Spirited, unyielding and bold. Frida Kahlo was a woman who dared to defy the circumstances of her unfortunate life. Her works of art may have showcased great talent, but it was her tenacity in the face of hardship and a gender-biased society that have become valuable inspiration for many.
Rallying The Call Of Feminism
Today, Kahlo is remembered for being a woman who broke all social conventions. Her defiance against needing to fit in is nothing less than admirable – both back then and even now. Even Madonna – the great feminist of our time – has said that she admires Kahlo. The American singer-songwriter’s Bedtime Story video has lots of imagery inspired by the surrealist movement and is filled with references to the works of Kahlo.
Despite the harsh gender inequality of the 1900s, Kahlo was honest about being a woman. And that is what that puts her, even now, at the forefront of being a feminist. Never once did she hide, cower or expect to be shielded from the harsh realities of her life.
She refused to alter her features. These included her mono-brow and faint moustache, which were labelled as inappropriately “masculine”. She even exaggerated them more in her self-portraits. Nevertheless, Kahlo was not afraid to be herself – a woman. She embraced colours, wearing bright and bold dresses, as well as not thinking twice about adorning herself with flowers and ribbons.
Her paintings touched on female issues such as abortion, miscarriage, birth, breastfeeding and much more. These were things considered to be strictly taboo and never spoken of at all in public back then.
Kahlo was also open about her sexuality. She was never ashamed to admit that she was a bisexual, nor did she ever feel the need to apologise for her choice of bed partners. One of her notable affairs was with American-born French entertainer Josephine Baker.
Rising Up And Standing Tall
Born in Mexico in 1907, Kahlo was said to have been a promising student headed for medical school. But life apparently had a different path for her to take – one that she was seemingly forced down on.
Kahlo suffered from polio when young and the illness caused her right leg to be thinner than her left one. She was later dealt a second blow as a teenager, whereby a serious bus accident left her unable to walk for three months. She reportedly broke her back and pelvis, as well as fractured her collarbone and two ribs. Her right foot was also crushed and her right leg broken in 11 places. A piece of handrail even impaled her.
The terrible accident also caused Kahlo to live her life in chronic pain. Not only did she need frequent surgery to help with her spinal injuries, she was largely confined to spending her days in bed. It was in her bedridden state that Kahlo discovered a love for painting. She had a specially-made easel that enabled her to paint in bed, and a mirror placed above it so she could see herself.
Yes, some of her greatest artworks were self-portraits – a total of 55 out of 143 paintings, to be exact. They are noted as an expression of her internal struggles and physical and mental suffering. “I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best,” Kahlo once stated. “I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.”
She also said, “I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality. The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to, and I paint whatever passes through my head without any other consideration.”
A Surrealist At Heart
Kahlo’s works have been described as surrealism at its finest. She experimented with many varied styles and motifs – often shocking the art world with paintings filled with sexual references. Her subject matters were symbolic. The themes she focused on proved to be deeply personal in nature too. Her heritage for instance, or her long struggles with childlessness and femininity.
The one titled Self-Portrait With Thorn Necklace And Hummingbird (1940) is probably one of Kahlo’s most widely-recognised self-portraits. It shows her in between a stalking panther and a monkey, wearing a necklace of a dead hummingbird. Kahlo completed the piece in 1940, one year after her divorce from Mexican muralist Diego Rivera (who she remarried a year later). As such, it is believed to reflect her emotional state during a dark, tumultuous life period.
The Two Fridas (1939), on the other hand, tells the story of Kahlo’s emotional struggle with herself. On the left, she depicted herself clad in a traditionally European gown. On the right, her heart is whole, and she is wearing in modern Mexican dress. While initially saying that the painting originated from her memory of an imaginary childhood friend, she later admitted that it expressed her desperation and loneliness with the separation from Rivera.
A still life piece, Weeping Coconuts (1951), represents Kahlo’s projection of pain. The fruits in this piece are literally weeping. A small Mexican flag bearing the words “Painted with all the love. Frida Kahlo” is stuck into a prickly pear. There are many who believe that Kahlo was signalling the deterioration of her health with this particular painting. And it may be true – it was completed just three years before she died in 1954.
Her art drew from music too. The popular Mexican song Cielito Lindo is believed to have touched Kahlo so much that she named one of her paintings Arbol De La Esperanza, Mantente Firme (1946), which is a line from this song.
And in turn, Kahlo became an inspiration for many other musicians. British rock band Coldplay stated that the idea behind their album Viva La Vida is Kahlo’s unwavering strength in facing hardships. Incidentally, her last painting before she died was named Viva La Vida, Watermelons (1954).
During her last years, Kahlo painted mostly fruit and flowers with political symbols such as flags or doves. She was very much concerned about being able to portray her political convictions at that time. It is said that she also altered her painting style: her brushstrokes, previously delicate and careful, were hastier, her use of colour more brash, and the overall style more intense and feverish.
Kahlo never backed down, and she never apologised for just wanting to survive. As she so succinctly put it, “They thought I was a surrealist, but I wasn't. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”
In recent years, Kahlo's influence has only grown thanks to the coming-together of social media and a new awareness of female power; in some aspects, she has been reborn as a feminist icon for a new generation. Over half a century after her death, the myth of Kahlo remains as alive as ever—on Instagram, her official account boasts a following of 1.2 milllion strong, while 2020 saw the release of a feature-length documentary by filmmaker Ali Ray re-examining her life and legacy.
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Cover Image: Bettmann / Getty Images
Writer | PY Cheong
PY Cheong has plied the trade of words long enough to recognise the difference between writing and storytelling. Believes in always dressing up his prose. Living and breathing the work he does.