The Pain, The Glory, and The Indomitable Spirit That Was Frida Kahlo

There has never been anyone like her. As an artist, a person, and part of the most famous husband-wife artistic combination ever, she captured the imagination of her country and the world, like no one before or since. Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderon was born on July 6, 1907 in Coyoacan, a suburb of Mexico City. Throughout her adult life, she claimed to be born on July 7, 1910, the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. She saw herself, from the beginning, in larger, symbolic terms, both politically and as a living embodiment of the bridge between indigenous culture and the modern world. She was a feminist before the term existed.

Here are two views of the young Frida. Left  she is dressed in a traditional, folk outfit, and in the family photo, in a man’s suit, standing on the left. Frida had polio at age six, leaving her right leg much thinner than her left. It was then that she started wearing traditonal, long, peasant skirts to hide her leg. As she got older, she was to adopt this style as a political statement as well, aligning herself with Mexico’s indigenous culture. However, this childhood health issue paled in comparison to the infamous bus accident, at age eighteen, that was to so profoundly influence the rest of her life. It was then, that she suffered a broken spine, a broken collarbone, broken ribs, pelvis, mulitple fractures in her leg, a crushed and dislocated foot and shoulder, and an iron handrail that pierced her stomach and uterus. It was a devastating series of injuries that was to color the rest of her life and provide the source for most of her art. Before the accident, Frida was in a prestigious pre-med program. She was forced to spent a year in bed, recuperating. This is when she took up drawing and painting and reset the course of her life. Her mother had a special easel made so she could work in bed, and her father gave her his oil paints. Her first works were self portraits. She was to develop a style of such unflinching honesty as has rarely been seen in any art form.

In fact, of her 143 paintings, 55 were self portraits. Many others included images of herself in symbolic, Surrealistic tableaux. So many of her works dealt with pain and suffering. She was to have 30 operations over the course of her life, and was hospitalized numerous times just to manage her pain.

The themes of personal pain and suffering that dominate her work, made it completely different than what any other artist was doing at the time. Andre Breton, the famed Surrealist, described her work as, ” a ribbon around a bomb.” Frida herself, said, ” I paint myself because I am so often alone and I am the subject I know best. I was born a bitch. I was born a painter.” And as she also said, ” I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”

Frida often said that the two defining events of her life were the accident and Diego Rivera.   ( She also, on occasion, said she wasn’t sure which one caused her more pain.)  As a young artist, however, Frida sought out Diego Rivera for advice. He recognized her talent right away and encouraged her. She quickly fell under his spell. Diego was twenty years older, a famous artist, an outspoken political activist, and notorious womanizer. For Diego, Frida was unlike anyone he had ever met. She was as stubborn  and passionate as he was about art and social justice, and as it turns out, as much of a personal rebel as he. The two married, despite the objections of her famly, when Frida was 22.

Their relationship was intense and tempestuous. Diego was not the only one to violate the marriage vows. Frida was bi-sexual, and had her own affairs with both women and men, (including Isamu Noguchi, Leon Trotsky, and Josephine Baker.) But when Diego had an affair with Frida’s younger sister, he crossed a boundary beyond any indiscretion Frida could tolerate. They divorced in November of 1939, but remarried in December of 1940. They shared too much common sensibility and passion to stay apart. They were like a giant, incandescent, double star system , each locked in the others gravitational orbit. They fed off each other personally, politically and artistically.

Frida was heavily influenced by traditional Mexican culture. She appropriated it’s bright colors, dramatic symbolism and folk quality into her visual style, blending it with her own unique brand of Surrealism, creating a new kind of Magical Realism. There was always something so startling about this woman who was so modern, in so many ways, who dressed in indigenous folk clothing. There was a dignity and an identity with the simple, oppressed poor, that she seemed to personify. Despite her own upbringing, she came to embody a link with traditional culture in the modern world. She became, in a way, the living, iconic memory of  Mexican national identitiy.

The monkey in Mexican mythology represents lust. Frida seems to have made them her friend, as her personal life attests.

Diego was one monkey she could not get out of her head. Nor was the trauma and pain of her physical problems, or her inability to ever bear a child.

Frida’s mythological nature paintings, often with her in them, were as unique as her more straight forward self portraits.

This painting, left, entitled  ”Roots”  (done in 1943) set a record of $5.6 million for a Latin American painting, in 2006. In 1939, the Louvre purchased one of her works. It was the first 20th century piece by a Mexican artist they acquired.

Frida also painted some 40 still lifes as well.


She also painted a number of portraits.

Above, portraits of Frida’s father, herself, and Diego. Below are portraits Frida and Diego did of their friend, the famous Mexican art collector Natasha Gelman. (Her husband became immensely rich being the discoverer and partner of Cantinflas, who was Mexico’s most famous comedian and film actor.)

Frida sees a cold, detached, perhaps, hard – hearted woman in the business of collecting art, and who knows what else. Diego, of course, renders a sensual seductress.

The house Frida  and Diego lived and worked in  is a wonderful mirror of their relationship, and a major, historical, cultural landmark in Mexico City.

The house-studio was designed and executed by a friend of Diego’s, the Mexican painter and architect, Juan O’Gorman. He was a follower of Le Corbusier. Built between 1929-1931, it was one of, if not the first, truly Modernist construction in the Americas. It employed cheap materials and emphasized functionality.They could work and live either separately or together, although there is only one small kitchen. It also included a rather famous walkway between the two structures so that they could visit each other, or not, during the night. Frida’s section is the same blue as her beloved Casa Azul, (the blue house,) below right, where she grew up and also lived at the end of her life. Caza Azul is now the Frida Kahlo Museum. Her ashes rest in a pre-Columbian urn, on display, along with many of her paintings and posssessions. I can tell you from having seen both places in person, they are worth a trip to Mexico City for any fan of Frida and Diego.

Above left, is the interior of the live-work space designed by O’Gorman. Some of their large folkloric collection hangs on the walls.

Frida died on July 13, 1954. Diego was to say in his autobiography, that he realized, too late, that the best part of his life, was his love for her. Frida’s wide, international recognition as an artist, was to be largely posthumous. She was most often, during her life, in Diego’s shadow. However, she has come to be considered, in a way, even more of a Mexican icon than Diego. She came to symbolize, in her very person, the incarnate image of her country , it’s history and its culture.

The Aztec symbol on the Mexican flag of the eagle devouring the serpent always reminds me of Frida’s constant struggle with pain, suffering and anguish. In the myth, when the Aztecs saw this struggle in the flesh, that’s where they were to build their capital. It is a place of power. A place to build upon where the will and destiny will not be denied. This incarnation of passionate struggle is what Frida was all about. She was fierce in her loyalties, in her art, in her incredible, unflinching self reflection, and honesty. She did not turn away, where most others would be afraid to even look. She was a great empowerer of women and their rights, and about as courageous as a person can be. Frida had been very ill for a year before her death. Her right leg had been amputated because of gangrene. Some suspected her death may not have been the official, “pulmonary embolism” it was declared. In her diary, a few days before the end, she wrote,” I hope the exit is joyful –  and I hope never to return – Frida.”

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29 Comments on "The Pain, The Glory, and The Indomitable Spirit That Was Frida Kahlo"

  1. Susan Tiner says:

    What a great post! Frida was a Promethean character if ever there was one. I saw her work at a recent exhibition at SFMOMA within the last couple years, but have not seen some of the paintings and illustrations here. Thank you for another well-researched article on an interesting painter and larger than life character.

    • David Leeds says:

      Susan, i’m always happy to share the work of artists I love and admire, and Frida is one of my very favorites both artistically and because of her incredible story and journey.

  2. sulky kitten says:

    Hello, I knew a little bit about Frida’s life and work, but your great post has re-ignited my interest . Fascinating woman. Thank you.

  3. Luey says:

    Thank you for the enlightening article!

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Sculptor, painter, poet. Currently living in Los Angeles and Martha's Vineyard