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Literally the Best Thing Ever: Frida Kahlo

She transcended everything.

Frida Kahlo is probably the most famous female artist in the history of the world. She transcended everything—her time (the first half of the 20th century, not exactly a time of great opportunities for women anywhere), cultural norms (her work dealt explicitly with taboo subjects such as abortion, miscarriage, gender inequalities, and the personal and sexual lives of women), feminine beauty ideals (not only did she not remove her unibrow or faint mustache, she was known to darken them with a black pencil), and her own physical limitations (she had polio as a child and was severely injured in a bus accident as a teenager). In an oppressive and repressive political and social climate, she was an outspoken leftist, a feminist, and a fighter for equality. Her life was bound by strictures of all kinds, but those limitations seem, paradoxically, to have granted her the freedom to live exactly how she wanted.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t in awe of Frida Kahlo and her artwork, which somehow always made me feel weird inside—haunted, but also like I was getting a secret glimpse into the life and mind of a person, a spirit, unlike any other who ever lived. Her paintings are mostly self-portraits, and it’s a testament to her genius that she was able to say so much in so many different ways with that one subject.

It was her eyes that first drew me in. In her paintings, she’s always looking at you, and you know that she was staring right into her own eyes, too, as she painted. I think Self-Portrait With Monkey (1938) is the first one I fell in love with:

Sure, I was a child when I saw it, and I was probably like, “Hey, monkeys are cute!” But I am still struck by how, in such a seemingly simple composition, there’s so much going on. There’s her necklace made of bone, the jungle leaves behind her—and that monkey. In the painting, woman and primate are both staring directly at the viewer, but the monkey’s gaze is more sympathetic—more human—while Frida’s cold stare and pursed lips suggest she’s ready to take on whatever life throws her way.

Or maybe it was My Birth (1932), which shows Frida’s infant head crowning from the vagina of a woman whose head is covered with a sheet, so we can’t determine her identity.

I always interpreted it to be Frida giving birth to herself, which seemed like a powerful statement about artistic independence. (On an unrelated note, Madonna owns this painting, which TOTALLY MAKES SENSE!) It wasn’t long before I was trying to read and learn as much as I could about this enigmatic woman.

And so I did, and the more I learned about her life, the more incredible Frida became in my eyes. It seems she was always poised to do great things—as a teenager she was one of only a handful of girls admitted to the prestigious Escuela Nacional Preparatoria in Mexico, where she was studying to become a doctor. This was in 1922, and her mother didn’t really see any reason for Frida to get a formal education, since she’d just end up getting married and devoting her life to her husband and kids anyway. But lucky for us all, Frida’s father was progressive enough to encourage his daughter to get an education and follow her dreams. That school is also where Frida’s lifelong dedication to leftist politics was first expressed, when she joined a student socialist group there.

Frida’s professional ambitions were brutally cut short in 1925, when she was 18, as the bus she was riding collided with a trolley car. She was impaled by a handrail; her spine, collarbone, pelvis, right leg, some ribs, and a foot were broken. Doctors were not sure she would live, much less ever walk again, but she did, of course, although she spent months in a full-body cast, had more than 30 surgeries throughout her life (none very successful), and was left unable to bear children.

During her convalescence, Frida began to paint—the bus accident and her resulting infertility were persistent subjects in her work. “I paint myself because I am so often alone,” she later said, “because I am the subject I know best.” Her work also expressed a great love of nature and animals and an ambivalence toward industrialization and capitalism. In Henry Ford Hospital (1932), for example, Frida paints herself in a hospital bed in Detroit after suffering her second miscarriage.

She’s surrounded by, among other things, her unborn baby, the fractured pelvis that prevented her from birthing it, a medical diagram of the female reproductive system (she had been studying to be a doctor, remember), and what looks like a piece of medical machinery, all attached to her body by umbilical cords. In the background you can see the smoggy towers and smokestacks of the Ford Motor Company—which was owned by Edsel Ford, son of Henry Ford, who financed the hospital where Frida lies alone in her bed, and for whom it was named. Just try looking at this painting without getting emotional. You can’t.

Frida once said to a friend, “I have suffered two grave accidents in my life: one in which a streetcar knocked me down…the other accient is Diego.” After her first accident, when she had been painting for a few years, she got a chance to show some of her work to Diego Rivera, a renowned muralist and an important figure in Mexican art. She asked him if he thought she had any talent. He said she did. He also married her.

Being married to a world-famous artist had its pros and cons. His fame and talent overshadowed Frida’s for many years; but his encouragement and support were instrumental to her development as an artist. Her style is sometimes called “folk art,” because of its use of colors and motifs from Mexican visual traditions, and sometimes surrealist, because she used so many visual metaphors—but she always held that she was a realist: “My paintings are…the frankest expression of myself,” she said. André Breton, the “father of Surrealism,” described Frida’s work as “a ribbon around a bomb,” which is the perfect description, really.

Breton gave Frida her first show in Paris, which led the Louvre to buy one of her paintings, The Frame—the museum’s first-ever acquisition by a 20th century Mexican artist.

The Frame, 1938

It’s definitely one of Kahlo’s simpler works, a pretty self-portrait on aluminum festooned with flowers—it makes me wonder if everyone was afraid that her other, more characteristic, paintings were just TOO REAL. Still, the purchase was an important milestone for Frida, and proof that she was more than just Diego Rivera’s wife—she was a real talent all on her own.

Frida and Diego’s marriage was tumultuous, to say the least. They were both strong personalities, and neither had a particular affinity for fidelity, although each of them tolerated the other’s affairs, for the most part. However, when Diego took up with Frida’s little sister Cristina, it didn’t sit too well with Frida. She moved into her own apartment and didn’t paint for a year. When she went back to work, the first thing she made was a painting called A Few Small Nips (Passionately in Love):

The painting depicts a murder that had recently been reported in the newpaper: a man, believing his wife had cheated on him, threw her on their bed and stabbed her 20 times. During his hearing, the murderer defended himself by telling the judge, “But it was only a few small nips!” I feel like Frida must have identified with the victim—and her “few small nips” were the indignations she regularly had to put up with from Diego, which were slowly killing her.

Frida was no martyr, though—she had plenty of affairs as well, with women and men, including Leon Trotsky, the Marxist revolutionary leader. Frida and Diego were active Communists, a theme that was always present in Diego’s work, but only showed up in Frida’s later paintings, after she decided that she should use her art to “benefit the revolution.” In Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick, for example, she stands in the center of the canvas in an orthopedic corset, held by two giant hands, with Karl Marx’s face looking over her shoulder.

In 1936, when Trotsky had been exiled from the Soviet Union, Diego and Frida invited him and his wife to stay with them in their house in Mexico, which is where the affair began. Diego was reportedly not bothered by his wife’s female lovers, but the male ones were another story. The couple eventually divorced in 1939, whereupon she painted The Two Fridas, my favorite work of hers.

Under a stormy sky, the two Fridas sit side by side, gazing forward placidly. One of them is wearing the native Mexican outfit that Diego liked Frida to wear every day; in one hand she holds a small locket containing a portrait of Diego, with the other she clasps the hand of another version of herself—this one in a white European-style dress, holding a pair of medical pincers. She’s trying to stop the flow of blood from an open vein that sprouts from her broken heart, but she can’t. Her heart is bleeding everywhere.

Even after all that, Frida and Diego couldn’t stay away from each other. A year later, they got back together, and got married AGAIN. They stayed together this time, until Frida’s death in 1954. (She was a rabblerouser till the end: 11 days before she died she participated in a public protest against U.S. intervention in Guatemala.)

By painting herself, Frida painted her life and her emotions. Her portraits speak about love and despair and loneliness and pain—but there’s always an underlying sense of pride and defiance in all of her work. When I look at her paintings, the main thing I see is strength, even when she is a wounded deer:

The Wounded Deer, 1946, via Wikipaintings.org

That’s the face of rising above pain. It’s the face of bravery against any odds. That’s a face that refuses to be defeated. How could I not fall in love with her? ♦

64 Comments

  • mdoodle13 December 12th, 2012 3:12 PM

    Frida is basically my favorite art icon from the 20th century. She really knew who she was–probably the reason why she was able to paint herself again and again.

  • Mary the freak December 12th, 2012 3:18 PM

    I have never really read something about her. But this made me love her. I totally admire her work. SHE’S THE BEST.

    http://birdiewearsatie.blogspot.com/

  • Jessica W December 12th, 2012 3:21 PM

    Ugh yes yes yes!
    She is the most interesting artist to have ever existed in my opinion. I used to read about her during maths (naughty) instead of doing calculus.

    The Lovelorn

  • tove December 12th, 2012 3:29 PM

    She was fantastic. I’ve seen Frida and I’ve read this (you nailed it, Laia), but I still feel like I don’t know enough about her. What else should I watch or read?

    • farawayfaerie December 12th, 2012 4:01 PM

      You can read her diary that she kept in the las 10 years of her life- The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait – which is amazing because it has her poems and some paintings, as well as accounts of her dreams and relationship with Diego. Otherwise Hayden Herrera wrote a biography on her, but I haven’t read it so I can’t say whether it’s good or not, although I’m sure it’s interesting.

      • Caitlin H. December 12th, 2012 4:53 PM

        THE DIARY IS AMAZING BUY IT NOW

      • Jessica W December 13th, 2012 2:29 PM

        She… Has… A… Diary… ?!
        OMG I NEED TO READ IT

      • tove December 13th, 2012 4:16 PM

        Thank you!

  • i-like-autumn December 12th, 2012 3:30 PM

    Frieda’s work goes above and beyond ALL levels. Out of the ones you showed, I like ‘The Frame’ the best. My definite favorite of hers is ‘Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird.’

    Autumn
    http://www.i-like-autumn.tumblr.com

    • Marguerite December 12th, 2012 3:39 PM

      Hey! I just did a copy of that one in art! I agree it is really beautiful, and of all of her paintings, I like the thorn collar best in that one

  • elsolnaciente December 12th, 2012 3:33 PM

    i’m so happy you’ve written about her. just the other day i met a friend who shares the same love i have for Frida. she was a wonderful human being.

  • kirigamirose December 12th, 2012 3:35 PM

    viva la frida !

  • Marguerite December 12th, 2012 3:37 PM

    Is it just coincidence? Or did you know that tonight my homework was to write about why I chose Frida as my inspiration for a self portrait?

  • Ibe. December 12th, 2012 3:40 PM

    This is the best.
    I remeber the first time I saw self-portrait with monkey. I was five years old and my dad showed me a picture of it in this huge art book that he had. And I was so obsessed. And I still am.
    There is also a little Frida shrine in my room. She is perfect.

    xx Ibe
    maddemoisellerossele.blogspot.com

  • brendamado December 12th, 2012 3:44 PM

    “What is interesting, is that the Frida Kahlo venerated by American feminists is a very different Frida Kahlo to the one people learn about in Mexico, in the Chicano community. In her country, she is recognized as an important artist and a key figure in revolutionary politics of early 20th century Mexico. Her communist affiliations are made very clear. Her relationship with Trotsky is underscored. All her political activities with Diego Rivera are constantly emphasized. The connection between her art and her politics is always made. When Chicana artists became interested in Frida Kahlo in the ‘70s and started organizing homages, they made the connection between her artistic project and theirs because they too were searching for an aesthetic compliment to a political view that was radical and emancipatory. But when the Euro-American feminists latch onto Frida Kahlo in the early ‘80s and when the American mainstream caught on to her, she was transformed into a figure of suffering. I am very critical of that form of appropriation.”
    - Coco Fusco, 1993

    I think it’s great how you emphasize Kahlo’s strength in this piece! She is so much more than just Diego and illnesses.

    • Ladymia69 December 12th, 2012 6:51 PM

      Yes! She thrived!

    • garconniere December 14th, 2012 4:27 PM

      coco fusco is almost as incredible as frida kahlo. such an important quote.

  • Laura Lemon December 12th, 2012 3:46 PM

    I first learned about Frida in second grade maybe, during Art Class, and I remember identifying with her so strongly partly because of her unibrow (which I did have, just not as…noticeable as hers), and because SHE WAS SUCH A STRONG PERSON, and her ART was so HARD TO DISMISS as weird. It always carried such a strong message, and it portrayed her in such a Positive-Female-That-doesn’t-take-crap-from-anybody-Role Model way… ❤❤❤❤❤❤❤❤❤❤❤❤❤❤❤

  • meghanj December 12th, 2012 3:47 PM

    SO EXCITED to go to the frida and diego exhibit at the AGO over winter break!!!!!!! forever inspired by this lovely lady..she is incredible.

    • garconniere December 14th, 2012 4:27 PM

      i went in late november, enjoyed it, but was frustrated by some aspects of it! i’m curious to know what you think after you see it!

  • bugaleeto December 12th, 2012 3:51 PM

    This was so great. There’s so much about her that is amazing. I read this book about her a few months back that said that someone on the bus had glitter and it spilt all over her during the accident, so she was covered in blood and glitter.

    • Isabelle97 December 12th, 2012 5:10 PM

      Wow. That seems to sum up something about her art for me- beautiful and disturbing and bizarre

  • farawayfaerie December 12th, 2012 3:52 PM

    Frida is my favorite artist of all time, her work is so emotional and I just can’t get enough of it. This article was beautiful and I feel I could read a million more on this same topic, she’s so interesting. I especially love Broken Column.

  • Sarah. December 12th, 2012 3:56 PM

    This is an awesome article – Frida’s literally my fave. Why no mention of her sexual orientation, though? In addition to everything mentioned, Frida was a badass queer babe who later brought visibility to queer women of color in art.

    • AnguaMarten December 12th, 2012 5:26 PM

      the article mentioned she had female lovers. yet another reason to love her!

  • raggedyanarchy December 12th, 2012 4:01 PM

    I love Frida! I remember being a kid and flipping through a book of her art and being kind of awed by the direct, unapologetic smile. I could tell immediatly that they were self-portraits, even though I couldn’t read the titles. I thought she was a total badass (maye I didn’t use that exact word…), and when we studied her in elementary art I was like “whaddya know, she IS really cool!”

  • jenaimarley December 12th, 2012 4:43 PM

    SHE IS THE BEST.
    Also the Julie Taymor movie is phenomenal.

  • riotgrrrl December 12th, 2012 4:43 PM

    waaaaa this article is literally the best thing ever!!!!!!!!!!

  • zanybah December 12th, 2012 4:45 PM

    I have never heard of Frida, but I am in awe of her stunning art. I was a bit taken back when I gazed upon the first painting pictured here. It was a bit gruesome and intriguing. The kind that made me zoom in on my phone, staring at the painting and reading your interpretation of Frida birthing herself. Wonderful concept, beautiful words.

    xoxo, zanybah

  • MaryFerG December 12th, 2012 4:52 PM

    I literally just turned in a research paper on her just a couple of hours ago, and did a presentation on her. I was a bit disappointed that no one really took the time to look at her art work that I passed around, some even looked at it with dislike. Whatever, they don’t understand the amazingness of Frida Kahlo.

  • MaddieMae December 12th, 2012 5:11 PM

    I absolutely love Frida! I learned about her from my art teacher when I was probably still in 1st grade :)

  • dessertstealer December 12th, 2012 5:13 PM

    I love Frida Kahlo, especially since I am Mexican American. I love the pain she expressed in her artworks and the feminist message behind them. She has to be one of the most interesting woman artists there is!

  • marimba_girl December 12th, 2012 5:14 PM

    I love Frida so much! I did a project on her in my Spanish class one year and on the powerpoint I had some of her more graphic paintings. My teacher was not amused, but I really loved her work and wanted to share it.

  • AnguaMarten December 12th, 2012 5:25 PM

    I really love Frida Kahlo. I wrote an essay about her in Spanish class last year, which I remember being one of the best assignments I had in middle school. Her art is so colorful and vibrant, but it always feels a little melancholy. Knowing her story just makes it that much better.

  • Kendra December 12th, 2012 5:26 PM

    Frida Kahlo is one of my biggest inspirations. I loved this article, it was very moving. I have fallen in love with her all over again!

  • SiLK December 12th, 2012 5:31 PM

    I HAVE BEEN WAITING TO SEE THIS ARTICLE FOR AT LEAST A MONTH! I have loved Frida as a character most of my life, I grew up a few roads from her house which is now a museum. We’d often visit it and I’d find the work too creepy, but I did like the cast she painted on and seing her bed with the mirror above so she could paint herself, also the stray cats we could play with in her garden. She is a symbol for me, not just of Mexico and home, but of influential women, and I love it that she is appreciated.

  • FiveDimesForNineLives December 12th, 2012 5:32 PM

    This article was beautifully written. It really interested me in Frida now.

    http://five-dimes-for-9-lives.blogspot.com/

  • bunnyscout December 12th, 2012 5:51 PM

    aaah gosh I love Frida; she’s been a huge inspiration and role model for me since I was little. If there are any Toronto-area rookie readers you SHOULD DEFINITELY GO CHECK OUT THE AGO EXHIBIT ON HER AND DIEGO! it’s amazing and interesting and you will love it

  • Roz G. December 12th, 2012 5:58 PM

    Yay! Epic mexican artists are epic!
    I literally live a few blocks away from her house/museum and you should all really visit since it literally breathes of everything she was, felt, fought for and painted. You can see her books, her casts, her typically mexican kitchen, Trotsky’s bedroom and the mirror hanging above her four-poster bed (she used it to do her makeup in the morning and also to see herself while she painted).
    I always knew she was an important figure for mexican art. Who would’ve thought an american online magazine would make me realize just how important and transcendent she is worldwide?

  • Eryn December 12th, 2012 6:52 PM

    So much admiration and love for Frida. I really really really want to visit La Casa Azul in Mexico. And her diary is definitely on my holiday wishlist.
    I’m doing a project in Spanish class about art and culture in Mexico so I’m obviously doing a lot about her, best project ever. Learning more and more and more about her has been just fascinating, my friends are probably getting tired of me sharing random facts but I don’t care, I’m becoming completely and utterly obsessed. She’s just…
    Ahh, no words, Frida Frida Frida.

    Great article.

    http://fashionfledge.blogspot.ca/

  • myownknight December 12th, 2012 7:32 PM

    I thought that while Frida used fem pronouns, she identified as genderqueer, rather then female. wouldn’t that make her (the the first entence) the most important genderqueer or DFAB artist?

  • catpower44 December 12th, 2012 9:01 PM

    Frida is my favourite artist hands down. I really want to find one of her prints somewhere for my room! Has anyone seen the movie? It’s so good!

    http://cosmicballerinas.tumblr.com/
    http://flowyshirtsminiskirts.blogspot.ca/

  • Nickysperanza December 12th, 2012 9:04 PM

    Frida Kahlo is one of my favorite people of all time. She makes me proud to be who I am, because Frida through it all was strong and brave. My favorite painting of hers is “What the water gave me”

    Que viva la mujer revolucionaria!

    • jenaimarley December 12th, 2012 10:06 PM

      Wow I hadn’t seen that one before. It’s gorgeous!
      It’s also coincidental that a video about environmental racism in my southwestern U.S. city that I’m using for a project in my public policy class is called that as well!

  • LilySew December 13th, 2012 7:03 AM

    ‘The Two Fridas’ is my favourite work too! I’m glad that Frida Kahlo is one of the main artists studied in my school’s art curriculum, it really makes learning art theory a more interesting and inspiring topic.
    :D

    http://sewoverdressed.blogspot.com.au/

  • keisya December 13th, 2012 7:49 AM

    oooh frida kahlo! i love her <3

  • zhajean December 13th, 2012 10:53 AM

    you guys are the best for writing this literally the best thing article! she’s really a great woman indeed :)

    czarina♥

  • fung-eyed December 13th, 2012 11:27 AM

    now this is the kind of education im talking about. lez git edjuice-aided !!!! cool a9id forever

  • M.Rose December 13th, 2012 12:26 PM

    I love Frida Kahlo so much! Excellent piece Rookie! And Laia!
    http://fledglingstyle.blogspot.com/

  • lizziemcguir3 December 13th, 2012 7:43 PM

    So much Frida love <3333

  • shirventuraa December 14th, 2012 5:56 PM

    I adore her!

  • GlitterKitty December 14th, 2012 8:12 PM

    I didn’t really know a lot about Frida Kahlo but she is really cool. Her art is so deep and symbolic. Maybe I’ll go see her exhibit at the AGO.

  • shrlby December 15th, 2012 2:06 AM

    i didn’t know frida hooked up with leon trotsky that’s the most bad ass thing i’ve ever heard

  • wongstea December 16th, 2012 10:18 PM

    We should have a Rookie field trip to the AGO for the exhibit

  • simplebutchic December 17th, 2012 4:33 PM

    Frida is my Saint

    http://simplebutchic.blogspot.com/

  • Megz December 17th, 2012 9:21 PM

    Loved the review!

    http://dimitramegas.blogspot.de/2012/11/sketchez.html

  • amelia-rate December 23rd, 2012 7:56 PM

    I don’t want to be redundant but I’m going to be anyway OMG FRIDA KAHLO I LOVE YOU AND I WANT TO BE YOU.
    I respect her so much for being completely and totally herself. I wonder if she was so amazing and vital because she just inherently was that way and she couldn’t have lived any other way or because she chose to portray herself in the realest way possible and everyone is like that on the inside.
    It’s probably both, but since I want to be her, I hope its the latter.

  • Tatum December 28th, 2012 6:16 PM

    I just fell back in love with frida kahlo. Love the review! very well written!

    http://ribbonaroundthebomb.tumblr.com/

  • lovelyhippo December 28th, 2012 8:11 PM

    I love love love Frida so much. I learned about her in my spanish class and i simply adore her and admire her. She was so pasionate and filled with love.

  • mayaautumn December 29th, 2012 10:04 AM

    This is beautiful. She was – and still is – an amazingly inspirational person. (AND SO ARE YOU LAIA!!!1)

    I’ve got to admit though: only Frida could get away with a monobrow like that!

    http://mayathapapaya.wordpress.com

  • Bianca January 9th, 2013 10:43 PM

    I just found this little video you guys might want to check out. :)

    What Was in Frida Kahlo’s Closet? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ly6JO6l1X-E

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica May 4th, 2013 8:55 AM

    I wasn’t too familiar with Frida before reading this, but now I’ve seen some of her work and OMG SHE’S AMAZING. Thank you!! :)

  • Magdalena November 2nd, 2013 8:36 PM

    Frida Kahlo is my insparation