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Kahlo, Frida: 1907—1954: Artist

Frida Kahlo: 19071954: Artist


One primary impetus behind modernist movements in art is masculine and impersonal: many artists of the 20th century sought to smash rules and stylistic barriers and to break through to new principles of composition and subject matter. In the work of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, however, modernist breakthroughs were placed at the service of artistic autobiography. Kahlo lived a short life that was dramatic in the extreme and found a new visual language to express her experiences on canvas. An artist of only moderate repute during her own lifetime, Kahlo gained new admirers at the century's end.

One of six sisters, Kahlo was born Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderón in Coyoacán, Mexico, near Mexico City, on July 6, 1907. The complexities of her life began with her family background: her father was a photographer of German and Hungarian Jewish ancestry, and her mother, Matilde Calderón, was a Mexican native, of mixed Spanish and Indian background, with little formal education and a strong devotion to the Catholic religion that caused friction between mother and daughter. Kahlo was always closer to her father, who encouraged her artistic pursuits, but throughout her life she identified herself with Native American culture; some scholars have interpreted her art in terms of an effort to reconcile the varied influences brought to bear during her childhood.

Affected by Mexican Revolution

Kahlo suffered a bout with polio that left her mildly disabled by age seven; she was left with a limp and a deformed spine. Nevertheless, her father urged her to participate in physical activities that were extraordinarily unusual for a Mexican girl at the timesoccer, swimming, and even wrestling and boxing. Another major formative event of Kahlo's youth was the Mexican Revolution of 1910, after which ideals of equality and a communitarian state became ingrained in Mexican culture. "The clear and precise emotions of the 'Mexican Revolution' were the reason why, at the age of 13, I joined the Communist youth," Kahlo wrote in her diary later in life.

Kahlo's father also encouraged her academically, and in 1922, held back by polio, she entered an elite Mexican high school, the National Preparatory School. That year, the rising Mexican artist Diego Rivera, still several years away from the epic leftist murals that would make him famous in the United States, was hired to paint a mural at the school. Smitten, Kahlo declared to friends that she wanted to have Rivera's child. Rivera spurned her romantic advances at first, but encouraged her as a painter.

At a Glance . . .

Born Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderón in Coyoacán, Mexico, near Mexico City, Mexico, on July 6, 1907; daughter of a German-Hungarian Jewish photographer father and a Native Mexican mother; survived polio during childhood; married artist Diego Rivera, 1929; died in Mexico City, July 13, 1954.Education: Attended National Preparatory School, Mexico City, 1922-25.

Career: Painted extensively during recuperation from serious injuries sustained in bus accident, 1925-27; accompanied Rivera to U.S. and formed mature style of her own, early 1930s; solo exhibitions in New York and Paris, late 1930s; health declined as a result of numerous operations to correct problems resulting from bus accident, but remained prolific through 1940s; first solo exhibition in Mexico City, 1953; critical reputation began steady ascent soon after her death, accelerating in 1970s.

Then, in 1925, Kahlo's leg was broken in 11 places when a bus she was riding in Mexico City was split in two by a streetcar; her pelvis and spine were also broken. For the rest of her life Kahlo was troubled by chronic pain. She would also be forced to undergo surgeries of increasing severity. The only positive outcome of the accident was that Kahlo had plenty of time to devote to painting during her long convalescence. Back on her feet some two years later, Kahlo sought out Rivera and asked him to critique her work. This time, although Rivera was more than 20 years older than Kahlo and outweighed her by 200 pounds, romance bloomed and the two were married in 1929.


Suffered A Miscarriage

Kahlo would later refer to the marriage as the second accident in her life, but her own talent grew during its early years. Accompanying her husband to Michigan as he worked on a giant set of murals depicting industry and its effects at the Detroit Institute of Arts, she painted such masterworks as Henry Ford Hospital. That painting, rooted in a miscarriage Kahlo suffered at the time, showed a woman in a hospital bed, crying an oversized tear; her fingers are connected by tendonlike ribbons to various surreal images including a fetus and a metal vise. Such works announced Kahlo's mature style, at once fantastically imaginative and highly personal. Surrealism was a major part of that style; although Kahlo denied any connection between her and the Spanish-French surrealists led by Salvador Dalí, she sometimes allowed her works to be included in exhibitions of surrealist art.

Indeed, such Kahlo works as My Birth, in which an adult Kahlo is seen emerging from her mother's womb, seem imbued with the psychoanalytic concerns that provided surrealism's underpinnings, but Kahlo's own ideology was more public-spirited. Whatever ugly disagreements might flair between Kahlo and Rivera over the course of their 25-year marriage (interrupted by a one-year divorce in 1939 and 1940), they shared the conception that they were making art for the public good. As an art teacher in the1940s, Kahlo organized her students into mural-painting brigades. Kahlo was capable of sympathetic portraiture; her Portrait of Luther Burbank (1931) portrays its subject as the top half of a living tree. But overall her works, mostly painted during the 1930s and 1940s, were predominantly self-portraits of one kind or another.


Those self-portraits gained their intensity in part from the turbulence of Kahlo's married life, which was marked by extramarital liaisons on both sides. Rivera had an affair with Kahlo's sister Cristina, and Kahlo retaliated by becoming involved with, among others, American artist Georgia O'Keeffe and the exiled Soviet leader Leon Trotsky. Kahlo suffered several more miscarriages, which are thought to have been aftereffects of the 1925 bus accident. After more than 30 operations, Kahlo had also developed an addiction to painkillers.


Madonna Collected Kahlo Works

Kahlo had solo exhibitions in New York and Paris in the late 1930s and in Mexico City in 1953, by which time her health was in serious decline. Her right leg was amputated at the knee that year, sending her into a final downward spiral; her death on July 13, 1954 (in the same house she had lived in all her life, now a Kahlo museum) may have resulted from a blood clot in the lungs or from an intentional drug overdose, but in either case released her from extreme misery. With each decade after her death her work gained appreciation from young art enthusiastsincluding pop super-star Madonnaand by the century's end she was arguably as well known as Rivera.


Mexican, shaped by disabilities, bisexual, inexhaustibly creativeall these ideas describe Frida Kahlo, but neither separately nor even together do they suffice to capture her spirit. Kahlo was very much a 20th-century woman in her determination to carry out her own artistic vision. But with the 2002 release of a major film biography of Kahlo, starring actress Salma Hayek, a fresh round of interest in Kahlo's life and career seemed ready to persist well into the 21st century.


Sources

Books

Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale, 1996.

Herrera, Hayden, Frida Kahlo: A Biography, Harper & Row, 1983.

Kahlo, Frida, The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate: Self-Portrait, Abrams, 1996.


Periodicals

Art in America, January 1993, p. 35; March 1996, p. 31; September 2001, p. 168.

People, February 12, 1996, p. 83.

Variety, January 1, 2001, p. 6.


James M. Manheim

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