“I never painted dreams, I painted my own reality”: Turning trauma into art

Emma Lueders looks at the life of Frida Kahlo, one of the most inspiring female artists we have today

Frida Kahlo has become a global icon since the boom of Fridamania in the 1980s. A simple google search will display the artist’s past and present popularity, with the distribution of her image for widespread commercial use. Although the Frida brand allows her work more accessibility to the wider public, it comes with the cost of her contributions to art, and the Mexican political landscape being largely overlooked. Thus, it is essential to look at Kahlo from beyond the contemporary lens of a commercialised brand. To examine her as the cult figure for minority groups fighting for representation, and as an inspirational woman who used her trauma to produce astounding pieces of art. 

Kahlo, born on July 6th in 1907, was the third child of four to Wilhelm Kahlo and Matilde Calderón y González. Her early years were plagued with illness and paralysis, which impacted her life, but generated her best and most famous art. At six years old she contracted polio which damaged her right leg and foot, leaving her with a limp. At school, she quickly became known for her outspokenness and bravery, alongside her love of colourful, traditional jewellery and clothes, such as the characteristic long skirts she wore disguising her limp. At the National Preparatory school in Mexico City, she first met Diego Rivera, a communist muralist, whom Kahlo would inevitably marry. She grew close to peers that shared the same political and intellectual values as herself and joined the Young Communist League and the Mexican Communist Party.

“Painting throughout her recovery, Kahlo finished her first self-portrait, whilst bedridden, using a special easel.”

In 1925, Kahlo had her second accident, a bus crash. She was impaled by a steel handrail which completely transpierced her hip, and suffered severe injuries to her spine and pelvis. She was pained both physically and physiologically. Painting throughout her recovery, Kahlo finished her first self-portrait, whilst bedridden, using a special easel. She reconnected with Rivera when he evaluated her work in 1928. They soon fell into a romantic relationship and married the following year but unfortunately, Kahlo spent most of the 1930s following her husband’s commissions. After Rivera’s controversial decision to paint The Vladimir Lenin murals at the Rockefeller Center, the pair returned to Mexico. 

The couple’s marriage was turbulent. They led semi-separate lives with Kahlo devastated by Rivera’s many infidelities, including her sister Christina. At this time Kahlo cut most of her trademark long hair, in response. Her heartbreak was deepened with her second miscarriage in 1934, and she uncovered that her bus accident was the cause of her infertility. These miscarriages are evident in her piece ‘Henry Ford hospital’. The painting was finished after her first miscarriage. Kahlo is naked on a hospital bed with a fetus, flower and a pelvis floating around her connected by veins. It is a demonstration of how personal Kahlo’s self-portraits are, deeply rooted in pain. 

“Kahlo’s work is exceptionally autobiographical, she narrates her own suffering  while exposing controversial topics.”

In 1938 Kahlo became close with surrealist artist André Breton, who dubbed Kahlo herself a surrealist. Kalo wrote, “They thought I was a surrealist but I wasn’t”, “I never painted dreams, I painted my own reality.” Kahlo’s work is exceptionally autobiographical, she narrates her own suffering  while exposing controversial topics. This portrayal of taboo subjects can be seen in ‘The suicide of Dorothy Hale’, where she paints a patrons’ friend suicidal leap. 

In 1941 Kahlo received a significant commission from the Mexican government to portray five important Mexican women, but losing her father and chronic health problems hindered the completion. Her deteriorating health continued for the remainder of her life. In 1953 she opened her first solo exhibition, and arrived by ambulance, greeting people from a bedside. Alongside these physical ailments, she fought depression with an inclination towards suicide. Her story is one of pure perseverance. Despite her declining health, she was still active in politics and attended demonstrations against President Jacobo Arbenz’s overthrow. A week after her 47th birthday, she died. The public report was a pulmonary embolism, but suicide was speculated. 

“She became the first Latin American artist to break the one million dollar threshold with her painting ‘Diego and I’.”

In the early years of her career, she was known as Rivera’s wife and an eccentric personality among the cultural elite. She gained individual recognition, when feminist scholars began to combat the exclusion of both women and non-western artists from art history. She also became an icon for the Chicano movement in the 1970s, the social and political movement, where people of Mexican descent argued structural racism, and cultural assimilation in the US. She became the first Latin American artist to break the one million dollar threshold with her painting ‘Diego and I’. She explored openness around female sexuality in both her life and work. Her themes of infertility, sexual pleasure and her relationship with her husband are often interwoven. She disregarded the limitations of gender and instead was attracted to both men and women’s creative spirits. 

Oriana Baddeley wrote, how she is “the archetype of a cultural minority who is simultaneously a victim, crippled and abused…a survivor who fights back”. Her name may have been commercialised, due to its symbolic nature. She was an icon for feminists, the LGBTQ community and the Chicano movement. Her story exploded after her biography’s release, by Hayden Herrera called Frida, revealing her as the inspiration that she is memorialized by.

It is difficult to say if Kahlo would approve of the widespread use and often appropriation of her image. On the one hand, Kahlo wanted to be seen by her viewers and she used her art to do so. But this popularisation has led to recognition of Frida as a brand, with a lack of in depth understanding. She was a strong female artist who tackled difficult and taboo topics both on and off the canvas. Before Kahlo was featured on notebooks and nail polish bottles, she was a crucial figure for Mexican cultural representation and greatly impacted the political landscape in America. She is now one of the highest-selling women in art to date.