Frida Kahlo: An Iconic Artist

Today’s article is about an artistic icon most of you might already know: Frida Kahlo. 📝

Kahlo is known for her expressive style of painting in which she showed her own reality. Her contemporaries put the label Surrealist on her but she never was fond of it. We all know the Mexican artist for her self portraits which have shaped her representation in today’s world: “flowers in her hair, unplucked eyebrows, a stoic gaze, colourful, embroidered clothing, and surrounded by plants, animals and symbols from Mexico.” But you might want to go deeper than the surface and learn more about the woman behind those self portraits. 🎨

Get to know the thoughts and world of the Frida Kahlo by reading the article on here!

Frida Kahlo | *06-07-1907 | † 13-07-1954 | Mexico | Artist, Feminist

In 1938, André Breton, one of the founders of the Surrealist Movement, visited Frida Kahlo’s studio in Mexico City. When he caught sight of her work, he instantly declared her a Surrealist painter. While the label caught on to some degree, Kahlo always distanced herself from the movement, and from any classification. “They thought I was a surrealist,” she said in an interview towards the end of her life, “but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality”. And painting her “own reality” is, in fact, what she is known for today. Above all, Mexican artist Frida Kahlo is remembered for her intensely personal self-portraits, in which she painted herself in her unique visual style, with ribbons and flowers in her hair, unplucked eyebrows, a stoic gaze, colourful, embroidered clothing, and surrounded by plants, animals and symbols from Mexico. While her paintings contained many autobiographical elements, they were not just visual diaries of her emotions and experiences. With Kahlo, the personal was also deeply political.

Kahlo was born on 6 July 1907 in Coyoacán, which is now a suburb of Mexico City. From a young age, illness and physical pain shaped her life. When she was a child, she contracted polio, which left her right leg thinner and smaller than her left. Then, when she was eighteen, she had a severe accident when the bus she was on got hit by a tram. She ended up with multiple broken bones, displaced vertebrae, and a metal rail had punctured her abdomen and uterus. The accident left her in severe, chronic pain for the rest of her life, as well as unable to have children. Because of this, she had over thirty operations in total, including a partial leg amputation later in life, and she was forced to wear medical corsets and a prosthetic leg – which she decorated herself in her iconic style. Directly after the accident it took her nearly two years to recuperate, during which she was mostly bedridden. As she couldn’t continue her studies – she had wanted to become a doctor – she started painting instead. Her parents had hung a mirror over the bed, and she started painting what she saw; in this way, she started making the self-portraits which she was to become famous for. The aftermath of the accident played a major role in her art, in which she repeatedly painted the experience of living with chronic pain.

In her early twenties she married Diego Rivera, a well-known Mexican painter and muralist, and twenty years older than her. It was famously a very tumultuous marriage, in which, in response to his many affairs, she also started having affairs, with both men and women. At the same time, Kahlo and Rivera are also known for having passionately loved each other. They shared the same political views and were both committed to their belief in socialism and communism. 

Both were also passionate about Mexican nationalism, which had a huge influence on Kahlo’s art. After the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), a new nationalist consciousness had emerged in Mexico. This new consciousness was anti-imperialist at its heart: before the Mexican Revolution, it was fashionable among the Mexican elites to distance themselves from their Mexican heritage and emphasize their European roots. In this new movement, by contrast, everything that was Mexican and indigenous was celebrated rather than reviled. This movement strongly inspired Kahlo, who took it up in every part of her life. She planted indigenous plants in her garden, decorated her home with Mexican folk art and kept animals that were indigenous to Mexico as pets. Famously, Mexican and indigenous elements also played a role in her clothing and her art. Of mixed European and indigenous heritage herself, Kahlo started wearing the traditional dress of the Tehuana women on her mother’s side. These women, from the Oaxacan Tehuantepec region, were often seen as having a ‘matriarchal’ society and, to Kahlo, they were symbols of female power. More than just colourful and pretty, her now iconic style of clothing – which was very different from many women in Mexico at the time, who preferred European-inspired dresses – was also a political statement that was both feminist and critical of Western dominance. 

Her art, which she focused on from the moment of her accident, had many themes. For one, she used elements from Mexican culture and pre-Columbian symbols (from before the Spanish colonization of Mexico) in all of her paintings, infusing them with anti-imperialist and Mexican nationalist content. Besides this, her work is often celebrated as feminist. In her paintings, she unflinchingly depicted women’s experiences, including ‘taboo’ topics such as miscarriage, her (bi)sexuality and the female body. Besides this, she is famed for challenging beauty ideals in her self-portraits, in which she meticulously painted her unplucked eyebrows and upper lip hair. Kahlo’s reputation as a feminist icon, however, also rests on the way in which she challenged gender expectations in life; she was reputed to drink large amounts of alcohol, had herself photographed with a cigarette in her hand on her wedding day, and famously appeared on a family photo wearing masculine clothing when she was young. Throughout her life, her relationship with Rivera also played a major role in her art, and, besides this, she is particularly known for her depictions of not only physical but emotional pain. On top of that, she made many paintings that celebrated communism. Rather than neatly fitting into one category, her paintings often combine multiple themes, leaving them open to interpretation. 

Over the years, Kahlo painted around 150 paintings and exhibited her work in Europe, the US and Mexico. After an exhibition in Paris in 1939, the Louvre bought one of her pieces, making her the first Mexican artist in their collection. From the 1940s, she also gained increasing recognition in Mexico, where she also became part of the Seminario de Cultura Mexicana, a group of artists commissioned by the government to spread knowledge of Mexican culture. In 1943, she started to teach art, and had a group of devoted students around her known as Los Fridos, with which she painted a number of murals on commission.   

In 1953, she had her first solo exhibition in Mexico. By then, her health had started to decline; she was suffering from gangrene, had been using a wheelchair or crutches to get around, and was suffering from a lot of pain after a number of failed back operations. Her doctors had recommended bedrest, but rather than staying home she had herself transported to the opening by ambulance and had her bed moved to the gallery, where she remained for the entire duration of the party. The following year, at age 47, she died from a pulmonary embolism.  

While her paintings had become known to a degree during her lifetime, in the 1970s she was rediscovered by feminist scholars, who criticized the exclusion of female and non-Western artists from the canon. In the same period, she was rediscovered by members of the Chicano (or ‘a Movement’), a movement dedicated to fighting for equality for Mexican-Americans, whose members took pride in being of indigenous descent, and found inspiration in her work. Today, because of the themes in her art and the way she lived her life – challenging gender expectations, chronicling her experiences with physical pain, being openly bisexual, and embodying Mexican nationalism in all aspects of her life and art – she has become a feminist, disabled, LGBTQ and Chicana icon. Her statement that she “painted her own reality” has sometimes been taken to mean that she was only focused on herself. Nothing could be further from the truth; in both her life and her art, the personal and the political were deeply intertwined.


Author: Saskia Bultman
Image: Guillermo Kahlo,_Frida_Kahlo,_1932.jpg

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