Who was Frida Kahlo?
Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón was born in 1907 in a small blue house (La Casa Azule) in a village on the outskirts of Mexico City. Kahlo contracted polio when she was six years old, leaving her bedridden for six months. Her right foot and leg were underdeveloped, which she concealed throughout her life under long skirts. To regain her physical strength, Kahlo’s father encouraged her to play sports like soccer, swimming, and wrestling (which, at the time, were very uncommon pursuits for women). At school, Kahlo was known to be brave and outspoken. One of only thirty-five female students at the renowned National Preparatory School in Mexico City, she often watched the famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera as he painted on the school campus. She became transfixed by him and his work, even telling a friend she would marry him one day.In 1922, Kahlo’s mental and physical health were significantly impacted again when the bus she was riding collided with a streetcar, impaling her hip on a steel handrail, and leaving her spine and pelvis fractured. She was left wearing a full body cast for three months; when she returned home to recover, her mother set her up a slanted easel and a mirror so that she was able to paint in bed to pass the time. “I paint myself because I am often alone,” said Kahlo, “and I am the subject I know best.” Unable to leave her room, her inspiration came from her memories of herself, her sisters, and her school friends. She drew inspiration from European artists, in particular Renaissance masters such as Botticelli, as well as avant-garde movements such as Neue Sachlichkeit and Cubism.
Five years after her accident, Kahlo joined the Mexican Communist Party which led her to reconnect with her childhood crush Rivera. When she asked him to evaluate some of her paintings, Rivera didn’t only admire her work; the pair fell in love (despite a 21-year age gap, Rivera’s two common-law wives, and her mother’s objections) and got married the next year. The couple moved frequently due to Rivera’s work, living in San Francisco, New York, and Detroit in the early 1930s. The couple was forced to move back to Mexico in 1933 after Rivera attempted to incorporate communist leader Vladimir Lenin into a mural, ‘Man at the Crossroads’, commissioned for the Rockerfeller Centre.
Kahlo and Rivera’s relationship was unconventional; they lived in separate homes and engaged in affairs. Rivera cheated with Kahlo’s sister Cristina which, compounded by multiple miscarriages and her inability to bear children after her accident, led Kahlo to cut her hair short in desperation. However, Kahlo was not without fault; she had an affair with exiled communist leader Leon Trotsky while he and his wife stayed with the couple at the Blue House. Although Kahlo and Rivera separated several times, they always ended up back together.
In 1938, Kahlo befriended surrealist artist Andre Breton, leading to her first major exhibition at New York City gallery where she sold some of her paintings. She also received two commissions, one from Clare Boothe Luce, who asked her to paint her late friend Dorothy Hale. ‘The Suicide of Dorothy Hale’, which portrayed Dorothy’s tragic leap, horrified the patron, who almost destroyed the painting.
The following year, Kahlo went to Paris with Breton, where she exhibited works and befriended Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall and Piet Mondrian amongst other celebrated artists. She divorced Rivera, only to remarry him the next year.
It was around this time that she completed two of her most famous paintings: ‘The Two Fridas’ and ‘The Broken Column’. The second self-portrait portrayed her spine shattered, with nails through her body to indicate her constant suffering; at the time, she was undergoing a lot of medical treatment for her chronic pain, as well as enduring several surgeries and special corsets to protect her spine. By 1950, her health had declined to the point where she was bedridden, with gangrene in her right foot, so she painted from the hospital. Kahlo showed up to her 1953 solo exhibition in an ambulance and celebrated the ceremony in a bed the gallery had set up for her. Later that year, part of her leg was amputated to stop the spread of the gangrene.
Her declining physical condition had a deep psychological impact, with Kahlo even considering suicide. However, she was still politically active; her last public appearance was to demonstrate against the US-backed overthrow of President Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala. She passed away at La Casa Azule shortly before her 47th birthday; while the cause was reportedly a pulmonary embolism, many speculate that she took her own life.
In Frida's brief lifetime, she created 143 paintings, 55 of which are self-portraits, but, like many great artists, her legacy has surpassed the recognition she had in life. La Casa Azule, where she mostly resided, became a museum in her honour in 1958 and is still popular today. Her work was relatively unknown until the late 1970s when art historians and political activists rediscovered her art. In 2002, Salma Hayek starred in a biopic, which received six Academy Award nominations and won two. In 2001, the U.S. Postal Service placed her image on a 34-cent stamp, making her the first Hispanic woman to receive such an honour. Kahlo is now regarded as a feminist icon for her depiction of the female experience and form (she never ‘airbrushed’ her likeness in her self-portraits) and her work is viewed as emblematic of Mexican national and indigenous traditions.The Frida Frames
Kahlo became a fashion icon and an inspiration for many artists and designers, with her delicate yet bold dress sense. An exhibition of her wardrobe, almost 50 years after her death, included a very beautiful pair of gold cat-eye sunglasses.
When the V&A Museum hosted its exhibition of Kahlo’s personal belongings in 2018, which included her plaster corset and prosthetic leg, as well as self-portraits and amazing outfits, Retropeepers collaborated to recreate these iconic frames. The sunglasses style, available in gold and tortoiseshell with matching flat folding hard case and polishing cloth and is effortlessly chic and modern, just like Kahlo’s forward-thinking fashion.
Want to know more?
Why not visit Mexican Geniuses: A Frida & Diego Immersive Experience which has just opened in London. The first and definitive immersive experience showcasing the life and work of Kahlo and Rivera features innovative technology and projections of over 300 paintings and portraits, in a digital exhibition of the pair’s works which continue to make an impact even today.
Many thanks to @goldloxxxroxx featured here in her gold Frida sunglasses.
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