Frida Kahlo created art at a price paid dearly. “Tortured artist” understates the pain she endured much of her life, pain both physical and emotional. But it was in the cauldron of conflict where she produced some of her greatest work. And while she lived in many places in Mexico City and around the world, the idyllic home known as the Blue House – Casa Azul – was a touchstone throughout her life.
To better understand Frida Kahlo, it helps to know something of her father, Guillermo Kahlo. The two shared a number of traits. Both had complicated lives, suffered serious injuries in their youth, were introspective and moody, and both had a keen artistic eye and aesthetic, among other things.
Born Wilhem Kahlo, the Hungarian-German Jewish immigrant arrived in Mexico in 1891 and changed his first name to Guillermo (Wikipedia reports he was a German Lutheran, but information at Casa Azul as well as university research says he was Hungarian-German and Jewish). Guillermo pursued several lines of work before finding success as a photographer in Mexico City. He had previously sustained a serious injury that left him plagued with episodes of epilepsy, and the injury may have contributed to his melancholy and moodiness.
Matilde Calderon y Gonzalez, Frida’s mother, was Guillermo’s second wife. His first wife died while giving birth to their second child. The subsequent marriage to Maltide was one of convenience more than love. Nonetheless Matilde and Guillermo had four children, and Frida was their third child, born in 1907 (though she would cite her birth year as 1910 to coincide with the Mexican Revolution). Guillermo’s first two children were raised alongside Frida and her siblings.
Guillermo did not form strong emotional bonds with his children but Frida was the exception. That may be because when Frida was six years old, she came down with polio (her left leg ended up being smaller and weaker). Guillermo may have recognized the pain polio inflicted on her along with his own pain from his earlier head injury. Frida and her mother did not have a loving relationship and in fact were often at odds with each other.
The success Guillermo enjoyed as a photographer may well have served as a gateway to Frida’s emergence as an artist. Originally, Frida considered a career in medicine and was a promising student. She also spent time with her father and as an occasional photographic subject for Guillermo.
But when she was 18, Frida was very seriously injured in a trolley accident; the effects would have a profound effect on her and crushed any possibility of a medical career. Her back was broken, along with a collarbone, ribs and a shattered pelvis. Her right leg was broken in 11 places, her right foot was dislocated and crushed and a metal bar pierced her uterus. She underwent approximately 30 surgeries to repair the damage. Later in life she tried to have children but miscarried three times (one of which was in 1932 in Detroit, Michigan). She endured bouts of pain throughout the rest of her life.
Those devastating injuries took nine months for her to make an initial recovery.
During that time she began to paint, mostly self-portraits. Many of the things she experienced during her life were made a part of her paintings. Of the 140 paintings she executed during her life, 55 are self-portraits. She famously said, “I paint myself because I am often alone and I am the subject I know best.” Many of her self-portraits reflected elements of pain, feelings about her infertility, showing herself nude, the indigenous and mixed-race nature of her heritage, and religious themes, both Christian and Jewish. “I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality,” she said.
Several years after her accident and while she was just beginning as a painter, she sought advice from Diego Rivera, universally acknowledged as one of Mexico’s great artists and muralists. Rivera recognized her talent, encouraged her efforts and offered his own insights into her work. They met in 1928 and as they became better acquainted, they both realized they were communists in their political views.
They married in 1929, and Frida’s mother disapproved of the marriage. This should come as no surprise, because Rivera was married to his second wife when he began to woo Frida, and Rivera had children with his two other wives. Later, Frida might have been agreeing with her mother, because she is reported to have said, “I suffered two grave accidents in my life. One in which a streetcar knocked me down… The other accident is Diego.”
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera had a tempestuous relationship. Both were easily irritated. Both Frida and Rivera had affairs during their two marriages. (They divorced in in November 1939 but remarried in October 1940.) Frida was bisexual and had an affair with Josephine Baker, among others. Rivera did not appear to mind Frida’s affairs with women, but her affairs with men made him very jealous. For his own part, Rivera carried on an affair with Frida’s younger sister, which angered and deeply hurt Frida. The couple often slept in separate rooms.
Communist political beliefs would cause difficulties at least several times during their lives. In 1934 Rivera was embroiled in a scandal in New York when a mural he had been commissioned to paint at Rockefeller Center was revealed to feature communist elements – antithetical to the capitalist Rockefellers. Once Rivera’s work was understood, it was chiseled off the wall. Rivera later recreated the mural at Mexico City’s Bellas Artes.
Later in the 1930s, Leon Trotsky came to Mexico City and for a time he stayed with Rivera’s home and then later moved over to Frida Kahlo’s home, where the two had an affair. Diego and Frida later broke with Trotskyism and embraced Stalinism in 1939.
In 1938, Frida went on a solo trip to New York City where she began a 10-year affair with Hungarian photographer Nickolas Muray.
But good health eluded Frida. Along with her recurring pain she would experience respiratory problems, and in July 1952 her right leg was amputated at the knee when gangrene developed.
By 1954 she was near the end. Her physical ailments were exacerbated by panic attacks and Frida was consuming increasing amounts of morphine. Only 47 when she died on July 13th of that year, her official cause of death was listed as pulmonary embolism, though some suspect she overdosed on morphine to end her own life. She wrote in her diary shortly before her death, “I hope the exit is joyful, and I hope never to return.” There was no autopsy and she was cremated, in accordance with her wishes. A pre-Columbian urn containing her ashes rests at Casa Azul.
In 1958 Casa Azul was repurposed and named Museo Frida Kahlo. Today it is a very popular tourist destination.
Frida Kahlo’s life was one of tumult and pain. Through all she endured, this frail and diminutive woman created a legacy as one of the world’s foremost women artists. She is recognized throughout the world for her talent, vision and strength.
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