Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) was a Mexican painter often associated with the European Surrealists as well as with her husband, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. She was noted for her intense autobiographical paintings.
Frida Kahlo, was born in Coyoacán, a suburb of Mexico City, in 1907, the daughter of a German-Jewish photographer and an Indian-Spanish mother. Despite her European background, Kahlo identified all her life with New World, Mexican heritage, dressing in native clothing wherever she travelled. Injured in a bus accident at the age of 15, Kahlo was disabled for life. After numerous operations to correct her spinal and internal injuries, she eventually became an invalid prior to her death at the age of 47. Like her husband, the muralist Diego Rivera, Kahlo maintained a life-long commitment to leftist politics, and in the 1930s she accompanied him on several trips to the United States where he was commissioned to do murals in New York, Detroit, and San Francisco. The most controversial of these was a mural for Rockefeller Center which was cancelled because it included a portrait of Lenin that Rivera refused to remove. Kahlo died in Mexico City in 1954.
Unlike Rivera's murals, which were grandiose and filled with political ideology, Kahlo's work was intimate, personal, and in the tradition of easel painting. Usually autobiographical, she painted the events of her life with symbolic elements and situations, creating a dreamlike reality, frighteningly real but fantastic and magical. One painting, Broken Column (1944), shows the artist against a bleak desert landscape with her flesh cut away to reveal a cracked classical column in place of her spine, a painful record of her life-long struggle with the psychological and physical aftermath of her accident. Another, The Wounded Deer (1946), shows Kahlo as a deer with her own human head, shot full of arrows in a mysteriously forlorn forest with a body of water in the background. She painted many self-portraits throughout her life.
Kahlo incorporated elements of Mexican folk art into her paintings. Thematic content often takes precedence over a fidelity to realism, and the scale of things represents symbolic relationships rather than physical ones. Reoccurring themes of earthly suffering and the redemptive cycle of nature reflect the mixture of Spanish Catholicism and Indian religion prominent in Mexican culture. Kahlo's color, while naturalistic, is flat and dramatic.
The French Surrealist poet Andre Breton, who lived for a while in Mexico, claimed Kahlo as a Surrealist. She bristled at this association with artists living thousands of miles away and working with psychoanalytic theories of the subconscious. She claimed, "Breton thought I was a Surrealist but I wasn't. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality." She did, however, show at the Julian Levy Gallery in New York, known for showing Surrealism, and she travelled to Paris at Breton's urging to show her work.
Early in her life her work and reputation as an artist were overshadowed by her relationship to Rivera, who was older and famous before they met. She also seemed conflicted by her sense of duty to him as a wife. In the late 1930s she asserted her independence from him, and in 1939 they were divorced, only to be remarried a short time later. This event served as an important theme in her work of the period. In contrast to Rivera, who was relatively wealthy from his work, Kahlo had great difficulties supporting herself from the sale of her paintings.
Together they led a flamboyant life in Mexico and during their trips to the United States. They were at the center of Mexican cultural life in the 1920s and 1930s when Mexican artists and intellectuals were rediscovering their own heritage and rejecting European ties. This desire for a Mexican art came in part from an interest in leftist politics. Kahlo was a life-time member of the Communist Party, which believed that art should serve the Mexican masses rather than a European elite. Unlike Rivera, Kahlo was not a muralist, but later in her life, when she was asked to teach in an important state art school, she organized teams of students to execute public works.
During her life Frida Kahlo received more recognition as a painter in the United States than in Mexico. She was included in several important group exhibitions, including "Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art" at the Museum of Modern Art and a show of women artists at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery in New York. Her first one-person show in Mexico at the Galeria Arte Contemporaneo occurred only one year before her death and in part because her death was anticipated. After her death in 1954 her reputation grew in Mexico and diminished in the United States, a time when communists and their sympathizers were discredited. Diego Rivera himself is less known in the United States now than in the 1930s.
Like many prominent women artists of her generation, such as Louise Nevelson and Georgia O'Keefe, Frida Kahlo's art was individualistic and stood apart from mainstream work. They were often overlooked by critics and historians because they were women and outsiders and because their art was difficult to fit into movements and categories. Kahlo has received increased attention since the 1970s as objections to her politics have softened and as interest grows about the role of women artists and intellectuals in history. Concepts of modernism are also being expanded to encompass an uninterrupted strain of figurative art throughout the 20th century, into which Kahlo's painting smoothly fits. Frida Kahlo was the subject of major retrospective exhibitions in the United States in 1978-1979 and in 1983 and in England in 1982.
Further Reading on Frida Kahlo
Hayden Herrera published Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo (1983), an extensive work that focuses on her life. Her painting is discussed more historically and critically in Whitney Chadwick's Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement (1985), which focuses on women artists who worked within Surrealist circles but were seldom recorded in its history.