Woman To Woman: Appreciating Frida Kahlo
Like many creative ladies with an interest in self-representation, I feel a deep connection with the work of Frida Kahlo. She is a teacher, a muse, a fashion icon and truly one of the most important female artists of all time. But what is it about her life and work that is so captivating?
Kahlo was born on the 6th July 1907 in La Casa Azul (The Blue House) in Coyoacan, Mexico. She was one of four daughters of Guillermo Kahlo and Matilde Calderon y Gonzalez. In 1922 she was enrolled in the Preparatoria, one of Mexico’s leading schools where she was one of just thirty-five girls.
On the 17th September 1925, at the age of 18, Kahlo was riding a bus that collided with a trolley car. The accident resulted in horrific injuries that would plague her with pain for the rest of her life. It is said her screams of pain drowned out the sound of the sirens from the police and ambulance vehicles arriving at the scene.
She spent the next year in a full body cast and although she eventually regained the ability to walk, she would often be left bedridden or in hospital for months at a time, she had as many as 35 operations following the bus accident, mainly on her back, leg and foot. Medical complications and permanent damage also prevented Kahlo from having a child, and despite conceiving three times all pregnancies had to be terminated. She repeatedly documented her turmoil over the loss in her paintings.
It was during her time spent bed bound that she began painting herself. She famously once said “I paint myself because I am often alone and I am the subject I know best”. Painting became a means of exploring her body in its new state and dealing with her pain. She projected her emotions onto the canvas, often using surreal imagery to portray her physical and psychological wounds. Her self portraits became a dominant part of her life and are a diary of sorts. She pulled narratives from her tumultuous marriage to painter Diego Riviera, her miscarriages and her numerous operations. Kahlo insisted “I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”
Kahlo weaved symbols from indigenous Mexican culture into her paintings. The vivid colours and dramatic symbolism became her trademark. But what is it about them that continue to intrigue us? Perhaps their exoticism? Frida painted a surreal world that most had never encountered before, and even more daringly from the view point of a woman. Her paintings are confrontational; her eyes bore into the viewer commanding their attention. I question if this is a rebellion against her physical disability as we are only allowed to see her face, strong and serious. In other paintings she reveals more about her psychological suffering, frankly sharing the extent of her wounds.
In life Kahlo used pattern and colour to hide her bodily imperfections too. She is hailed a fashion icon, going against the grain of the Mexican 1930’s social scene. While other women wore figure hugging dresses and pin curled hair Frida preferred vibrant, full circle peasant skirts and billowing blouses. She would accessorise her elaborate hair styles with coloured ribbons and flowers.
According to curators at the Frida Kahlo Museum in New Mexico, her skirts were a means of hiding her right leg; thin and frail from the Polio she suffered from age 6, and the loose tops disguised the corset she wore each day to relieve the pain in her back. There are an abundance of fashion images inspired by and appropriating Kahlo’s unique style. Yet there is no mention of her clothing being used to mask physical pain. She used her clothes to create a version of herself that exploded with colour and confidence. Perhaps this was a response to the hours spent isolated and in discomfort? She seemed to truly believe that the clothes she wore reflected who she was inside.
Kahlo has also gone down in history as a fiery lover, engaging in adulterous relationships with men and women alike. She took pride in her sexuality, and truly was a woman at ease with who she was. Her confidence and rebellious nature again adding to her allure, then and now. She is remembered as being unapologetic, not only for her art or political views, but for the way her body was, her thinking, her restlessness, her hunger for life and all its experiences.
Her life has been played out on screen in documentaries and a Hollywood movie. A multitude of biographies have been written along with the publishing of her personal diaries. This shows the worlds appetite for Frida. Her paintings, but more specifically her image, can now be bought as homewares and accessories. We parade her image around perhaps to show others that we too are a rebel. The cult following of Frida is both the highest praise and the biggest contradiction. She believed herself an outsider, an individual who would not be made to conform. And yet now she has been indoctrinated into the mainstream and part of pop culture.
Written by Jasmine Farram