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Frida Kahlo (Mexican, 1907–1954)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

Mexican painter. She began to paint while recovering in bed from a bus accident in 1925 that left her seriously disabled. Although she made a partial recovery, she was never able to bear a child, and she underwent some 32 operations before her death in 1954. Her life’s work of c. 200 paintings, mostly self-portraits, deals directly with her battle to survive. They are a kind of exorcism by which she projected her anguish on to another Frida, in order to separate herself from pain and at the same time confirm her hold on reality. Her international reputation dates from the 1970s; her work has a particular following among Latin Americans living in the USA.

Small scale, fantasy and a primitivistic style help to distance the viewer from the horrific subject-matter of such paintings as Henry Ford Hospital (oil on sheet metal, 1932; Mexico City, Mrs D. Olmedo priv. col., see Herrera, 1983, pl. IV), in which she depicts herself haemorrhaging after a miscarriage, but her vulnerability and sorrow are laid bare. Her first Self-portrait (1926; Mexico City, A. Gomez Arias priv. col., see Herrera, 1983, pl. I), painted one year after her accident, shows a melancholy girl with long aristocratic hands and neck depicted in a style that reveals her early love for Italian Renaissance art and especially for Botticelli.

Kahlo’s art was greatly affected by the enthusiasm and support of Diego Rivera, to whom she showed her work in 1929 and to whom she was married in the same year. She shared his Communism and began to espouse his belief in Mexicanidad, a passionate identification with indigenous roots that inspired many Mexican painters of the post-revolutionary years. In Kahlo’s second Self-portrait (oil on masonite, 1929; Mexico City, Mrs D. Olmedo priv. col., see Herrera, 1983, pl. II), she no longer wears a luxurious European-style dress, but a cheap Mexican blouse, Pre-Columbian beads and Colonial-period earrings. In subsequent years she drew on Mexican popular art as her chief source, attracted by its fantasy, naivety, and fascination with violence and death. Kahlo was described as a self-invented Surrealist by André Breton in his 1938 introduction for the brochure of the first of three Kahlo exhibitions held during her lifetime, but her fantasy was too intimately tied to the concrete realities of her own existence to qualify as Surrealist. She denied the appropriateness of the term, contending that she painted not dreams but her own reality.

The vicissitudes of Kahlo’s marriage are recorded in many of her paintings. In Frida and Diego Rivera (1931; San Francisco, CA, MOMA) he is presented as the great maestro while she, dressed as usual in a long-skirted Mexican costume, is her husband’s adoring wife and perfect foil. Even at this early date there are hints that Rivera was unpossessable; later portraits show Kahlo’s increasing desire to bind herself to her philandering spouse. The Two Fridas (1939; Mexico City, Mus. A. Mod.), in which her heart is extracted and her identity split, conveys her desperation and loneliness at the time of their divorce in 1939; they remarried in 1940.

Kahlo’s health deteriorated rapidly in her last years, as attested by Self-portrait with the Portrait of Dr Farill (1951; see Herrera, 1983, pl. XXXIV). This depiction of herself sitting bolt upright in a wheelchair, painted after spending a year in hospital undergoing a series of spinal operations, was conceived as a kind of secular ex-voto and given to the doctor whom she has represented as the agent of her salvation.

In 1953 Kahlo’s right leg was amputated at the knee because of gangrene. She turned to drugs and alcohol to relieve her suffering and to Communism for spiritual solace. Several late paintings, such as Marxism Heals the Sick (Mexico City, Mus. Kahlo), show Marx and Stalin as gods; they are painted in a loosely brushed style, her earlier miniaturist precision having been sacrificed to drug addiction. Her last work, a still-life of a watermelon entitled Long Live Life (1954; Mexico City, Mus. Kahlo), is both a salute to life and an acknowledgement of death’s imminence. Eight days before she died, almost certainly by suicide, she wrote her name, the date and the place of execution on the melon’s red pulp, along with the title (‘VIVA LA VIDA’) in large capital letters.

Hayden Herrera
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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