An extraordinary life and an extraordinary woman. Frida Kahlo was born in Mexico City in 1907. Her instantly recognisable paintings, many of them self portraits of almost hallucinogenic intensity, have defied definition or categorisation. Sometimes called ‘naive style’ and Andre Breton included her among those painters who he considered to be surrealist. She rejected the label saying that her work did not reflect dreams, the subconscious or ‘sur’realism but simply her reality.
As a child she suffered health problems, polio in particular. But she overcame these weaknesses and by her teenage years was vigorously active and took up many sports including cycling, skating and even boxing and wrestling. Her father, a photographer, encouraged her in these extreme activities but also educated her in the finer aspects of photography, etching, painting and poetry. Her ambition was to study medicine and become a doctor. All those ambitions were dashed when she had a near-death and life changing accident at the age of eighteen. The bus she was travelling in had a collision with a streetcar. It was a serious crash. There were several fatalities and Frida herself suffered tremendous injuries. An iron rail impaled her pelvis, smashing the bone, fracturing also ribs, legs and collarbone. She was confined to bed . Unable to pursue her desire to attend medical college she constructed an easel which allowed her to sit in bed and paint. Her paintings became the vehicle for those things which her physical condition prevented her from doing, her journeys and exploration into the world and into herself. And although in time she was able, with difficulty, to leave her bed and slowly rebuild some sort of normal life, fate had set before her a path as an artist, a path which she walked with her usual customary intensity.
The self portraits continued but the paintings developed in new areas, taking on aspects of Mexican folk art and in fact Frida herself began wearing traditional Mexican dress, long skirts, an abundance of indigenous jewellery and unusual headdresses. Her work was also influenced by the celebrated mural painter Diego Rivera who she married in 1929. It was a curious and unlikely marriage, he was significantly older than her, verging on obese. She was small and light. Her parents called the match ‘a marriage between an elephant and a dove’. But there must have been a meeting of minds in some way. The marriage was a tempestuous one, both partners indulged in affairs, Frida with both men and women.
The 1930s saw her star in the ascendant. She was recognised internationally, her visit to New York was a sensation and she was considered to be like an exotic bird of paradise.
In the 1940s she produced much larger canvases and some of her most well known paintings, like ‘The Two Fridas’ and the ‘Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Humming bird’. Eventually her health difficulties caught up with her. She spent ten years encased in the most uncomfortable corsets, having bone grafts to her spine and enduring other related physical hardships. Eventually she was again confined to bed, or was dependent on a wheelchair. She had her right leg amputated at the knee. In a life that was full of torment her last years were particularly tough. She anticipated her own imminent demise and took to drawing angels and skeletons in her diary. Her last drawing was of a black angel with the additional text ‘I joyfully await the exit’. Throughout her life the paintings were honest mirrors of her own world. There is darkness in there of course but a fantastic vibrant life full of colour, an intoxicating paradise abundant with creative force.