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In this week’s Know who you’re Googling, the irrepressible Loretta Barnard extols the brilliance of the truly unique Frida Kahlo.
Someone once wrote that the paintings of Frida Kahlo were her autobiography. Of her 143 paintings, 55 are self-portraits, each one a window into her life. “I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone because I am the person I know best,” she said.
One of her most striking self-portraits is The Broken Column (1944), where she depicts herself in a constricting body cast, a cracked stone pillar replacing her spine. Nails are sticking into her, from her face all the way down. Yet Frida stares stoically ahead, beautiful and defiant; a vital, sexual being, in spite of her unending agony.
That agony was lifelong and became a dominant motif in her self-portraits.
Born in 1907 in Coyocoán, Mexico City, Frida contracted polio as a child. At 18 years old, a horrendous bus accident left her at death’s door. Her spine, ribs and pelvis were broken, her legs were fractured and internal injuries meant that she would never be able to have children. She spent an inordinately long time recuperating and had prolonged periods of bed rest her whole life. She often painted in bed.
Frida married artist Diego Rivera in 1929. A tempestuous union, it endured affairs on both sides, divorce and remarriage. Frida famously had an affair with Leon Trotsky, but also enjoyed liaisons with women, among them entertainer Josephine Baker and artist Georgia O’Keeffe.
Although turbulent, Frida and Diego’s marriage was a true love match and she was utterly devastated when they divorced.
In The Two Fridas (1939), the Frida on the left, her heart torn apart, is clamping an open vein but the blood keeps dripping. This is her, alone and lonely; Frida without Diego. The Frida on the right, her heart exposed but intact, is the woman she was before the divorce. The two Fridas hold hands, one comforting the other.
Surgery in 1945 left Frida without an appetite and she lost so much weight that her doctor prescribed a diet of puréed food, which she considered force-feeding. Without Hope shows the reluctant artist held captive by her easel, now being used to hold the funnel to her mouth. Naked under the blankets, she is clearly trapped, hence the painting’s desperate title.
Frida used the motif of blood to symbolise union and it appears in many self-portraits, such as Henry Ford Hospital (1932). Naked, Frida is in a hospital bed connected by threads of blood to a floating foetus, a pelvis and other symbolic items. She has miscarried. Her sorrow is unremittingly honest.
Frida recorded her life in her self-portraits. They are indeed her autobiography.
Her personal style, rooted in the Mexican tradition, was unique. She embraced indigenous clothing (the long skirts hid her polio-ravaged legs) and hair-styling (flowers and ribbons), never plucked her eyebrows or removed facial hair. “Take me for who I am,” she’s saying. You go girl!
That personal style has been mined by fashion and jewellery designers ever since, so Frida’s influence goes well beyond her paintings.
Enduring over 30 operations throughout her life (including a partial leg amputation a couple of years before her death), she died aged 47, in 1954.
Resilience is a word that springs to mind when thinking about Frida Kahlo. She was a vibrant woman who achieved an enormous amount, despite her physical infirmities, who didn’t give up without a fight.
In 1953, doctors told Frida she was too unwell to leave her bed, but she had her first solo exhibition in Mexico and there was no way she was going to miss it. She was carried into the gallery in her bed, greeted the guests and celebrated with them. That’s determination. That’s class.
Images sourced via (The Two Fridas – khanacademy.com, Henry Ford Hospital – info.umkc.edu, Without Hope – biographile.com)