Today we honor Mexican painter, proud feminist and open bisexual Frida Kahlo. Born in Coyoacán, Mexico City, Mexico on July 6, 1907 Frida was destined to be an artist. Her father, a german photographer, had immigrated to Mexico at the turn of the 20th century. And there he fell in love with a local girl named Matilde. The couple would have 4 daughters and raised them all in Mexico’s greatest city. Which in 1907 was a city that was bursting with new life. Just 40 years before Napoleon had pulled the last of his French troops out of the city and a new government was finding its way. Businesses began to open and soon a bank, post office and hospital were built, just in time for the arrival of baby Magdelena Camen Frida Kahlo y’ Calderon.
Early in life the young girl would learn to face adversity as well as find her escape. When she was just 6 years old, Frida was diagnosed with the dreaded disease of polio. In 1913 the disease was making a comeback. For centuries polio has plagued one civilization after another. Dating all the way back to the ancient Egyptians, on through the Romans, and continuing to early European societies. But for the last half of the 19th century it seemed the disease had quieted. However, early signs showed that the America’s were in for another epidemic. And little Frida was soon bedridden by the disease. Yet it was during this time that she began to truly explore her love of art.
Once her doctors felt she was well enough again, Frida was allowed to re-enter society. However, she would always walk with a limp, which was a lifelong symptom of the disease. It is important in this climate of anti-vaxxers to note that in the epidemic of 1916 – just three years after Frida’s case – there were 27,000 cases reported and over 6,000 deaths from the disease in the U.S. alone (We could not find the statistics for Mexico). And that would be considered a mild year for deaths in the decades to come. As for the survivors, many – like Frida – would live the rest of their lives with serious health issues and physical handicaps. Vaccines don’t just keep us alive, they keep us healthy. Unfortunately for Frida and so many other young children during this time period, the vaccine for polio would not be introduced to the world until 1955. And it wouldn’t be until the 1970’s that the vaccine was effectively administered to most of the Mexican population.
As part of her recovery, Frida’s father encouraged her to engage in sports. And not simply the “girl approved” sports of the day. But the ones that only boys were supposed to play such as soccer (football), wrestling and swimming. Not only did this help Frida to become more confident in spite of her disability, but it also proved that she was just as capable and qualified as any boy. This lesson would form a lot of her thinking in regards to equality and marginalized people. Another experience that would help was her entrance into the prestigious National Preparatory School in Mexico City.
At 15 years old Frida was enrolled and quickly became a peer favorite. She had an outgoing and confident personality. And even though she was one of only a few girls allowed to attend the school, Frida never let that stop her from doing whatever she pleased. Soon after being exposed to other intellectual and politically active young people, Frida joined the Mexican Communist Party. This was not an issue at the prep school which was known to promote a deep sense of pride in Mexican culture and indigenous heritage. However, Frida’s rebellious spirit was a problem for the teachers. Who often struggled with how to handle such a bright and yet defiant youth. When she was only 13, Frida had been expelled from one school for disobedience. Though it seems like this was for the best, as Frida would later recount how she was sexually abused by one of the female teachers. Though Frida called it an affair, today we know better.
In-spite of her rambunctious spirit Frida managed to stay on as a student. She began dating another student by the name of Alejandro Arias in 1925 when she was 18. The two decided to take a break from class and head out on an excursion one day. Suddenly a streetcar crashed into their bus and a handrail impaled Frida fracturing her spine and pelvis. She would spend three months in the hospital and would live in pain for the rest of her life. But she returned to her political activism and social parties within a year. In 1928 Frida was re-introduced to famed muralist Diego Rivera. The two had actually met briefly 5 years before when Diego was commissioned to do a mural at the prep school. Frida had instantly had a crush on the artist, but he was 20 years older than her and, as rumor had it, enjoyed the company of several women.
On this evening though Frida took a chance. Whether she was trying to catch the painter’s eye or truly wanted his professional advice, Frida decided to show him her work. He was very impressed and would later state:
“[ the paintings had] an unusual energy of expression, precise delineation of character, and true severity … They had a fundamental plastic honesty, and an artistic personality of their own … It was obvious to me that this girl was an authentic artist”
And it was obvious to everyone else that the couple were smitten with each other. Even though Diego had two common law wives and any woman he wanted, the two began a relationship. A year later they were married at town hall. Frida was not one to have a church wedding. While she described her mother as a “religious fanatic”, Frida avoided all things church and Rivera was an avowed atheist.
Their relationship was very tumultuous. Partly because they were both artists and drama fed their passions. But also because of Diego’s many affairs, his extreme jealousy and Frida’s inability to carry a baby to term. There are speculations that Frida deliberately ended all three of her pregnancies. We do know one abortion early on as a precaution because of her damaged pelvis. Others have suggested she terminated her pregnancies in a dramatic rage or because she feared Diego’s wrath if the child was not his. There is also the very practical reason that Frida’s body was in no condition to carry a baby to full term. And any way, that was her decision to make for herself. Regardless, it does seem that her lack of pro-creation caused a rift between her and Diego.
The newlyweds moved to Morelos, Mexico for a few years. It was during this time that Frida embraced her Mexican ancestry even more deeply. Choosing to wear her hair and clothing in very traditional Mexican styles. She mostly chose women’s attire though she was not opposed to men’s wear. In a 1926 family portrait Frida can be seen donning full male attire. But her everyday style was Mexican peasant dresses. These dresses represented Kahlo’s Mestizo background. Which was an old latin reference to individuals with European and Indigenous American descent. This terminology was used widely throughout Latin America. However, in Mexico it became an entire culture as Metizo people proudly recognized their mixed ancestry.
In 1930 the couple traveled to the U.S. for Diego’s work and settled for a few years in San Francisco, California. Frida was always open about her love for women and it seems the couple had some form of an open marriage. Though we would not consider it a polyamorous relationship as there did not seem to be a mutual respect for each other’s outside relationships. Rivera was passive about Frida’s affairs with women but would become incredibly irate when she took up with another man. He even once divorced Kahlo for having too many affairs. Only to remarry her a year later. And yet there were also many stories of the couple bringing a third party to their bedroom and Rivera was known to share his mistresses with Frida.
It was during their early years in America that Frida and American painter Georgia O’Keefe met. The two women bonded over their love of art, though Frida was still struggling to make a name for herself. They would begin an on and off affair over the next several years. Which were what most of Frida’s affairs consisted of. While she was independent in so many ways Frida was completely infatuated with her husband. Which kept her close to him and her individual travels limited. This means she usually took up with her lovers when Diego’s work brought them together. But the couple had partners all around the world so there was no need to fret. During her time in California, Frida also continued her affair with photographer Nickolas Muray. Who would later become famous for his partial nudes of Frida. Much to Rivera’s irritation.
In 1933 Diego was commissioned Detroit Institute of Art to do a mural and the couple spent a year in the Midwest. Frida had spent her time on U.S. soil in New York City and San Francisco. Two American cities she adored. But Detroit, Michigan was another story. She was appalled that hotels refused to service non-whites and Jewish people, and she was disgusted by the wealth gap so prevalent in the city. She wrote to a friend:
“although I am very interested in all the industrial and mechanical development of the United States…[I feel] a bit of a rage against all the rich guys here, since I have seen thousands of people in the most terrible misery without anything to eat and with no place to sleep, that is what has most impressed me here, it is terrifying to see the rich having parties day and night whiles thousands and thousands of people are dying of hunger”
Frida was very open about her disdain for Detroit Society. Often expressing her particular dislike for Henry Ford. An ardent capitalist and a bit of a bore. It was also during this year that Frida had a miscarriage, which was the second terminated preganancy in her and Rivera’s marriage. Putting further strain on the couple. And just three months later Frida’s mother died of complications from surgery. Kahlo had always had a tense and frustrating relationship with her mother. Matilde Kahlo was a strong woman who showed little emotion except when it came to god. This time of grief prompted several paintings from Frida, most notably “Henry Ford Hospital” which was a self-portrait (her most notable works) that represented her miscarraige. Just a year earlier she had completed her well known “Frida and Diego Rivera” which was interpreted as some to show Diego’s devotion to his work and the couples strenuous relationship.
The following year Diego was commissioned by J.D. Rockefeller to paint a mural on the New York City Rockefeller Center. At last Frida could get the hell out of Detroit. She was also eager to see her lover Georgia who was recovering from a nervous breakdown. Frida later wrote to another friend about the visit:
“O’Keeffe was in the hospital for three months, she went to Bermuda for a rest. She didn’t made [sic] love to me that time, I think on account of her weakness. Too bad. Well that’s all I can tell you until now.”
Despite their inability to make love, it is no doubt Frida was happy to be in New York and with her many friends and lovers.
While Diego was a world wide name, Frida was far less known. However, her time in America did a lot to boost her reputation. She was not afraid to speak to the press and the press loved to speak to her. She was flamboyant, controversial, witty and arrogant. She often boasted that SHE was actually the better painter in the family. Even though few people had seen her work in the mid 1930’s and most laughed her off. One Detroit paper had belittled her in the title of their interview with Kahlo which read “Wife of the Master Mural Painter Gleefully Dabbles in Works of Art”. Regardless, Frida did an excellent job of getting her name out in the papers and creating a buzz. But she was homesick. So when Diego was fired from the Rockefeller center for putting communist Vladimir Lenin in his mural, the couple returned home to Mexico.
The couple bought two homes in the wealthy neighborhood of San Angel and built a bridge between their houses. Diego was resentful at returning to Mexico, and this further strained a marriage already at the point of breaking. For the next 2 years Frida did little painting. But then in 1938 she met a new muse in Japanese-American sculpture Isamu Noguchi. The couple were very passionate and Frida’s art flourished. She claimed that between 1937 and 1938 she “painted more than she had done in all her previous 8 years of marriage”. She had an art opening in 1938 and made her first big sale that same year. She also was invited on a solo tour of Paris, which she quickly took up. Frida’s time in the City of Love further established her legitimacy as a world renowned artist. There are also rumors that she took up with Josephine Baker during this time. Though we have not evidence of their affair.
When Frida returned to Mexico in late 1939 she was eager to see her longtime lover Nikolas Muray. Muray wanted Frida to leave Diego who had become increasingly more possessive. When Frida and Isamu had attempted to rent an apartment together in Mexico City, Diego had tracked Isamu down and threatened him with a gun. But Frida could not bring herself to leave her husband. Nikolas wrote “Of the three of us there was only two of you. I always felt that.” On his part, Rivera filed divorce proceedings. Frida was left broken again. And again her work flourished in spite of her pain. Her portriats “The Suicide of Dorothy Hale” and “Two Fridas” painted during this time would become two of her most recognized works.
The couple did get a divorce, but then remarried in 1941. Frida’s work was the talk of the art world. Upon her and Diego’s reconciliation, Frida took up with Diego’s mistress, actress Paulette Goddard married to Charlie Chaplin. The relationship between Paulette and Frida was quite complicated as it is not clear whether Frida was attracted to Paulette or wanted to be Paulette. After all, Goddard was stunning. Of all Diego’s affairs, this seemed to be the one Frida was most jealous of. She cut her hair in defiance to Rivera because of Goddard. Yet she also painted one of her masterpieces “Flowers in a Basket” for Paulette. Either way, Goddard was quite tied up with the couple. She even helped Diego elude authorities when they investigated the murder of Frida’s other lover, Leon Trotsky. As for Frida, she was imprisoned for 2 days and heavily interrogated over suspicion of the communist leaders murder.
Despite the controversy that surrounded her at home and abroad, Frida was loved and appreciated as an artist. She established the Seminar on Mexican Culture and was brought on as a teacher for the National School of Painting in Mexico City. Sadly, her health was greatly deteriorating and by the end of World War 2, Frida was mostly confined to her home. She would spend the last decade of her life inside Casa Azul, the name of her home. But created her most well known pieces. Broken Column, Wounded Deer, and Without Hope were all painted during this time.
In 1953 Frida was so ill the doctors forbid her from leaving her bed. However, her first solo exhibition was scheduled in Mexico City. Frida had her bed transported to the exhibition hall and then, once the guests had arrived, she was transported in on a stretcher. This would be her last big public event. But it was a smashing success and so embodied the resilience of Frida Kahlo. That next year she would paint her final pieces. Her last painting was titled “Viva La Vida” which means, Live Life. On July 13, 1954 at 47 years old, Frida Kahlo passed away from a high fever and possible, intentional drug overdose. She had lived her remaining years in such pain and was ready to go. The casket at her viewing was placed under a communist flag as hundreds of people came to show their respect and then her body was cremated. The last words she wrote were “I joyfully await the exit – and I hope never to return”.
Your recommended resources are “The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self Portriat” compiled by Carlos Fuentes or “Frida; A Biography of Frida Kahlo” by Hayden Herrera. You can also check out the movie Frida with Salma Hayak. Though it does take some strong liberties. Especially in the relationship between Frida and Josephine Baker. Which we all love to fantasize about. However, in recent years it has come out – by Hayak herself – that the intense lesbian scene was only only recorded as Harvey Weinsteins punishment to Hayak for denying his sexual advances. We don’t want that to taint such a great movie but we do put the information out there.
- Biography – https://www.biography.com/artist/frida-kahlo
- Wiki – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frida_Kahlo
- Bisexual 1 – https://www.liveabout.com/bisexual-painter-frida-kahlo-2170989
- Pregnancy – https://www.michaeloart.com/frida-kahlo-her-lifes-story/
- Affairs – https://www.biography.com/news/frida-kahlo-real-rumored-affairs-men-women
Impact on artists – https://artsandculture.google.com/theme/CgISm6mFqz2HIQ