“I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy as long as I can paint.”
When I dived into Miss Kahlo’s life, what struck me was her enormous ability to embrace her identity and extend art from it. Maybe that is what made Frida so iconic and instantly recognizable apart from her genius art: her profound embrace of her identity. She moved many identities throughout her short life. Authentically and proudly Mexican. Supportive wife. Unapologetic lover on the side. Bisexual lady who embraced masculine clothes. She even did a self-portrait of herself with cropped hair to declare her self-reliance and independence after her first divorce from Diego Rivera.
Her pain directly led to creation.
The spine of Frida’s life was pain. For most of her life, she dealt with chronic pain, infertility, and depression. When she was six years old, she contracted polio. Some historians have suggested that Frida may have suffered from yet a third problem. They think that Frida could have been born with spina bifida, which further complicated her spine and leg issues. Then she endured a bus accident when she was 18, which left her in agony the rest of her life. Her husband Diego Rivera was constantly unfaithful during their marriage, going as far as having an affair with Frida’s younger sister Christina.
Frida Kahlo remains one of the most remarkable artistic figures in contemporary art. She was able to conjure magical universes through her paintings and embodied the Mayan Goddess, emerging from the ashes of the death mother, rebirthing herself several times over. She created from her most vulnerable places and depicted her own life with strength and grace.
For much of her life, however, Kahlo remained in her husband’s larger-than-life shadow. Her work became posthumously famous, as most women artist in her era did.
She created artworks from her most vulnerable places.
As a phoenix rising from the ashes of intense physical pain, Frida ultimately used her genius to recreate a life on the canvas and to inspire us all to carve out our own mark in the world. She painted her suffering and became the queen of her own pain. A pain that she used as material for her exquisite, visionary art. She imbued her own meaning and symbolisms into colors. Leafy green represented sadness, science, “the whole of Germany is this color”. Brown symbolized the color of the Earth, of the leaves becoming Earth. Yellow was used to depict madness, the Sun, and joy.
She painted her pain as if to externalize it and to show the pain it would not win over her creative life. Although her body was disfigured and scarred, she covered it in beauty through and decorating and painting her corsets. She was recalled saying, “I must have full skirts and long, now that my sick leg is so ugly”.
“I don’t paint dreams or nightmares, I paint my own reality”
Frida’s lifelong struggle with her health began early on in her childhood: at six, she contracted polio, so her right leg remained shorter and thinner her entire life.
But when she was 18, she would have a nearly fatal accident that changed the rest of her life.
On 17 September 1925, she was in a near fatal bus accident on her way home from school with her first boyfriend, Alejandro Aria, a left-leaning student she met at the National Preparatory School.
They were on their way home one rainy day and Frida realized she had lost her umbrella so they got off the bus and got on another one that was overcrowded. The bus crashed into an upcoming electric car, dragging the bus it several feet to the side. Several people died and most passengers were gravely injured.
Alejandro Aria recounts the experience:
“The electric streetcar with two cars approached the bus slowly. It hit the bus in the middle. Slowly the train pushed the bus. The bus had a strange elasticity. It bent more and more, but for a time it did not break. It was a bus with long benches on either side. I remember that at one moment my knees touched the knees of the person sitting opposite me. I was sitting next to Frida. When the bus reached its maximal flexibility it burst into a thousand pieces, and the train kept moving. It ran over many people.
I remained under the train. Not Frida. But among the iron rods of the train, the handrail broke and went through Frida from one side to the other at the level of the pelvis.”
Frida’s body was pulverized on impact: a metal rod has impaled her through her pelvis, her spine was broken in 3 places and her right leg was broken in 11 places. Frida would later say that “the handrail pierced me the way a sword pierces a bull.”
Her collarbone was broken as well as her third and fourth ribs. The accident also displaced three vertebrae, which left her wearing a plaster full0body corset for several months. She was bed-ridden for several months and it is during her long recovery that she took up painting. The damage inflicted to her reproductive organs may have been the root of her difficulties to carry on a full-term pregnancy, something she grieved her entire marriage to Diego Rivera.
The young artist had a mirror hung overhead in the canopy of her bed so she could use her reflection as a beginning subject for portraits. Her mother had had built a special easel for Frida to paint from her bed. Frida was planning on becoming a doctor but she had to drop her plans after the accident. Her parents instead encouraged her to turn to painting while she was resting.
To help her patients heal, New York psychologist María Sesín has used Kahlo’s artwork in therapy sessions to help women talk about their experiences of emotional and physical trauma such as infidelity, violence, and infertility. A patient said that “Vilma said studying Kahlo’s paintings helped her unlock and confront the painful memory of the three years of sexual abuse by her stepfather while she was growing up in El Salvador.”
Read the article here.
Twelve days after her miscarriage she wrote to Dr Eloesser: ‘Doctorcito querido: I have wanted to write to you for a long time than you can imagine. I had so looked forward to having a little Dieguito that I cried a lot, but it’s over, there is nothing else that can be done except to bear it.’
From 1944 on, she has to wear 8 metallic corsets at all time and gangrene started to set in. She decorated her corsets as her clothes would become a source of emotional strength, an artistic way of coping with the physical pain she dealt with. In August 1953, she was diagnosed with gangrene in her right foot and had to be amputated at the knee.
In 1946, she painted the infamous Tree of Hope, a self-portrait depicting two Fridas: a hospitalized Frida lying on a hospital gurney and a Frida in her buoyant traditional Mexican style, holding a flag of hope.
She couldn’t control her body so she took control of its image.
She turned her medical corsets into artworks. Frida felt that her body that did not fit her soul and artistic inner world so she re-created a second body through her artistic corsets and personal style. When Kahlo died in 1954, her clothing and other personal items were sealed away in a vault, not to be opened until 15 years after the death of her husband, Diego Rivera, in 1957.
Her style got more elaborate and colorful as her health ailments multiplied over the years. She used her pain to create more beauty rather than drown in self-pity and wailing in victimhood.
The artist combined her artistic flair and clothes to adorn the physical pain and growing embarrassment of her shorter, painful leg. She turned her suffering and physical insecurities into artistic statements of strength that concealed her crumbling leg and upper body.
“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. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.”
Kahlo’s style was composed of mostly Tehuana traditional garments to immortalize her beloved Mexico added folkloric accessories to make it her own. She made it a point and priority to develop a style of her own, going against the trendy grain of her time. She honored her origins by wearing regional Mexican dresses and Pre-Columbus jewelry. She had native American Indians craft her unique necklaces, usually made of gold. And her daring, dark stripe of brows. Even then, she refused to conform to Hollywoods norms.
“I leave you my portrait so that you will have my presence all the days and nights that I am away from you.” – Frida
In 2004, 50 years after Frida Kahlo’s death, thousands of her personal items saw the light of day again. Her husband Diego Rivera had the items sealed for nearly 50 years. The precious archives revealed some of her clothes, her prosthetic leg, her cosmetics.
Frida’s self-introspective art and ongoing rebirths is ever more so relevant for women today as we continue to dismantle and heal the patriarchy. She created her own identity, going against the currents of trends in her time, yet fully embracing her cultural inheritance. I particularly loved diving into Fridas beauty routine; she used mostly Revlon Cosmetics. Find a special link to the items she used regularly here.
She wore bright red nail varnish and lipstick and black eyebrow pencil. She put her hair up with beautiful flowers, ribbons, bows and this is a hairstyle that was traditional of women of Tehuantepec, a famously matriarchal town in Southern Mexico.
“She had a special skill for applying makeup and achieving a natural look, and spent a lot of time on this effect,” Olga Campos, a close friend of Kahlo’s, once said. She used a veil of rice powder over her skin and colored her striking cheekbones and lips in shades of magenta or red, depending on her moods. “She was particularly fond of lipsticks, and often kissed letters and photographs, leaving red imprints,” said Claire Wilcox, who contributed to the art expo in London last year: Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up.
“Her fearlessness and self-confidence has made her a role model for independent, free-thinking women who do not necessarily want to conform to societal norms of beauty.” – Claire Wilcox
Frida Kahlo showed us all how we make our very pain as groundwork for art, creation, and beauty and for that, I will keep her in my heart forever.
Thank you Frida. I hope you are still painting and creating beauty on the other side.