Frida Kahlo - biography
Frida Kahlo de Rivera (July 6, 1907 – July 13, 1954; born Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderón) was a Mexican painter, born in Coyoacán. Perhaps best known for her self-portraits, Kahlo's work is remembered for its "pain and passion", and its intense, vibrant colors. Her work has been celebrated in Mexico as emblematic of national and indigenous tradition, and by feminists for its uncompromising depiction of the female experience and form.
Mexican culture and Amerindian cultural tradition figure prominently in her work, which has sometimes been characterized as Naïve art or folk art. Her work has also been described as "surrealist", and in 1938 one surrealist described Kahlo herself as a "ribbon around a bomb".
Kahlo had a stormy but passionate marriage with the prominent Mexican artist Diego Rivera. She suffered lifelong health problems, many of which stemmed from a traffic accident in her teenage years. These issues are reflected in her works, more than half of which are self-portraits of one sort or another. Kahlo suggested, "I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best."
Childhood and family
Frida Kahlo was born on July 6, 1907 in the house of her parents, known as La Casa Azul (The Blue House), in Coyoacán. At the time, it was a small town on the outskirts of Mexico City.
Her father, Guillermo Kahlo (1871–1941), was born Carl Wilhelm Kahlo in Pforzheim, Germany, the son of Henriette Kaufmann and Jakob Heinrich Kahlo. While Frida herself maintained that her father was of Hungarian-Jewish ancestry, one set of researchers have established that Guillermo Kahlo's parents were not Jewish but Lutheran Germans. Carl Wilhelm Kahlo sailed to Mexico in 1891 at the age of nineteen and, upon his arrival, changed his German forename, Wilhelm, to its Spanish equivalent, 'Guillermo'.
Frida's mother, Matilde Calderón y Gonzalez, was a devout Catholic of primarily indigenous, as well as Spanish, descent. Frida's parents were married shortly after the death of Guillermo's first wife during the birth of her second child. Although their marriage was quite unhappy, Guillermo and Matilde had four daughters, with Frida being the third. She had two older half sisters. Frida remarked that she grew up in a world surrounded by females. Throughout most of her life, however, Frida remained close to her father. The actress, writer, and singer Dulce María is her great grand-niece.
The Mexican Revolution began in 1910 when Kahlo was three. Later Kahlo claimed that she was born in 1910 so people would directly associate her with the revolution. In her writings, she recalled that her mother would usher her and her sisters inside the house as gunfire echoed in the streets of her home town. Occasionally, men would leap over the walls into their back yard and sometimes her mother would prepare a meal for the hungry revolutionaries.
Kahlo contracted polio at age six, which left her right leg thinner than the left, which Kahlo disguised by wearing long, colorful skirts. It has been conjectured that she also suffered from spina bifida, a congenital disease that could have affected both spinal and leg development. As a girl, she participated in boxing and other sports. In 1922, Kahlo was enrolled in the Preparatoria, one of Mexico's premier schools, where she was one of only thirty-five girls. Kahlo joined a clique at the school and fell in love with the leader, Alejandro Gómez Arias. During this period, Kahlo also witnessed violent armed struggles in the streets of Mexico City as the Mexican Revolution continued.
On September 17, 1925, Kahlo was riding in a bus when the vehicle collided with a trolley car. She suffered serious injuries in the accident, including a broken spinal column, a broken collarbone, broken ribs, a broken pelvis, eleven fractures in her right leg, a crushed and dislocated right foot, and a dislocated shoulder. An iron handrail pierced her abdomen and her uterus, which seriously damaged her reproductive ability.
Although she recovered from her injuries and eventually regained her ability to walk, she was plagued by relapses of extreme pain for the remainder of her life. The pain was intense and often left her confined to a hospital or bedridden for months at a time. She underwent as many as thirty-five operations as a result of the accident, mainly on her back, her right leg and her right foot.
Career as painter
After the accident, Kahlo turned her attention away from the study of medicine to begin a full-time painting career. The accident left her in a great deal of pain while she recovered in a full body cast; she painted to occupy her time during her temporary state of immobilization. Her self-portraits became a dominant part of her life when she was immobile for three months after her accident. Kahlo once said, "I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best." Her mother had a special easel made for her so she could paint in bed, and her father lent her his box of oil paints and some brushes.
Drawing on personal experiences, including her marriage, her miscarriages, and her numerous operations, Kahlo's works often are characterized by their stark portrayals of pain. Of her 143 paintings, 55 are self-portraits which often incorporate symbolic portrayals of physical and psychological wounds. She insisted, "I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality."
Kahlo was influenced by indigenous Mexican culture, which is apparent in her use of bright colors and dramatic symbolism. She frequently included the symbolic monkey. In Mexican mythology, monkeys are symbols of lust, but Kahlo portrayed them as tender and protective symbols. Christian and Jewish themes are often depicted in her work.
She combined elements of the classic religious Mexican tradition with surrealist renderings. Kahlo created a few drawings of "portraits," but unlike her paintings, they were more abstract. She did one of her husband, Diego Rivera, and of herself. At the invitation of André Breton, she went to France in 1939 and was featured at an exhibition of her paintings in Paris. The Louvre bought one of her paintings, The Frame, which was displayed at the exhibit. This was the first work by a 20th century Mexican artist ever purchased by the internationally renowned museum.
As a young artist, Kahlo approached the Mexican painter, Diego Rivera, whose work she admired, asking him for advice about pursuing art as a career. He recognized her talent and her unique expression as truly special and uniquely Mexican. He encouraged her artistic development and began an intimate relationship with Frida. They were married in 1929, despite the disapproval of Frida's mother.
Their marriage was often tumultuous. Kahlo and Rivera both had fiery temperaments and numerous extramarital affairs. The openly bisexual Kahlo had affairs with both men and women, including Josephine Baker; Rivera knew of and tolerated her relationships with women, but her relationships with men made him jealous. For her part, Kahlo was furious when she learned that Rivera had an affair with her younger sister, Cristina. The couple eventually divorced in November 1939, but remarried in December 1940. Their second marriage was as turbulent as the first. Their living quarters often were separate, although sometimes adjacent.
Later years and death
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 [Mrs. Clare Booth Luce commissioned this retablo, executed by Frida Kahlo."
Active communists, Kahlo and Rivera befriended Leon Trotsky as he sought political asylum in Mexico from Joseph Stalin's regime in the Soviet Union during the late 1930s. In 1937 initially, Trotsky lived with Rivera and then at Kahlo's home (where he had an affair with Kahlo). Trotsky and his wife then moved to another house in Coyoacán where, in 1940, he was assassinated.
A few days before Frida Kahlo died on July 13, 1954, she wrote in her diary: "I hope the exit is joyful — and I hope never to return — Frida". The official cause of death was given as a pulmonary embolism, although some suspected that she died from an overdose that may or may not have been accidental. An autopsy was never performed. She had been very ill throughout the previous year and her right leg had been amputated at the knee, owing to gangrene. She had a bout of bronchopneumonia near that time, which had left her quite frail.
In his autobiography, Diego Rivera would write that the day Kahlo died was the most tragic day of his life, adding that, too late, he had realized that the most wonderful part of his life had been his love for her.
A pre-Columbian urn holding her ashes is on display in her former home, La Casa Azul (The Blue House), in Coyoacán, which since 1958 has been maintained as a museum housing a number of her works of art and numerous relics from her personal life.
Kahlo's work was not widely recognized until decades after her death. Often she was popularly remembered only as Diego Rivera's wife. It was not until the early 1980s, when the artistic movement in Mexico known as Neomexicanismo began, that she became very prominent. This movement recognized the values of contemporary Mexican culture; it was the moment when artists such as Kahlo, Abraham Ángel, Ángel Zárraga, and others became household names and Helguera's classical calendar paintings achieved fame.
During the same decade other factors helped to establish her success. The first retrospective of Frida Kahlo’s work outside Mexico (exhibited alongside the photographs of Tina Modotti) opened at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in May 1982, organized and co-curated by Peter Wollen and Laura Mulvey. The exhibition was also shown in Sweden, Germany, New York and Mexico City. The movie Frida, naturaleza viva (1983), directed by Paul Leduc with Ofelia Medina as Frida and painter Juan José Gurrola as Diego, was a huge success. For the rest of her life, Medina has remained in a sort of perpetual Frida role. Also during the same time, Hayden Herrera published an influential biography, Frida: The Biography of Frida Kahlo, which became a worldwide bestseller. Raquel Tibol, a Mexican artist and personal friend of Frida, wrote Frida Kahlo: una vida abierta. Other works about her include a biography by Mexican art critic and psychoanalyst Teresa del Conde and texts by other Mexican critics and theorists, such as Jorge Alberto Manrique.
- 1990–1991, "Diego on my Mind," by Frida Kahlo, oil on masonite, 76 by 61 centimeters, 1943 was used as the representing piece on the post for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries art exhibit.
- In 1991, the opera Frida by Robert Xavier Rodriguez, commissioned by the American Music Theater Festival, premiered in Philadelphia.
- In 1994, American jazz flautist and composer James Newton released an album inspired by Kahlo titled Suite for Frida Kahlo on AudioQuest Music (now known as Sledgehammer Blues).
- On June 21, 2001, she became the first Hispanic woman to be honored with a U.S. postage stamp.
- In 2002, the American biographical film Frida, directed by Julie Taymor, in which Salma Hayek portrayed the artist, was released. The film was based on Herrera's book. It grossed US$ 58 million worldwide.
- In 2006, Kahlo's 1943 painting Roots set a US$ 5.6 million auction record for a Latin American work.
- The 2009 novel The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver prominently features Kahlo, her life with Rivera, and her affair with Trotsky.
- On July 6, 2010, to commemorate her birthday, Google altered its standard logo to include a portrait of Frida, depicted in her style of art.
- On August 30, 2010, the Bank of Mexico issued a new MXN$ 500-peso note, featuring herself and her 1949 painting titled Love's Embrace of the Universe, Earth, (Mexico), I, Diego and Mr. Xólotl on the back of the note while her husband Diego was on the front of the note.
The 100th anniversary of the birth of Frida Kahlo honored her with the largest exhibit ever held of her paintings at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, Kahlo's first comprehensive exhibit in Mexico. Works were on loan from Detroit, Minneapolis, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Nagoya, Japan. The exhibit included one-third of her artistic production, as well as manuscripts and letters that had not been displayed previously. The exhibit was open June 13 through August 12, 2007 and broke all attendance records at the museum. Some of her work was on exhibit in Monterrey, Nuevo León, and moved in September 2007 to museums in the United States.
In 2008, a Frida Kahlo exhibition in the United States with over forty of her self-portraits, still lifes, and portraits was shown at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and other venues.
A "Frida Kahlo Retrospective" exhibit at the Walter-Gropius-Bau, Berlin from April 30 to August 9, 2010, has brought together more than 120 drawings and paintings, including several drawings never before publicly displayed. In light of Kahlo's "preferred" birth year (she claimed to be born in 1910 during the Mexican Revolution), the Berlin show is also being touted as a centennial exhibition.
Previously, the most recent international exhibition of Kahlo's work had been in 2005 in London, which brought together eighty-seven of her works.