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Mexican Culture

Frida Kahlo

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."

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.

Frida Kahlo

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.

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 had fiery temperaments and had 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.

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.