In her 1940 work Self-Portrait Without Hair, Mexican artist Frida Kahlo sits surrounded by her own shorn locks. And in real life, she changes her look just as drastically, shunning the feminine image that her unfaithful husband once loved. It’s not the first time that Kahlo’s art reflected her life, and it would not be the last, as she forged a unique career creating beauty out of staggering pain.
Born Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón on July 6, 1907, she was the daughter of a German father and a mother of both Spanish and Native American descent. The third of four girls, she grew up in the Coyoacán district of Mexico City, where she was encouraged to pursue art from a young age. However, her parents were both plagued by sickness, and she would later describe her childhood as sad.
At just six years old, Kahlo was diagnosed with polio – a serious condition that forced her to spend months in isolation. And as a result of the disease, her right leg did not develop at the same rate as her left. In fact, she would spend much of her life wearing long skirts in order to conceal the disability.
Sadly, Kahlo’s childhood illness also led to bullying, and the girl became introverted from a young age. And after enrolling at a German-language school, she was soon kicked out for behavioral issues. Eventually, she became one of the first women to attend the National Preparatory School in Mexico City.
There, Kahlo began to blossom, excelling in her academic career. Meanwhile, she became inspired by the school’s commitment to indigenous Mexican identity, developing a keen interest in politics and social justice. However, on September 17, 1925, a horrific accident would transform her life for good.
That day, Kahlo was riding on a Mexico City bus with her boyfriend Alejandro Gómez Arias when the vehicle was involved in a collision. Tragically, several people died in the accident, while Kahlo herself was seriously injured. In fact, she wound up impaled on a steel handrail, which another passenger allegedly had to pull from her pelvis.
Although Kahlo survived, the accident took a physical and emotional toll that would stay with her for the rest of her life. And after spending weeks in hospital, she was confined to bed in an extensive cast for another three months. But while the trauma put her dreams of entering the medical profession on hold, it did provide an opportunity for her to pursue her passion for art.
While enduring bed rest for her condition, Kahlo began to experiment with painting. Apparently, her parents even constructed a special easel which allowed her to work while lying down. And in 1926 she finished the first of many self-portraits – an artform that would become something of a signature style over the years.
By 1927 Kahlo was free from her convalescence and able to socialize once more. And the following year, she met Diego Rivera, a successful Mexican artist over 20 years her senior. Initially, Kahlo turned to the older man for advice on her paintings, but soon the pair became romantically involved.
In August 1929 Kahlo and Rivera tied the knot, despite her mother’s disapproval. And sadly, it was the beginning of a complicated and tumultuous relationship. According to Gisèle Freund’s book, Imagen de Frida Kahlo, the artist reportedly said, “I suffered two grave accidents in my life. One in which a streetcar knocked me down and the other was Diego.”
Not long after their wedding, Kahlo and Rivera relocated to the Mexican city of Cuernavaca, in the state of Morelos. And there, the painter began to develop her creative style. Previously, she had been inspired by European artists, but in the largely rural state Kahlo now called home, she found herself drawn to the Mexican folk art of the region.
Then in 1930 the couple moved to California, where Kahlo continued to develop her distinctive style. And the following year, she painted Frida and Diego Rivera, a portrait of herself alongside her husband. In it, she is depicted as having a light grasp on Rivera’s hand – perhaps indicative of the lack of commitment that would come to characterize their troubled marriage.
In 1932 Kahlo and Rivera relocated again, this time to the Michigan city of Detroit. However, the artist soon grew frustrated by the large divide between the rich and poor in the city. Moreover, she suffered a miscarriage, and her health in general began to decline. But rather than dwell on these struggles, she chose to channel them into her burgeoning art.
In Detroit, Kahlo began to develop a style that explored the concepts of suffering and pain. But when the couple returned to Mexico City in 1934, the artist experienced a creative drought. Plagued again by ill health, she stopped producing work, and it would take a broken heart to get her painting again.
The following year, Kahlo discovered that Rivera had been having an affair with her sister Cristina. And even though it was far from the first of his infidelities, the betrayal caused Kahlo a great deal of pain. However, rather than divorce her errant husband, the artist made a bid for independence, moving out and embarking on a romantic fling of her own. Eventually, however, the pair reconciled.
In fact, both Kahlo and Rivera are thought to have engaged in a series of extramarital affairs. Furthermore, the former was also bisexual, and had a number of relationships with women over the years. These included a rumored fling with the famous dancer Josephine Baker, who she reportedly met in 1939.
Meanwhile, Kahlo returned to politics 1936 and became a follower of the Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky. Around the same time, she also pledged solidarity with the Republicans – and their anarchist and communist allies – fighting in the Spanish Civil War. And when Trotsky and his wife claimed asylum in Mexico, they retreated to the home of the Riveras.
Reportedly, Kahlo offered Trotsky more than just hospitality in her Mexico home, and the pair embarked on an illicit affair. And soon after that, Kahlo and Rivera’s marriage finally broke down. But while her personal life was in turmoil, the artist experienced one of her most productive periods yet.
Between 1937 and 1938, Kahlo painted a number of works including the iconic What The Water Gave Me. According to experts, this piece serves as the artist’s biography, depicting a prone and naked Kahlo lying half submerged in water. Around her, many strange symbols and figures are thought to represent concepts such as death and loss.
Meanwhile, over the years, it became common for Kahlo to depict her personal struggles through her art. For example, around the time of her divorce in 1939 she painted The Two Fridas, a piece that explores both her Mexican and European identities. Apparently, Rivera preferred the Mexican Kahlo, while the European version of her was who she was before she married. Indeed, the piece shows the two versions of her holding hands, showing her two identities joining together following her divorce.
The following year, Kahlo also painted Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair. In this piece, she is dressed in a man’s suit, her chair surrounded by chunks of her long, black locks. Apparently, this depiction echoes Kahlo’s actions in real life. Indeed, after the divorce, she rebelled against her ex-husband by cutting off her flowing tresses – a feature that he had always admired.
By this point, Kahlo had begun to achieve some recognition outside of Mexico, both for her artwork and for her colorful sense of style. And while her relationship with Rivera remained friendly, she appeared to relish her new-found freedom. Nevertheless, in 1940 the pair decided to reconcile.
However, the relationship between Kahlo and Rivera remained tumultuous. Meanwhile, the painter’s health continued to suffer. Eventually, her condition deteriorated to the point where she was forced to wear a series of corsets to hold her spine in place. And over time, the constant pain and discomfort made its way into much of her work.
For example, the 1944 painting The Broken Column depicts Kahlo with a split and broken body, her skin pierced by multiple nails. Thought to refer her struggles both with polio and with the aftermath of the bus crash, the piece shows the artist’s spine replaced by a crumbling classical column. And today, it is considered one of her most famous works.
Kahlo had suffered a second miscarriage in 1934, and her inability to have children was another source of pain throughout her life. And according to experts, this longing was explored in her 1943 piece Roots. In this painting, she depicted herself entwined with vines in an image that’s said to combine desperation and hope.
In 1945 Kahlo traveled to New York, where she underwent a difficult and painful operation on her spine. However, the procedure was not a success. In fact, the artist’s biographer even claims that she sabotaged her own recovery in frustration. But whatever Kahlo was going through, she still managed to create incredible art, painting the renowned piece The Wounded Deer the following year.
In The Wounded Deer, Kahlo painted a forest animal bearing her own head, its torso pierced by many arrows. Apparently, the weapons represent her own struggle with pain and failed surgery, while the bleak, desolate landscape speaks of her sense of desperation. Moreover, some have suggested that the animal represents her ailing leg, as the Aztec god Tezcatlipoca is often shown with a deer’s hoof in place of his right foot.
Meanwhile, many people have referred to Kahlo’s work as surrealism over the years. However, the artist herself was reluctant to use the term. In fact, she is said to have taken a largely negative view of the movement. Moreover, some critics have pointed out that her combination of mythology and Mexican culture places her art more in the realm of magical realism instead.
Kahlo once wrote, “Really, I do not know whether my paintings are surrealist or not, but I do know that they are the frankest expression of myself.” She continued, “Since my subjects have always been my sensations, my states of mind and the profound reactions that life has been producing in me, I have frequently objectified all this in figures of myself, which were the most sincere and real thing that I could do in order to express what I felt inside and outside of myself.”
Sadly, from 1950 onwards, Kahlo’s health began to steadily decline. Diagnosed with gangrene in her right foot, she was hospitalized and confined to her bed for many months. But despite her struggles, she found a renewed passion for politics, occupying her time by campaigning for causes such as nuclear disarmament.
In 1953 Kahlo’s troublesome right leg was amputated, a procedure that ushered in a period of great anxiety and depression. Eventually, she attempted suicide, allegedly prompted by yet another of Diego’s affairs. However, she survived, and even continued to paint – although her work was drastically changed.
For example, Kahlo’s 1954 painting Still Life With Flag is a stark departure from her earlier style, showing a simple bowl of fruit adorned with a Mexican flag. By this time, her dependence on painkillers and alcohol had reduced her ability to recreate details. Now, the piece stands as a heartbreaking reminder of an artist approaching death.
On July 2, 1954, Kahlo and Rivera attended a demonstration against the United States-backed coup in Guatemala. However, the appearance weakened her, and less than two weeks later she was dead. Apparently, she seemed to anticipate her fate, drawing sketches of angels and skeletons as she waited for the end.
Officially, it was a pulmonary embolism that caused Kahlo’s death. However, her biographer Hayden Herrera believes that she may have committed suicide. Tragically, the artist died without ever knowing how famous her work would become. And even though she gained some recognition during her lifetime, she lived out most of her days in her husband’s shadow.
For example, in March 1939 a New York newspaper published a photograph of Kahlo shortly after her arrival in the city. However, the publication simply referred to her as the wife of Rivera – despite the fact that she had already mounted a solo exhibition in the city. And even when the artist did win her own fame, it was often for her personality as much as her work.
However, all that changed with the feminist movement of the 1970s. Seeking to acknowledge female artists who had been overlooked in the past, many activists began championing Kahlo and her work. And around the same time, the Chicano Movement for Mexican civil rights began to celebrate the artist as an icon.
In 1977 one of Kahlo’s paintings sold at auction for the first time, fetching almost $20,000. And the following year, two retrospectives focusing on the artist took place in Mexico City and Chicago. Then, in 1982 an exhibition of her work opened in London, eventually visiting the U.S., Germany, Sweden and Kahlo’s home country.
By 1984 Kahlo’s fame had spread across the world. In fact, Mexico soon declared her work to be of national cultural significance, making it illegal to export her paintings out of the country. Now, it is rare to see any of the artist’s pieces at auction. However, the musician Madonna is thought to own a collection.
These days, Kahlo is celebrated as one of Latin America’s most famous icons. Furthermore, she is a hero to everyone from feminists to advocates of Mexican rights. And while she is treasured for her art, her tragic personal circumstances have only served to make her story even more enduring. In fact, in her battle with her own struggles, she has painted herself as a survivor and given voice to so many who often live without.
In 2002 a biopic starring Salma Hayek as Kahlo was released, grossing over $55 million at box offices worldwide. Meanwhile, the artist’s home in Coyoacán, La Casa Azul, is now the Frida Kahlo Museum. Today, it is one of the most-visited attractions in Mexico City – proving that our fascination with the woman once known only as Rivera’s wife shows no signs of abating.