Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Frida Kahlo

I paint myself because I am the subject I know best. I really don’t know whether my paintings are Surrealist or not, but I do know that they are the most honest expression of myself, taking no account of the opinions and prejudices of others.”
 Frida Kahlo
In the spring of 2008 I enjoyed an exhibition of Frida Kahlo’s works at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I was deeply impressed and inspired by the boldness of her originality and by the energy that emanates from her paintings.
 Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) was a self-taught artist with a skeptical attitude toward academic training. Yet she was a voracious reader of literary and scientific works, who had an unquenchable curiosity and an intense passion for learning.
 Through her art and life she challenged the status quo with the force of her authenticity. Just by looking at the first self-portrait on this post, you can see how she does not attempt to hide anything about her face -- not even her sadness. (I don’t remember seeing many paintings or photos of Frida Kahlo smiling.)
 Frida Kahlo had a streetcar accident when she was eighteen years old. This crash changed the course of her life, for she had to endure the consequences of it until her death at age 47.  Her physical ailments provided her with periods of solitude in which she explored her inner self and then dared to project this examination on her artworks.  
 She suffered extensive spinal and hip fractures, broken ribs and a broken foot as a result of this accident that made her abandon her plans to study medicine.
  During her life Kahlo produced around two-hundred works. 
 The self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Humming-bird, for example, is a surreal image in which she wears a necklace similar to Christ’s crown of thorns. Her face expresses sorrow, but she is surrounded by plants and animals: there is a black cat, a monkey and butterflies. A humming-bird seems to be trying to disentangle something from the necklace.  The restraint around her neck contrasts with the beauty and wilderness of nature around her, as if she’d sought comfort in that universe. Mindful of this unity with nature, she expressed it in her works in surreal themes in which she also included elements related to cultural matters and religious symbols.
  Her works display her multiple identities and different dualities (sun-moon; man-woman; life-death, etc.)
 “I never painted dreams. I always painted my own reality,” she said.
 When poet and essayist Andre Breton visited Mexico, he came across Frida Kahlo’s works and described her art as “a ribbon around a bomb.” He encouraged her to exhibit her paintings in Paris.  

This photo of Frida Kahlo was taken by her lover Nickolas Muray. In this picture she wears the earrings that Pablo Picasso gave her as a token of his affection when she was in Paris for her exhibition in 1939. These earrings also appear in a self-portrait that she gave to her beloved friend Dr. Eloesser.
 Over the course of her difficult marriage to Diego Rivera, Kahlo gave more than 400 photographs and close to one-hundred letters to Dr. Eloesser to hold for safekeeping.  In 2006 this collection was donated to the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.
  In 1932 Kahlo and Rivera traveled to Philadelphia for a performance of the Mexican ballet, for which Rivera designed the sets and costumes.  The following month they moved to Detroit because Rivera had been commissioned to paint a mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Four months into a pregnancy Frida lost her baby and was admitted to  Henry Ford Hospital. She almost bled to death.  During this time, she painted "Henry Ford Hospital" and made the lithograph "Frida and the miscarriage".
 This same year, Frida painted Self-Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States, an intriguing masterpiece that deals with the conflicts of being trapped between two cultures. 
  On the Mexican side of the border we see the sun and the moon. On the American side the American flag levitates amid clouds of smoke spewed by the chimneys of a factory. There are also skyscrapers that contrast with the partially-ruined pre-Columbian temple on the Mexican side, where we also find pre-Columbian fertility idols and plants with visible roots.  Frida stands on a pedestal facing the Mexican side, a flag in her hand, as if she were trying to protect her native country from the shadows of industrialization. 
  In her painting “My Grandparents, My Parents and I” (1936), Frida shows her family tree. Her father was from  Germany, and her mother was a Mexican of mixed European and American Indian ancestry. In this picture Frida is a little girl. She is holding a red ribbon that supports her family tree. She looks much bigger than her family home. Under the ribbon, to her right, a school of sperm is targeting an ovum, and fertilization is about to take place. Close to this image, we  spot a flower and distinguish its reproductive structures. There is pollen floating over it. Frida reveals her mixed heritage here.
 Originally  her name was "Frieda".   In solidarity with the Jews she got rid of the letter "e" with the rise of Nazism. 

In 1939 she met the Surrealists in Paris and was disgusted by their elitism. She wrote a letter to her lover Nickolas Muray about this:
“You have no idea the kind of bitches these people are. They make me vomit. They are so damn ‘intellectual’ and rotten that I can’t stand them anymore. It is really too much for my character. I rather sit on the floor in the market of Toluca and sell tortillas, than to have anything to do with those ‘artistic' bitches of Paris. They sit for hours on the ‘cafes’ warming their precious behinds, and talk about culture, art, revolution and so on and so forth, thinking themselves the gods of the world, dreaming the most fantastic nonsense and poisoning the air with theories that never come true.”
   Frida witnessed the suffering of republican refugees from the Spanish Civil War and arranged for 400 of them to immigrate to Mexico.

The Two Fridas (1939) was completed after she divorced her husband, Diego Rivera. One of the Fridas -- the rejected one -- has a broken heart and is trying to stop her blood from dribbling. This appears to be futile; blood continues to spill over her white dress. The other Frida has an intact heart and a picture of her former spouse, whom she would remarry a year later.  
   The two women clasp hands, hinting at the idea that she was her most reliable source of comfort and support.
 In 1939 she wrote an entry in her diary that helps us to understand the creation of The Two Fridas. When Frida was a child she suffered from polio. It was around this time when she created an imaginary friend that she described in her diary entry.
 “I must have been 6 years old when I experienced intensely an imaginary friendship with a little girl the same age as me. On the glass window of what at that time was my room, I breathed vapor onto one of the first panes. I let out a breath and with a finger I drew a ‘door’. Full of great joy and urgency I went out in my imagination through this ‘door’…
“I went down in great haste into the interior of the earth, where my ‘imaginary friend’ was always waiting for me. I do not remember her image or her color. But I do know that she laughed a lot without sounds. She was agile and she danced as if she weighed nothing at all. I followed her in all her movements and while she danced I told her my secret problems. Which ones? I do not remember. But from my voice she knew everything about me… Twenty-six years have passed since I experienced this magic friendship and every time I remember it, it revives and becomes larger and larger inside of my world.”
I will post the second part of my post on Frida Kahlo by March 12.


  1. I really enjoyed this post. I will be using some of Kahlo's prints in my art class when we explore women artists for Women's History Month. She was a remarkable artist. I also enjoyed Barbara Kingsolver's book, The Lacuna, which I think you would enjoy, too.

    1. Thank you so much for the book recommendation, Elizabeth.
      I also appreciate your feedback. I am sure your students will be inspired by her artwork.

  2. I can't wait for the second part of your post! I love the honesty and intensity of her work.
    Hugs, Ana

    1. I do, too, Ana.
      I'm sure you will enjoy the second part.
      Thank you for your uplifting comment.

  3. Living so close to Mexico and Las Angeles, Kahlo and Rivera's works is highly appreciated. Kahlo painted with intense passion and imagery--the imagery will be examined and re-examined for decades.

    1. True. She is alive through her artworks. Her paintings tell stories...

  4. I find the lives of most artists interesting and intriguing. She definitely fits that mold.

    1. Thanks, Richard.
      I hope you will enjoy the second part.

  5. Hello Julia:

    We are somewhat embarrassed and ashamed to say that we had not, knowingly, come across the work of Frida Kahlo before now. We have found this post to most interesting and insightful and have much enjoyed looking at the paintings which you have chosen to reproduce. We shall look forward to Part II.

    1. It is never too late to meet new artists and writers.
      Her paintings tell stories. They are powerful, intense.
      Thanks for commenting.

  6. Really interesting Julia, she has the kind of face that you want to keep looking at. What a hard life she had though. Look forward to reading more.

    1. She had a hard life, but she found resilience amid the pain and the challenges. He artworks express her fortitude. They are inspiring to me.
      Thank you, Susan.

  7. Hi Julia,

    This was a timely post as parts of it resonate with an experience I had with my friends in Canada. I have witnessed the human spirit at its most resilient and determined, despite the odds.

    Frida Kahlo epitomises, through her art, her life, despite the traumas she endured, that inspiration starts within and can transcend such an impact of determination.

    What an articulate, comprehensive posting, my kind friend. Looking forward to part two.

    In kindness,


    1. Thank you for your wise words, Gary.
      I agree with you.
      Her art intertwines with her life and her emotions. I know you will enjoy the second part.
      Have a lovely Friday and a peaceful weekend, my friend.

  8. Julia, what a fantastic post! I have always found Frida Kahlo fascinating. How wonderful to see an exhibit of her work. Her art is so striking and vibrant! I appreciate her boldness and her authenticity too, and I understand her sadness. I didn’t realize she had produced around two-hundred works. That first self-portrait is remarkable, so much symbology. Your detailed analysis of that painting is the best I’ve ever read regarding that work! I clicked on the link to “Henry Ford Hospital.” In that vivid and graphic depiction, I could feel all her pain, her psychic grief, about the terrible loss she had suffered. You can clearly see how Frida was trapped between two cultures in her Borderline self-portrait.

    I knew about her mixed heritage but I was not aware that she had dropped the original “e” in her name in solidarity with the Jews during the rise of Nazism. I also didn’t know she had arranged for 400 refugees from the Spanish Civil War to immigrate to Mexico. What an incredibly compassionate woman! Every time I view “The Two Fridas” I think about how she bared her heart and soul in her paintings. Nothing was held back.

    Thank you for the passage from Frida’s diary. The delightful imagination she displayed at 6 years old portends the amazing artist she would later become. What a wonderfully vivid imaginary friend she had and I love the way she describes her. Great photo of Frida, taken by her lover, and wearing the (very cool!) earrings given her by Pablo Picasso. I loved this post, Julia, and I am on to Part Two!

    1. Thanks, Jersey!
      It was fun writing these posts, but I read many books before writing about her works...


I appreciate each and every comment. Thank you.