“I am not sick. I am broken.
But I am happy as long as I can paint.”
A century ago, in the Blue House, on the outskirts of Mexico City, Frida Kahlo came into the world, destined to live a life of suffering, but also to be remembered as one of the greatest woman artists of all time. A great artist certainly, but perhaps not a particularly good painter? She was self taught, and in my opinion is one of those powerful artists – Goya is another – who may not be technically brilliant, but who succeed as a result of the frankness and originality by which they communicate their view of the world and its woes.
Her father was German; her mother was Amerindian. She liked to say that she was as old as the Mexican Revolution, and would write about the gunfire that echoed around the family home in her childhood. There is a theory that Frida was born with spina bifida: an American surgeon, Leo Eloesser did X rays in 1930, and concluded that this explained the decreased sensitivity in the lower part of her body. Aged six, Frida contracted polio, wearing colourful skirts to conceal her weaker right leg, and requiring a built-up shoe. In 1925, she was badly injured when the bus she was riding in crashed with a tram, breaking her spine, collarbone, pelvis, leg, foot, shoulder and being pierced in the womb by an iron handrail. She had up to 35 operations during her recovery, spent months confined to a plaster corset, and for the rest of her life, she had periods of extreme pain. She was also left unable to have a child. Not many people can boast – or lament – that they have a congenital impairment, an impairment acquired through disease, and an impairment as a result of a traumatic injury.
Originally interested in medicine, Kahlo began to paint to overcome boredom, when immobilised and convalescing. Later, she wrote to Diego Rivera, the leading contemporary Mexican artist, to ask him for advice. He not only encouraged her work, he also began a relationship with her which lead to marriage in 1929, against the wishes of her family. Their relationship was tempestuous – both had affairs, Kahlo with women as well as men, Rivera with Kahlo’s sister Cristina, among others. They often lived separately. A macho woman with a feminine man, Kahlo always said that he loved her moustache and she loved his breasts. They divorced in 1939. They remarried a year later. Both communists, Kahlo and Rivera befriended Trotsky when he was exiled to Mexico – it is said that Kahlo had an affair with him too. But first and last, Kahlo was passionately in love with Rivera: “Diego: the beginning, builder, my child, my boyfriend, painter, my lover, my husband, my friend, my mother, me, the universe.”
Kahlo’s paintings often express her physical anguish, most famously in the 1944 image of “The broken column”, featuring her in an arid landscape with a broken pillar for her spine, and nails stuck into her naked body. When Kahlo exhibited in New York in 1938, André Breton, who had organized the show, described her work as “a ribbon around a bomb”, hailing her as a surrealist. In response, Kahlo said: “They thought I was a surrealist but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”
More than a third of her works are self portraits. She wrote: “I paint self portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best”. According to her biographer Hayden Herrera, she was lonely, and she craved attention. At MOMA in June , I saw two great examples of the self portraits: Frida with her monkey on her shoulders, the monkey who was the substitute for the children she was unable to conceive with Diego Rivera; Frida in a man’s suit, sitting on a yellow chair, scissors in her hand, close cropped and surrounded by strands of her black hair. Kahlo never hides her problems or her defects, from her heavy eyebrows and hairy upper lip to her physical impairments.
Throughout her life, Kahlo suffered neuropathic pain, becoming reliant on painkillers. In her last years, Kahlo was often sick: she suffered from leg ulcers, and was reliant on a wheelchair after 1951. After several unsuccessful operations, she had to have her right leg amputated below the knee in 1953. The last entry in her diary reads: “I hope the exit is joyful… and I hope never to come back”. She died on 13 July 1954, from pneumonia. It is possible that she had taken an overdose of morphine.
Frida Kahlo’s only Mexican exhibition came the year before she died. In the decades after her death, she was known mainly as the eccentric wife of Diego Rivera. With the growth in interest in Mexican art in the 1980s, she became increasingly famous in the English-speaking world, particularly after a major retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1982. She is the artist who gave painters permission to be personal: we could almost certainly blame her for Tracey Emin. In 2001, Kahlo became the first Hispanic woman to be the subject of a US postage stamp, and the biopic with Salma Hayek in 2002, based on the biography by Hayden Herrera, ensured worldwide fame. Now, her images are ubiquitous and she is an inspiration, in particular to Hispanics, to disabled people and to women, and to all who identify with her passion and her struggle. She has been described as the poster child for sorrow and for resiliency. As the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes has written:
“She is a figure that represents the conquest of adversity, that represents how – against hell and high water – a person is able to make their life and reinvent themselves and make that life be personally fulfilling… Frida Kahlo in that sense is a symbol of hope, of power, of empowerment, for a variety of sectors of our population who are undergoing adverse conditions.”