“In the whole history of art, Frida is the only example of a painter virtually tearing her breast and heart open in order to express the feelings in them and tell the biological truth.” Diego Rivera.
Frida Kahlo was born in Coyoacán, a suburb of Mexico City, the daughter of the German photographer Guillermo Kahlo (who had emigrated to Mexico) and a Mexican mother. In 1923 she began studying medicine and joined the ‘Liga de la Juventud Communista’. A year later she met Diego Rivera for the first time, the man whom she would eventually marry in 1929 and remain with, on and off, for the duration of her life. At the age of 18 she was involved in a terrible car accident that left her with a crushed pelvis, fractured spine and broken foot. This accident led to a lifetime battle for her health with endless infections and operations. It was this event that prompted her to paint and the pain she felt was to become an ongoing theme of her art.
Kahlo was mainly self-taught as a painter. She was greatly influenced by Rivera as well as by Mexican folk art. She specialised almost exclusively in self-portraits ranging from simple likenesses to portraying herself in dramatic settings. Every picture contained a strong autobiographical element, whether it was simply the artist dressed in traditional Mexican dress or still-lives of fruit which she found in the surroundings of her beloved abode. Her preoccupation with death (a favourite theme amongst the Mexican people) was evident in many of her most famous works, particularly the disturbing ‘Two Fridas’ (1934). Kahlo said that many of her contemporaries “thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.” Her paintings were widely shown in Mexico and in 1939 she had successful exhibitions in New York and Paris, but during her lifetime her husband’s career overshadowed her own. After her death, however, she became a feminist icon for her struggle against illness and her left-wing political activities.
Kahlo’s paintings of physical and mental pain are both narcissistic and nightmarish yet at the same time fierce and flamboyant. Working in a primitive style, her paintings are full of odd colour combinations, static figures, and incredible space and scale. Her paintings not only reflect her inner feelings but also position them in the perspective of Mexican culture. She seemed deeply attuned to the consciousness of Mexican people and as a result found great success within her own country. Beyond her native land, however, her work was frequently overlooked, especially after her death, not resurfacing until many years later.