short liaison in 1937.
Seemingly incapable of monogamy, Diego Rivera often encouraged his wife’s affairs. Among her other rumoured lovers were renowned intellectuals of the time, including artist Georgia O’Keeffe, sculptor Isamu Noguchi, actress Paulette Goddard, and photographer Nickolas Muray — just to name a few!
In the last 10 years of her life, Frida’s health significantly deteriorated, causing her to become dependent on painkillers. In August of 1953 — less than a year before death — Frida had her right leg amputated as a result of gangrene.
Despite all the pain she experienced, Frida Kahlo never lost her lust for life. Frida’s last painting is a tribute to life called “Viva la Vida,” which translates to "Long Live Life.” The painting features juicy watermelons, symbols of fertility and the richness of existence.
At her funeral on the 14th of July, 1954, a Mexican Communist Party sympathizer removed the Mexican flag over Frida’s coffin and replaced it with a hammer and sickle banner, arousing widespread outrage. After her death, Frida Kahlo became an icon of feminist art and progressive movements worldwide. In spite of her painful experiences and humble beginnings, Frida Kahlo came to be known as one of the most successful and impactful female artists of the modern era.