In the years after her death in 1954, the cult-like status surrounding Frida Kahlo made her name universally recognized, simultaneously as a symbol of far-left feminism, radical and explicit suffering, and bizarre self-portraiture. This phenomenon, pejoratively described as “Fridamania,” has continued into the 21st century, speaking to Kahlo’s tremendous posthumous influence. But how did the folkloric, autobiographical artwork of this Mexican painter gain her international celebrity status? Today’s lesson will examine Kahlo’s multifaceted and deeply individualistic expressions, and why her personal explorations of the self are not merely a project of narcissism but rather a projection of trauma, nationalism, love, and identity.
Frida Kahlo. The Bus, 1929. Oil on canvas. 10” x 22”. Dolores Olmedo Patiño Museum, Mexico City, Mexico.
After a devastating bus accident in 1925, Kahlo was forced to abandon her pursuits in becoming a doctor, and soon she turned to painting as a means to express her chronic physical and emotional distress. This event is most directly apparent in The Bus (1929), one of her earlier works that defined her technical style – a raw, unsettling realism, mixed with a peculiar flatness of surface and stunning color contrasts that has led some critics to label her work as “naïve art.” But this is not just a depiction of her tragedy; moreover, it is a representation of class and race, each figure distinctly separated by the windows of the bus. Only the little boy looks out innocently towards the lush landscape, only to witness the urban pollution of modernity. Influenced by her volatile marriage to fellow Mexican painter and Communist leader Diego Rivera, Kahlo began to collapse her personal struggle with the social malaises she observed in a stark, uncompromising manner.
Frida Kahlo. The Broken Column, 1944. Oil on masonite. 13” x 17”. Dolores Olmedo Patiño Museum, Mexico City, Mexico.
Frida Kahlo. My Nurse and I, 1937. Oil on metal panel. 12” x 13.7”. Dolores Olmedo Patiño Museum, Mexico City, Mexico.
Kahlo’s oeuvre has also been controversially labeled as “Surrealist,” particularly after the movement’s founder André Breton likened her work to “a ribbon around a bomb.” Indeed, My Nurse and I (1937) and several of her works would appear to be in the same vein as Salvador Dalí, evident through the nurse’s masked face; Kahlo’s disproportionate, infantile body attached to her adult head; and the amplification of natural elements in the background. However, Kahlo rejected this label, stating, “I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.” As such, My Nurse and I is meant to represent Kahlo’s rendering of her childhood nurse, hired because Kahlo’s own mother was unable to feed her. Kahlo suckles a breast that has been reconceptualized as local flora, contrasting with the European attire Kahlo wears. The painting is not so much an intellectual exploration of the unconscious mind, but rather it is a reflection of Kahlo’s mixed German and Mexican heritage. Even in its acclaimed biographical realism, though, this painting bears much symbolism. For example, the composition of the nurse cradling Kahlo is representative of the Pietà, a long-held tradition of Christian iconography that depicts the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of her son Jesus. Kahlo is thus cast as a sacrificial victim, both to her biological roots and social upbringing.
Frida Kahlo. The Two Fridas, 1939. Oil on canvas. 68.1” x 68.3”. Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City, Mexico.
These elements of autobiography, identity, and uncanny representations of reality are masterfully conveyed in her most recognized piece, The Two Fridas (1939). A symbolic illustration of her split ancestry, as well as her recent divorce from her husband, it shows the viewer that Kahlo is overcome with sorrow and agony, represented through the gory, anatomical features and the stormy backdrop. Despite its gloomy atmosphere, this painting concurrently depicts feminine solidarity of identity, even within the confining societal expectations of womanhood. This discovery is both isolating yet hopeful, painful yet unifying. But perhaps what makes this piece so renown is its redefinition of the self-portrait genre. Instead of depicting her identity as complete and solidified, she captures her fragmented and fluid sense of being, recognizing the instability of female selfhood.
Kahlo remains a unique voice in the world of painting, her influence echoing beyond the categories that the popular public has attributed to her and contributing to the overall awareness of female, national, and autobiographical identities in art.
“At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can.” – Frida Kahlo
“Feet, what do I need them for, if I have wings to fly.” – Frida Kahlo
“I don't paint dreams or nightmares, I paint my own reality.” – Frida Kahlo
“I paint flowers so they will not die.” – Frida Kahlo
“Nothing is worth more than laughter. It is strength to laugh and to abandon oneself, to be light. Tragedy is the most ridiculous thing.” – Frida Kahlo
“I drank to drown my sorrows, but the damned things learned how to swim.” – Frida Kahlo
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