top of page

Frida Kahlo: Self-portrait as catharsis (continued)

Youth, illness and accident

Some biographical details

Illustration: Portrait of Frida Kahlo's parents on their wedding day

Let's start by getting to know the artist. Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderon , better known as Frida Kahlo , was born on July 6, 1907 in Coyoacán (an upscale suburb of Mexico City).

Her mother, Matilda Calderon y Gonzalez (1876-1932), was of mixed race, of Spanish origin and indigenous to the region of Oaxaca (south-western Mexico). An amateur painter, she passed on to Frida her taste for traditional Mexican clothing, in particular Tehuana clothing from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, from a very early age.

As for her father, Wilhelm Kahlo (1871-1941 // Spanishized as "Guillermo" by the man himself), he was a German emigrant who arrived in Mexico in 1890. Epileptic, taciturn, a man of order and routine, he was cultured and enjoyed the philosophy of Schopenhauer (1788-1860), Nietzsche (1844-1900), Goethe (1749-1832) or Schiller (1759-1805). Introduced to photography by his father-in-law, he became a major photographer for the government of Porfirio Diaz (1830-1915 // president of Mexico until 1911), capturing Mexico's architectural heritage and its path to modernity.

Illustration: Guillermo Kahlo, Matilde Calderón y González , 1897, gelatine-bromide print on paper, Museo Frida Kahlo

An expert in the art of staging, as evidenced by the portraits he took of Frida Kahlo's mother, here as a Mexican heroine, or even his own self-portraits, it is assumed that Frida was his favourite of the three daughters he had, as evidenced by the many portraits that show his affection for her, as well as depicting the different stages of her childhood.

Illustrations: Guillermo Kahlo, Self-portrait, ca. 1900-12 (l.) and Guillermo Kahlo, Frida Kahlo at the age of 4, 1911, México, Museo Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo (r.)

In addition, he taught her the art of staging and self-portraiture, the way to look directly into the lens, which is why photography is generally considered to be the first photographic medium that Frida Kahlo learned at a very young age, while posing for her father. Indeed, she would later often use photographs as the basis for her paintings.

Illustration: Unknown, Frida Kahlo, 1911, gelatine and bromide on paper, México, Museo Frida Kahlo

At first glance, Coyoacán (her birthplace) could have been the perfect place for a happy childhood, but fate would unfortunately decide otherwise, as Frida Kahlo would experience several hardships in her young life. To begin with, she was not raised by her mother but by a nanny, her mother being unable to look after the household and suffering from depression, while her father locked himself in his study to play the piano. This lack of maternal presence created a fear of abandonment in the artist. In addition, many experts believe that she was born with spina bifida, a disease characterised by the incomplete development of the spine. This malformation was the first of the ailments and health problems that the artist had to face throughout her life.

Illustration: Guillermo Kahlo, Frida Kahlo at 6 years old, 1913

In 1913, at 6 years old, she contracted poliomyelitis after a bad fall on a root. As her foot began to atrophy, the diagnosis revealed the presence of this disease, which quickly forced Frida Kahlo into isolation and undermined her spirit and confidence. Indeed, suffering humiliation at school, where she earned the nickname "Frida the lame", her schooling was delayed by several months. Even more seriously, the disease has the irreversible consequence that her right leg will be shorter than the other. To cope with this illness, which isolates her and makes her the victim of unbearable mockery, she decides to invent an imaginary friend to accompany her through the pain.

Illustrations: Guillermo Kahlo, Frida Kahlo, 1919 (left) and Frida Kahlo's student card from the National Preparatory School in 1922 (right)

In general, this experience made Frida Kahlo an introverted child, no longer smiling, although the illness was carefully treated. It was as a result of this particular event that she became a favourite of her father, who taught her literature, natural sciences and philosophy. She also took painting lessons and was the only one of her sisters to go to secondary school. Then, when she began to get better, her father encouraged her to exercise to regain her strength and to take up sports such as wrestling and boxing, although at the time they were considered unsuitable for girls.

Artistically, she was introduced to photography by her father as she helped him retouch, develop and colour photographs, as well as accompanying him when he worked to help him carry his camera (her father could have epileptic fits).

An accident with an indelible mark

"It was a strange shock, not violent but dull, slow, hurting everyone. I especially [...] The shock threw us forward and the handrail pierced me as the sword pierces the bull. A man, seeing the terrible bleeding, picked me up and laid me on a pool table until the Red Cross arrived. I lost my virginity, my kidney softened, I couldn't urinate, and what I complained about most was my spine." Frida Kahlo

Illustration: Frida Kahlo, The Accident, 1926, pencil on paper, México, Museo Dolores Olmedo

While life was going on and the artist was a student at a medical university, among the 35 girls admitted out of more than 2000 students, a terrible tragedy occurred. When she was only 18 years old, on 17 September 1925, she was the victim of a serious accident which forced her to stay in bed for several months and to which forced her to stay in bed for several months and to abandon her studies. On Mexican National Day, while she was with her boyfriend at the time, Alejandro Gomez Arias (1906-1990), her bus was hit by a tram. Several people were killed, and although her boyfriend escaped unscathed, the same could not be said for Frida Kahlo: not only was she fractured on all sides (more than 20 times), but the handrail of the bus pierced from her hip to her vagina, breaking her spine for ever (she would say she lost her virginity that day). Ironically, the young woman had initially sat in another bus but decided to change after realising she had misplaced her umbrella.

From this tragedy, which almost cost her her life and from which she never recovered physically and morally, the artist remained bedridden for three months before being diagnosed with a broken vertebra and Asherman's syndrome, which caused several miscarriages. She underwent dozens of operations to recover from her injuries, before returning home to continue her convalescence. In 1926, she drew sketches as a child and drew the bus accident she had been involved in in this one drawing of her life, in which she recalls this episode.

"Now that I live on a painful planet, transparent as ice; nothing is hidden, it is as if I had learned everything in a few seconds, in one go." Frida Kahlo to Alejandro, 29/09/1926, in a letter

Illustration: Retablo dedicated to the Virgin of Sorrows and retouched by Frida Kahlo, 1925

In addition, as was often the case with popular habits, she began to collect numerous Mexican ex-votos about accidents involving vehicles. As here, in this votive painting, she recovers a metal painting depicting a scene very similar to the one she experienced. In order to set the context of the accident, she chooses to add the inscription "Coyoacan" and her characteristic almost unibrow to the victim lying on the road.

In addition, at the bottom of the painting she wrote this dedication to what she had experienced, in keeping with the usual iconography of ex-votos and, in this case, of thanks to the Virgin Mary. The inscription reads, for example, "Mr. and Mrs. Guillermo Kahlo and Matilde Calderon de Kahlo thank Our Lady of Forgiveness for saving their daughter from the accident that took place in 1925 at the corner of Cuahutemozin and Calzada de Tlalpah."

It may seem curious that this artist, known for her atheism and her support for communism, should take up a religious iconography. But the valorization of popular practices is part of the search for identity that characterizes the post-revolutionary period of 1910, the mexicanidad, which corresponded with the need to find the roots of the Mexican people.

Beyond the tragedy, the accident that Frida suffered was to give a decisive turn to her career, since it was in bed for many months at home that the young woman found in art a means of finding a constructive hobby on which to concentrate her mind, as well as acting as a therapy. It was apparently her mother who arranged for Frida Kahlo to be provided with an easel adapted to her environment, from which she could paint while lying down, thanks to an ingenious mirror system. This unique and main subject during her recovery, her own effigy, initially due to a practical constraint (she was the only subject she could paint when she wanted to, without having a model pose), will quickly become a means of exploring her own mind but also many questions of identity and existential. We can therefore consider that Frida Kahlo's creative work, far from being a vocation, is in fact a survival strategy: her painting is fuelled by the need to fill in the gaps, to arrange or relieve her pain.

"I paint self-portraits because I so often feel alone, because I am the only person I know best" Frida Kahlo

Illustration: Frida Kahlo, Self-portrait with velvet dress, 1926, oil on canvas, 125 x 170 cm, Mexico, Museo Frida Kahlo

The artist's very first significant painting was in 1926. This was her very first self-portrait. It bears the trace of her careful study of the Italian masters of the Renaissance, which she discovered during her convalescence, in particular Botticelli (1445-1510), Bronzino (1503-1572) and Parmigianino (1503-1640), while at the same time asserting the singularity of a very personal, miniaturistic style, inspired by popular art, as well as a very intense frontal presence of the subject.

Illustrations: Frida Kahlo, Self-portrait with velvet dress, 1926, oil on canvas, 125 x 170 cm, Mexico, Museo Frida Kahlo (l.) and Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), The Birth of Venus (detail), ca. 1485, tempera on canvas, 172.5 x 278.5 cm, Florence, Uffizi Gallery(r.)

The first of a long series, this self-portrait dedicated to Alejandro depicts her with a peaceful pose and a serene face, despite the accident from which she escaped. Her classical frontal pose has much in common with Botticelli's Birth of Venus. She writes to her boyfriend that she has painted her 'Botticelli'. If we compare it with her illustrious predecessor, we can find: the hand with slender fingers placed on her breast, the disproportionately stretched neck, the sea whose stylised waves roll up in the background. But unlike the naked goddess, Frida is dressed in a velvet dress, which gives its name to the painting, which does not prevent her from exuding great sensuality, perhaps the means for her to reassert a femininity that has been damaged by illness.

In general, we will see that most of her paintings are the result of a need to externalise her deep feelings, while later affirming the heritage of Mexican and religious art of the ex-votos, which are superimposed images with distinct times and spaces within the same work. In addition, at a time when the predominantly male art world still represented the female form as an object of desire for men, Kahlo redefined her own subject matter in painting after painting, going against the ideals of the time.

From muse to accomplished artist

Illustration: Imogen Cunningham, Frida Kahlo , 1931, gelatin silver print, 29.2 x 23.7 cm, Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada

In the years that followed, although illness and an accident had a lasting effect on her life, they did not prevent her from seducing and conquering the world. In 1923, she had already met Diego Rivera for the first time, when he was working on frescoes at the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria where she was a medical student. In 1928, she asked him for an initial opinion on his paintings, which were marked by wounds, but she said: "I don't want compliments. I want the criticism of a serious man (...) I am simply a girl who needs to work to live (...) because she knows that this is her only chance of survival, this mirror-painting from which she draws her nourishment, her substance". A second meeting took place in 1929, through their mutual friend, the communist photographer Tina Modotti (1896-1942).

"It will be the wedding of an elephant and a dove", Guillermo Kahlo

Illustration: Ernesto Reyes, Frida and Diego on their wedding day, 21 August 1929, gelatine print, Coyoac án

Shortly afterwards, the two artists married without the approval of Frida Kahlo's family, mainly because of their great age difference (more than 20 years) and the tumultuous life of Diego Rivera, who had already been married several times before and was known for his infidelities.

Illustration: Frida Kahlo, Self-portrait (Time flies), 1929, México, Museo Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo

The influence of Diego Rivera's painting style can be seen in this self-portrait by Frida Kahlo, painted in the year of their marriage. Whereas previously she imitated Renaissance painters, she now opts for a more traditional Mexican folkloric style, preferred by Diego, which incorporates bold colours and techniques used in the Nativist school.

Standing in the centre of the frame, she looks directly at the audience with a serene expression, her eyes wide, her characteristic forehead painted to resemble a bird with open wings, a subtle nod to the title of the painting. To his right is a stack of books topped by a clock reading 2:43. The significance of this time is not known. Above her head is an aeroplane pointing northeast, also resembling an open-winged bird in flight. Heavy green curtains tied with red ropes give way to a bright blue sky suggesting exuberance and hope.

As for her clothing, she wears a traditional Mexican top and jewellery while her hair is parted in the middle andher hair is parted in the middle and pinned up. The red cheeks add colour and suggest health. These are uplifting notes that depart from earlier self-portraits in which she presented herself in more formal attire.

Illustration: Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Diego and Frida arriving in San Francisco, ca. 1930, Mexico City, Collection Museo Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo

Then, from 1930 to 1933, during her first trip to the United States with Diego Rivera, who had accepted several important commissions there, she caused a sensation in New York, San Francisco and then Detroit, opting to emphasise what critics would call "mexicanidad" or "mexicanity". In this photograph by the famous Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo of the couple on their arrival in San Francisco, she is wearing her tehuana dress and her now inseparable rebozo , the traditional Mexican shawl.

The avant-garde gallery owner Julien Lévy (1906-1981), the Hungarian photographer Nickolas Muray (1892-1965), and many others whom she met during this first American trip would later become her more or less fleeting lovers, in addition to celebrating her in sublime intimate portraits. These American experiences, though short, were both complex and decisive, for while she shaped her distinctive style, she also began to paint more seriously. In these, Frida Kahlo appears naked and only braided, or on the contrary, adorned with her emblematic tehuana dress, whose motif and origin came from Tehuantepec where her mother was born, an outfit that allowed her to conceal her infirmities, as well as allowing her to assert her cultural and geographical identity.

Illustration: Frida Kahlo, Frida and Diego Rivera, 1931, oil on canvas, 100 x 78 cm, San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Here another example, where we see a double portrait showing the couple 2 years after their marriage, in a folkloric, primitive, naive style, with descriptive information inscribed in the ribbon above them held by a dove.

This inscription is derived from a Mexican painting also used by Rivera, stating that the picture was painted in San Francisco. The couple are painted as locals, while Frida Kahlo has positioned herself to the left of Diego Rivera, in keeping with the classic Mexican wedding portrait, where the position indicates a woman's lower moral status. Next to her, Diego appears to be gigantic, standing straight on his two feet, anchored in the ground like a tree or a rock. In contrast, Frida's feet seem too small to support her weight and she seems to be floating, only held firmly by Diego's handshake. This attitude indicates the artist's submission to her husband, who was much more famous and imposing than she was at that time. Moreover, Frida portrays herself as a wife, while she depicts Diego as an artist, palette and brushes in hand. Finally, the importance of the marital bond is shown by the hands crossing in the middle of the painting. This was the very first painting of the Riveras together; in later years, and after their divorce and remarriage in 1941, Frida painted Diego in a different way, making him smaller, a symbolic element signifying that she had become more important than he was and that their roles as a couple had reversed.

"I never painted my dreams. I painted my reality." Frida Kahlo

Illustration :Frida Kahlo, Retrato by Luther Burbank

It was during her stay in San Francisco in 1931 that a key turning point in her production occurred. For the first time, she broke away from the realistic representation of her earlier paintings to incorporate references to a form of unreality, disregarding proportion and perspective, using the symbol as the most direct and powerful means of expressing an idea or feeling.

This can be seen in the portrait of Luther Burbank (1849-1926), a Californian horticulturist she had met who specialised in the hybridisation of plants and who reminded her of her former passion for biology and anatomical study before his terrible accident. This taste is expressed here by the precise representation of plants, while the artist sets up the notion of hybridity, which will run through all her work: all the elements combine, mingle, and it is thus that a corpse can give birth to a tree, which itself gives birth to a man from its trunk. This intimate link between life and death, nourished in a perpetual cycle, underlies many of his works. It is easy to understand from this portrait what attracted the Surrealists at the end of the 1930s, even if Frida Kahlo always refused to be included in their movement.

I hope that this post will have taught you a few things about Frida Kahlo. A third post dedicated to her self-portraits is coming soon! Subscribe to the blog to not miss anything!

5 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page