When her plans for life crashed, Frida Kahlo tapped into her creative side. She expressed her frustrations, anger, and pain through her self-portraits, portraits, and other paintings. Her work explores questions of identity, gender, class, race, and post colonialism in Mexico. Raw and brave and expressive, she used a folk art style that others have identified as surrealist or magical realist.
German-born photographer Guillermo Kahlo (Carl Wilhelm Kahlo,1871-1941) traveled to Mexico in 1891 and stayed. After his first wife died giving birth to their third child, he married Matilde Calderón González (1876–1932). Matilde was of Spanish and Indigenous descent. Despite it being an “unhappy” marriage, they had four daughters, Matilde (1898), Adriana (1902), Frida (1907), and Cristina (1908).
Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón (Frida Kahlo), their third daughter, was born in Coyoacán, Mexico City, Mexico on July 6, 1907.
The Mexican Revolution began in 1910. When gunfire erupted near their home, Kahlo’s mother would rush them inside. Sometimes men would leap over the walls into their backyard and sometimes her mother would fix a meal for the revolutionaries.
At six, Frida contracted polio. Bedridden for nine months, the disease caused her right leg and foot to grow much thinner than her left one. Her father encouraged her to do lots of sports as part of her recovery. She recovered but had a limp and wore long skirts afterward to cover her legs.
Because of her illness, she started school with her younger sister. According to some sources, she had trouble in school. She was homeschooled for a couple of years.
She was close to her father. He appreciated her sharp eye for detail and had her assist him in his photography business. He also arranged for art classes. But art was a side interest for Kahlo. She wanted to be a doctor.
In 1922, the Preparatoria, one of Mexico’s premier schools, accepted fifteen-year-old Kahlo as one of thirty-five girls (out of 2,000 students). She did well academically.
Kahlo first met the famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera at the school when he worked on a mural called “The Creation” on the school campus. She watched him often and told a girlfriend she would marry him one day.
While at school, she joined a group of students with similar political and intellectual views. She fell in love with the leader, Alejandro Gomez Arias.
On a September afternoon in 1925, she boarded a wooden bus with Gomez Arias bound for her hometown.
The bus turned a corner and collided with an electric streetcar. Many people died in the accident. Her boyfriend survived, but a steel or iron handrail impaled Kahlo and punctured her abdomen and uterus. Her collar bone broke and her right leg was fractured in multiple places.
They rushed her to the hospital, but hospital care in 1925 Mexico wasn’t like it is today.
Kahlo stayed in the hospital for several weeks, but it took months to discover her back was broken. She suffered through multiple styles of full body casts and her dream of being a doctor was over.
Ultimately, Kahlo had thirty different operations trying to correct her injuries. Chronic pain and complications plagued her for the rest of her life.
Art as Therapy
During her endless days in bed recovering, Kahlo created small drawings on her body casts. Through her drawings, she developed her artistic style and confronted her pain.
Her father gave her a specially made easel she could use in bed. Using a hand mirror, she began doing self-portraits, a subject she returned to many times during her career.
In 1928, Kahlo formally met Diego Rivera. Already a famous muralist, Rivera reviewed her work and visited Kahlo during her bedridden days, encouraging her to keep working on her art. Rivera was unlike anyone she’d ever met. Her time with him was always interesting and exciting. Over her mother’s objections, twenty-two-year-old Kahlo married forty-three-year-old Rivera in 1929. It was a civil ceremony in the town hall. Their marriage received nearly constant attention from Mexican and international press.
They moved to San Francisco, California, in 1939 for his work.
During this time, Kahlo was only known as the wife of the famous artist Diego Rivera. She had several pregnancies that ended in abortion or miscarriage. Her frail body couldn’t tolerate pregnancy.
In 1933, they moved to New York when Nelson Rockefeller commissioned Rivera to create a mural named as Man at the Crossroads at Rockefeller Center. They fired him when he tried to include Lenin in the mural.
In Detroit in 1934, Kahlo had her second miscarriage that caused a severe hemorrhage and a two-week hospital stay. Her mother died less than three months later.
More health problems and a return to Mexico did not help her tumultuous relationship with Rivera. He’d been unfaithful before, but this time he had an affair with Kahlo’s younger sister. Kahlo moved to an apartment, considered divorce, and had an affair herself. Eventually, she reconciled with her sister and Rivera. She moved back to San Ángel.
And she and Rivera continued their infidelities.
In 1938, Kahlo met and became friends with Andre Breton, one of the primary figures of the Surrealism movement. Frida said she never considered herself as a Surrealist “until André Breton came to Mexico and told me I was one.”1
She had a major exhibition of her work at a New York City gallery in 1938. She sold about half of the 25 paintings shown there and also received two commissions, including one from famed magazine editor Clare Boothe Luce.
Also in New York, she met surrealist painters, including Marcel Duchamp, whom she respected.
Kahlo became the first 20th-century Mexican artist to be included in the Louvre’s collection when the museum purchased her work “The Frame.”
In 1939, Andre Breton invited her to Paris. There she became friends with several artists, including Marc Chagall, Piet Mondrian, and Pablo Picasso.
Rivera and Kahlo were both strong, bold, and hot-headed people. They each had multiple affairs. Kahlo’s affairs were with men and women. It’s no wonder their tumultuous relationship ended in divorce in 1939.
Teacher & Artist
Kahlo moved back to her childhood home, La Casa Azul (the Blue House). She taught art at the Escuela Nacional de Pintura, Escultura y Grabado and worked on her art. She painted one of her most famous works, “The Two Fridas” during this time.
In 1940, she remarried Rivera. They still kept separate homes, lived separate lives, and had affairs. And her health continued to be problematic.
Despite her health, she continued to create when she could. Three different exhibitions featured her work.: the fourth International Surrealist Exhibition in Mexico City, the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco, and Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art in New York.
Her father died in 1941. Then, health problems made her unable to complete a commission from the Mexican government.
By the mid 1940s, Kahlo could no long sit or stand continuously. Still, she painted her most famous self-portraits, “The Broken Column,” in 1944.
In 1953, Kahlo had a solo exhibit in Mexico. She arrived for the opening by ambulance and attended in a bed provided by the gallery.
Her right leg developed severe gangrene. They amputated it above the knee in August 1953. She became severely depressed.
On July 2, 1954, she and Rivera took part in a demonstration against the CIA invasion of Guatemala, even though she was sick with bronchopneumonia. She got sicker.
On July 13, 1954, her nurse found Kahlo dead in her bed. She was forty-seven. The official cause of death was bronchopneumonia. Although some suspected suicide, they did not perform an autopsy.
They took her body to the Palacio de Bellas Artes, where it lay in state under a Communist flag. Friends and family attended an informal funeral ceremony the following day at Panteón Civil de Dolores, while hundreds of admirers stood outside. Per her instructions, she was cremated.
After Kahlo’s death, Rivera had La Casa Azul redesigned as a museum dedicated to her life. He died in 1957.
The Frida Kahlo Museum opened to the public in 1958. A pre-Columbian urn holding Kahlo’s ashes is on display there.
Interest in Kahlo’s art grew after her death. In 1983, A Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera brought more attention to her life.
They declared her work a part of Mexico’s national cultural heritage in 1984. That made it rare to find her paintings in international auctions.
In 2002, the Oscar-nominated movie “Frida” was released.
At a Sotheby’s auction in 2021 for an astounding $34.9 million, making it the most expensive piece of Latin American art.
Today Frida Kahlo is one of the best-known artists of the 20th century.
She remains a beacon of creative resilience.
Top photo by Guillermo Kahlo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons