Frida Kahlo began to paint in 1925, while recovering from a near-fatal bus accident that devastated her body and marked the beginning of lifelong physical ordeals. Over the next three decades, she would produce a relatively small yet consistent and arresting body of work. In meticulously executed paintings, Kahlo portrayed herself again and again, simultaneously exploring, questioning, and staging her self and identity. She also often evoked fraught episodes from her life, including her ongoing struggle with physical pain and the emotional distress caused by her turbulent relationship with celebrated painter Diego Rivera.
Such personal subject matter, along with the intimate scale of her paintings, sharply contrasted with the work of her acclaimed contemporaries, the Mexican Muralists. Launched in the wake of the Mexican Revolution and backed by the government, the Mexican Muralist movement aimed to produce monumental public murals that mined the country’s national history and identity. An avowed Communist, like her peers Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, Kahlo at times expressed her desire to paint “something useful for the Communist revolutionary movement,” yet her art remained “very far from work that could serve the Party.”1 She nonetheless participated in her peers’ exaltation of Mexico’s indigenous culture, avidly collecting Mexican popular art and often making use of its motifs and techniques. In My Grandparents, My Parents, and I, for example, she adopted the format of retablos, small devotional paintings made on metallic plates. She also carefully crafted a flamboyant Mexican persona for herself, wearing colorful folk dresses and pre-Columbian jewelry, in a performative display of her identity.
Kahlo’s early recognition was prompted by French poet and founder of Surrealism André Breton, who enthusiastically embraced her art as self-made Surrealism, and included her work in his 1940 International Exhibition of Surrealism in Mexico City. Yet if her art had an uncanny quality akin to the movement’s tenets, Kahlo resisted the association: “They thought I was a Surrealist but I wasn’t,” she said. “I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”2
Introduction by Charlotte Barat, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture, 2016
The research for this text was supported by a generous grant from The Modern Women's Fund.
517: Surrealist Objects
Artist’s Choice: Herzog & de Meuron, Perception Restrained
Jun 21–Sep 25, 2006
Nov 20, 2004–Aug 5, 2015
MoMA at El Museo: Latin American and Caribbean Art from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art
Mar 4–Jul 25, 2004
Mar 16–Sep 26, 2000
- Frida Kahlo has online.
If you would like to reproduce an image of a work of art in MoMA’s collection, or an image of a MoMA publication or archival material (including installation views, checklists, and press releases), please contact Art Resource (publication in North America) or Scala Archives (publication in all other geographic locations).
All requests to license audio or video footage produced by MoMA should be addressed to Scala Archives at [email protected]. Motion picture film stills or motion picture footage from films in MoMA’s Film Collection cannot be licensed by MoMA/Scala. For licensing motion picture film footage it is advised to apply directly to the copyright holders. For access to motion picture film stills please contact the Film Study Center. More information is also available about the film collection and the Circulating Film and Video Library.
If you would like to reproduce text from a MoMA publication, please email [email protected]. If you would like to publish text from MoMA’s archival materials, please fill out this permission form and send to [email protected].