Fri­da Kahlo’s pain­tings show pain, they are a reflec­tion of her mise­ra­ble life. And yet they were very well known and taught femi­nism to many people.


Whe­ther you know Fri­da Kahlo by her famous art­works, her imma­cu­la­te style or as a femi­nist icon. The­re was one thing that tru­ly made her stand out: She for­ced peop­le to look at her and her art, to share her fee­lings and suf­fe­ring, when they would pre­fer to look away.

A Life Beginning With Suffering

Mag­da­le­na Car­men Frei­da Kahlo y Cal­derón was born in Coyoacán, a sub­urb of Mexi­co City, in July, 1907. Frida’s father, Guil­ler­mo Kahlo, was Ger­man-born and among his five daugh­ters, Fri­da was said to be his favou­rite. She was a very spi­ri­ted child, play­ing many pranks on her sis­ters and ste­aling fruit from near­by orchards. That chan­ged when she con­trac­ted polio at age six.

Fri­da was con­fi­ned to her bed for nine-mon­ths, after which her father pre­scri­bed her to sports. She was excel­lent in many sports, like soc­cer, swim­ming, rol­ler-ska­ting and boxing, causing her to grow stron­ger, even though her right leg remai­ned small and withe­red. This gave her the name „peg leg” in school, so to tre­at her lone­li­ness, her father gave her books from his libra­ry and taught her how to take and deve­lop photos.

When she was fiveteen, Fri­da enrol­led in the pres­ti­gious Escue­la Nacio­nal Pre­pa­ra­to­ria, whe­re she focu­sed most­ly on bio­lo­gy, hoping to beco­me a doc­tor one day. She was a bright and enga­ged stu­dent, belon­ging to an eli­te club of brains and mischief-makers, the Cachu­chas.

Only Art Remained for Her

On Sep­tem­ber 17, 1925, Fri­da and her boy­friend were riding home from school on the bus when it was hit by a street­car. She was impa­led by a hand­rail that ent­e­red her just abo­ve her left hip and exi­ted through her vagi­na. Her back and pel­vis were each bro­ken in three pla­ces. Her col­lar­bo­ne was bro­ken too, her right leg frac­tu­red and her smal­ler foot dis­lo­ca­ted and man­gled. Someo­ne thought it was a good idea to pull out the hand­rail befo­re the ambu­lan­ce arri­ved. Frida’s screams and the sounds of bone cracking, were lou­der than the approa­ching sirens.

For a mon­th Fri­da lay in a plas­ter body cast, no one expec­ting her to sur­vi­ve. When she was released from the hos­pi­tal, the tre­at­ment was bed rest, mon­ths of bed rest. The medi­cal bills piled up, and her father mor­tga­ged the house to pay them. Her life of chro­nic pain began.

The next year, a new set of doc­tors exami­ned her spi­ne and rea­li­sed the first set of doc­tors had fai­led to see that several ver­te­brae had hea­led incor­rect­ly. This would beco­me a run­ning the­me and the solu­ti­on: ano­t­her plas­ter body cast and more bed rest.

After the acci­dent, flat on her back in bed, pain­ting pre­sen­ted its­elf as one of the only acti­vi­ties avail­ab­le to her. She pre­ten­ded not to care about the qua­li­ty of her work, but in 1927, once she was able to walk, she sought the pro­fes­sio­nal opi­ni­on of the cele­bra­ted artist Die­go Rivera.

Love Life Disaster

Fri­da and Rive­ra were both mem­bers of the Mexi­can Com­mu­nist Par­ty, and Rive­ra was cap­ti­va­ted by Frida’s cha­rac­ter. She was one of tho­se tiny women who could drink men twice her size under the table. She lived on a diet of can­dy, ciga­ret­tes, and a dai­ly bot­t­le of bran­dy, causing her teeth to rot in ear­ly midd­le age. On cau­se of this, she orde­red two sets of den­tures: one solid gold, ano­t­her stud­ded with dia­monds. As anyo­ne who’s ever purcha­sed a Fri­da tote bag, post­card, cof­fee mug, or T‑shirt knows, she was proud of her uni­brow and her mousta­che, which she kept neat with a small comb reser­ved for that purpose.

In August 1929, Fri­da and Die­go were mar­ried. Fri­da was a some­what shel­te­red 22-year old and Rive­ra was a 43-year old estab­lis­hed artist, with two ex-wives. During the first years of their mar­ria­ge when Fri­da, pres­um­a­b­ly, hap­pi­ly per­for­med the role of exem­pla­ry wife. She devo­ted herself to coo­king for her hus­band, fus­sed over his clothes and com­fort, gave him his night­ly bath in which she floated bath toys for his amu­se­ment. Her hus­band was a giant baby.

Rive­ra had many affairs and when caught, would exp­lain pati­ent­ly that for him mono­ga­my was sim­ply out of the ques­ti­on, and that he view­ed sexu­al inter­cour­se as essen­ti­al and uncom­pli­ca­ted as taking a piss. Fri­da would howl in fury, hur­ling the occa­sio­nal cer­a­mic pla­te against a bright­ly pain­ted wall, then lock Rive­ra out of her bedroom. He would reta­lia­te by thro­wing hims­elf into his latest mural com­mis­si­on, and may­be take on ano­t­her mistress or two. Some­ti­mes, upon dis­co­vering the iden­ti­ty of the new mistress, Fri­da would enjoy a litt­le reven­ge by sedu­cing the woman. Then they would have ano­t­her argu­ment in which Fri­da hur­led ano­t­her cer­a­mic pla­te, and so on and so forth.

The Making of an Independent Career

In the sum­mer of 1938, at the age of 31, Fri­da made her first sale. The actor Edward G. Robin­son was also an art collec­tor, and while he was in Mexi­co City, he purcha­sed four litt­le pic­tures, for $200 a pie­ce. French artist André Bre­ton also dis­co­ve­r­ed her work, and heral­ded it as sur­rea­list. Her pain­tings, he enthu­sed, were like „a rib­bon around a bomb”. One might think, her dis­co­very would be a gre­at moment for Fri­da, but she wasn’t much inte­res­ted, she found the French to be cold and bour­geois. She was her own movement.

In the same year, Fri­da had her first solo exhi­bi­ti­on in New York, at the Juli­en Levy Gal­le­ry. The­re, she met a rich woman, who offe­red her money for Fri­da to paint a tri­bu­te to her friend who com­mit­ted sui­ci­de. What was expec­ted defi­ni­te­ly was­n’t deli­ve­r­ed. Fri­da drew her friend jum­ping from a buil­ding and land on the ground, with a bro­ken neck and blood flowing form her head. The ban­ner along the pain­ting reads: „In the city of New York on the 21st 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 [a strip of mis­sing words] this reta­blo, exe­cu­t­ed by Fri­da Kahlo”. 

Ima­gi­ne the shock of the woman. Fri­da did what she was best at, expres­sing her heart in every brushstroke.

Frida and Politics

In 1939, Fri­da and Die­ga Rive­ra were divor­ced, due to Rive­ra choice of having an affairs with Frida’s sis­ter, Cris­ti­na. Several years later, Trot­s­ky and his wife arri­ved in Mexi­co City to live with them, having been expel­led from the Soviet Union. 

Trot­s­ky and Rive­ra would argue poli­tics. Trot­s­ky and Fri­da would have a fling, sen­ding Madame Trot­s­ky into an under­stand­a­ble depres­si­on. Trot­s­ky escapes several assas­si­na­ti­on attempts by Sta­li­nist ope­ra­ti­ves dis­patched from the Soviet Uni­on, only to be mur­de­red on August 20, 1940, by a demen­ted local man with an ice ax.

Fri­da and Die­go, now living sepa­r­ate­ly, were both suspects. Rive­ra fled to San Fran­cis­co, while Fri­da was taken into cus­to­dy for ques­tio­ning. She was released after a few days, and also left for San Fran­cis­co to con­sult Dr. Leo Eloes­ser about some kind of chro­nic fun­gal infec­tion. Eloes­ser had trea­ted her for various mala­dies in 1930, and had beco­me a trus­ted friend. In San Fran­cis­co, Fri­da and Die­go got back tog­e­ther, remar­ry­ing in 1940 at a small civil ceremony.

Using Pain as an Artistic Device

Painting "The Broken Column" by Frida Kahlo
Pain­ting „The Bro­ken Column” by Fri­da Kahlo

Artists have dif­fe­rent sources that they use to gather inspi­ra­ti­on. Fri­da see­med to requi­re a care­ful mix­tu­re of des­pair at Diego’s disap­pearing acts, lone­li­ness, and acti­ve enga­ge­ment with her own bro­ken body. To date, her com­ple­te medi­cal histo­ry remains unknown. She is said to have had 30 sur­ge­ries over the cour­se of her life­time, most of them attempts to repair the dama­ge from the bus acci­dent she’d suf­fe­red at 18. She saw a round of doc­tors, most of whom con­tra­dic­ted each other. Mexi­can doc­tors once decla­red she had „a tuber­cu­lo­sis in the bones” and wan­ted to ope­ra­te. Dr. Eloes­ser dis­agreed. In 1944, her chro­nic back pain worsened.

In the first part of 1946, she sought out a well known to per­form a com­pli­ca­ted sur­ge­ry in which four ver­te­brae were fused using bone from her pel­vis. Her reco­very was a suc­cess, but even­tual­ly she suf­fe­red again from shoo­ting pains. A new doc­tor in Mexi­co exami­ned her and clai­med the New York doc­tor had per­for­med the fusi­on on the wrong vertebrae.

Frida’s bone grafts deve­lo­ped infec­tions, requi­ring pain­ful injec­tions. Her cir­cu­la­ti­on suf­fe­red so much from inac­ti­vi­ty and a ter­ri­ble diet that one day she woke up to find that the tips of the toes on her right foot were black. Even­tual­ly, they were ampu­ta­ted, fol­lo­wed by her leg, ampu­ta­ted below the knee in 1953, a year befo­re she died. Some of Frida’s most cer­ti­fia­ble mas­ter­pie­ces came from the excru­cia­ting time in her life, for examp­le „The Bro­ken Column” (1944) or „The Woun­ded Deer” (1946).

When Fri­da died in 1954 at the age of 47, she was known pri­ma­ri­ly as Die­go Rivera’s exo­tic litt­le wife. The rise of femi­nism in the late 1970s brought with it the ques­ti­on „Hey, whe­re are all the women artists?, Whe­re are all the women of color?” and the ans­wer was the redis­co­very of Fri­da Kahlo.

Feminism Displayed in Art

Fif­ty-five of Fri­da Kahlo’s 143 pic­tures are self-por­traits. Many of them depict the dif­fi­cul­ties of living in a human fema­le body, inclu­ding fema­le repro­duc­tion and its, some­ti­mes occur­ring, fail­u­res. Metal hos­pi­tal beds, bloo­dy instru­ments, a snarl of inter­nal organs she seems to be vomi­t­ing in des­pair. A deli­ca­te, ana­to­mi­c­al­ly cor­rect image of her own heart bea­ting insi­de her chest, her naked body splay­ed open, giving birth to her adult self. The fema­le nude, so beloved of fine artists, had never been nude like this.

Then as now, it’s a well-known tru­ism that men are uncom­for­ta­ble when women cry. One can only ima­gi­ne how squir­my they must have been, how squir­my they are, in the pre­sence of Frida’s pic­tures. But Fri­da was a woman com­for­ta­ble among the cha­os of her fee­lings. She never denied them, never dia­led them down. It made her strong. Or, in the view of some difficult.

Kennst du schon Taka­shi Mura­ka­mi? Sei­ne Wer­ke sind mehr als Kunst, sie sind Nach­rich­ten an sein Publikum.

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