Frieda Kahlo is a remarkable woman who led an unconventional life full of passion and pain

Perhaps the world’s most famous female artist, Frida Kahlo’s image is recognized throughout the world.

“Rebellion against everything that chains you.”

Born Magdalena Carmen Freida Kahlo y Calderon in Mexico City in 1907, Frieda became one of Mexico’s greatest artists. Perhaps the world’s most famous female artist, Frida Kahlo’s image is recognized throughout the world. You’ll find her distinguishable image on notebooks, t-shirts, mugs, and tea towels all over the world. Through her paintings, she expressed her pain and explored her identity. She was a remarkable woman who led an unconventional life full of passion and pain.  

Frida’s father, Guillermo, was an immigrant of Jewish German descent. He worked hard to work his way up in Mexican society, working in a jewelry store and later as a portrait photographer. Frida’s mother, Matilde, was Guillermo’s second wife after his first wife passed away. Matilde was a devout Catholic. Frida’s diverse heritage comes up regularly in her artwork. 

At only six years old, Frida contracted Polio and was bedridden for nine months. She recovered but with a damaged right leg that caused a limp. Her father encouraged her to play sports and ride bicycles; very uncommon for young girls at the time. She continued to float convention and had a reputation as a rebel. As a teenager, she was already playing with fashion as a statement. In a family photograph taken by her father, she wears a three-piece suit, slick-backed hair, and a pose that exudes confidence.

Frida’s father worked hard to provide an education for his four daughters. Frida was one of the few girls attending the National Preparatory School when it became co-ed after the Mexican Revolution. Of 2000 students, Frida was one of only 35 girls. She was described as a tenacious and rebellious student with a sharp tongue. It was there that she developed a keen interest in literature and politics. She joined the Young Communist League and the Mexican Communist Party.

“I am not sick. I am broken. But, I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.”

As if the childhood polio wasn’t enough, in 1925, at just 18 years old, a tramcar collided with a bus Frida was traveling on. She was impaled by a handrail and suffered severe injuries, including multiple fractures to her spine, ribs, collar bone, pelvis, and leg. While recovering, in a full-body cast, her parents arranged for a specially designed easel so that she could paint from her bed. This was the beginning of Frida Kahlo as an artist. 

Frida suffered a lifetime of emotional and physical pain. 

She underwent 30 plus operations throughout her life. Her suffering is a constant theme in her artwork. “The Broken Column’, starkly depicts her shattered body following the bus accident. She’s pictured, nearly naked and split in half, with her spine as a broken column. She wears a surgical; brace, and nails pierce her skin.

Frida’s art was an outlet for her physical and emotional suffering and also an exploration of her identity. At least a third of Frida’s paintings are self-portraits. “I paint self-portraits because I am often alone, because I am the person I know best.” She painted her first self-portrait, Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress, in 1926. She took on the style of 19th century Mexican portrait painters and was most likely influenced by her father’s portrait photography. She would help her father touch up his portraits as a child, which certainly impacted her earlier work. Frida’s second self-portrait takes on a Mexican folk style. She wears vibrantly colored peasant clothing in the vibrant red, white and green of the Mexican flag. Frida’s Mexican heritage is a common theme throughout her work. She often mixes her Mexican background with her father’s European upbringing; a European blouse with a Tehuanan necklace, for example. 

“There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst.”

If chronic physical pain was one subject for her artwork, her passionate and tumultuous relationship with Diego Rivera was another. Diego Rivera was already a successful muralist when Frida first set eyes on him. He was working on a mural at her school when, according to friends, she declared that she would marry him one day. 

And so, she did. They married. Twice! Frida moved in artistic and social circles in Mexico City, befriending Cuban communist Antonio Mella and Italian photographer Tina Modotti. They introduced her to Diego Rivera. He encouraged her painting and, despite the considerable 20-year age gap, they married in 1929. Frida’s mother described the relationship as a “wedding between an elephant and a dove.”

To say their relationship was tumultuous would be an understatement. Both of them had numerous affairs, Frida with both men and women. Frida would express her pain in her paintings. After Diego’s affairs, Frida cut her hair and painted herself in masculine clothing to spite him because she knew how he loved her long hair and Mexican attire. 

In the early 1930s, the couple traveled to the United States, where Diego worked on several murals, including the controversial Rockefeller Center Mural. Diego boldly painted a picture of Lenin on the walls of the Rockefeller Center. He was asked to remove it, and when he refused, they had the mural chiseled off the wall. Meanwhile, Frida longed for her homeland. She painted herself standing on the border between the history and agriculture of Mexico and the smoking factories of the United States. She’s wearing an uncharacteristic Western-style dress and holding a cigarette, but in the other hand is a Mexican flag.  

Frida suffered through three miscarriages. During her time in the United States, she depicts her suffering in her painting, Henry Ford Hospital. She lies, naked, on a blood-stained hospital bed. Her body is twisted, and red cords connect her to six objects, one being the fetus, the child that she hoped for. Frida’s sorrow over not having a child comes up often in her artwork. 

Kahlo and Rivera shared their passion for art as well as their political views. They were both well-known left-wing activists. Frida hung framed images of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Mao at the foot of her bed. Her painting, The Bus, shows her view of classism in Mexican society. She painted a woman with her grocery basket, a blue-collar worker in his overalls, and an indigenous mother feeding her baby, alongside a pale-skinned, blue-eyed man in a suit. In his mural, The Arsenal, Rivera painted Kahlo as an activist wearing a shirt with the communist red star. 

In 1937, Kahlo and Rivera provided asylum at Kahlo’s family home, the Blue House, for the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky and his wife, Natalia. Kahlo greeted them at the port, and in a photo of the event, her distinct Tehuana dress stands out amid a sea of guard uniforms and suits. It was not long before Frida and Trotsky developed a relationship. They would meet in secret, and he would lend her books with love notes hidden between the pages. The affair was short-lived, but Frida dedicated a sensual portrait to him. He was eventually assassinated, and Frida ended up in prison for a short time as a suspect. According to friends, Frida enjoyed taunting Diego by bringing up the romance, a sign of the passion and turbulence of their relationship even years later. 

Although Rivera was a known philanderer, in 1937, his affair with Frida’s beloved younger sister, Christina, was a breaking point. Her painting ‘Memory, the Heart” shows a large broken heart at Frida’s feet. They eventually divorced in 1939, only to remarry a year later. The Two Fridas is one of her most recognized works and expresses Frida’s anguish over the separation. One Frida wears a Mexican dress and represents the Frida Diego adored. She holds a portrait of him that is connected to her heart, providing her lifeblood. The other European-dressed Frida is the one he betrayed. Her heart is broken, and blood drips onto her white dress. When they remarried a year later, agreeing that they could have separate love lives, she paints herself back in the bright Tehuana dresses. 

“I hope the way out is joyful, and I hope I never come back.”

Despite her pain and suffering, and perhaps because of it, Frida Kahlo’s strength - with a good dash of stubbornness - is an inspiration to activists, feminists, people with disabilities, and many others. “At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can.” Despite being hospitalized, Frida arrived at the opening of her only show in Mexico by ambulance and was carried in on her hospital bed, a bold example of strong determination.

Just days before she died, Frida participated in a protest against US intervention in Guatemala and the coup that overthrew president Jacobo Arbenz. She took part in the march in her wheelchair, alongside Diego. She was passionate and strong in her conviction to the end. Her exertion at the event may have contributed to her death less than two weeks later. In July 1954, Frida’s life was cut short at only 47 years old. 

She didn’t sell many paintings during her lifetime. 

She commissioned a few portraits and had several exhibitions in New York, Paris, and Mexico. The Louvre also acquired one of her self-portraits. She achieved some recognition during her short life, but nothing compared to today, with her image recognizable worldwide. She was mostly known for being Diego Rivera’s wife. Now the tables have turned, and Rivera is mainly known for being Frida Kahlo’s husband.

She rose to fame in the 70s, when she became a feminist icon. Feminists celebrate Frida for her depiction of the female experience, including great suffering and even greater strength. Today her work sells for up to $5.62 million, the highest for any Latin American work sold at auction. She’s undoubtedly one of the most recognized and highest-selling female artists. She’s now the subject of countless books, documentaries, and movies. 

Frida often felt lonely and different from others. She wrote that “I used to think I was the strangest person in the world, but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me, too.” Frida would be amazed to see the vast audience her paintings reach today.

At the end of her last diary entry, she wrote, “I hope the way out is joyful, and I hope I never come back.” She may not be coming back, but her art and her legacy are certainly here to stay!