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The turbulent life of Frida Kahlo: Chronic pain and boundless creativity

Posted on 04 Mar 2021

A life-changing accident, an axe-wielding assassin, a tempestuous relationship and more. Discover the remarkable story of Frida Kahlo, whose life and work were shaped by physical and emotional suffering.

Jacqueline Lamba and Frida Kahlo, Pátzcuaro, Mexico, 1938. Photographer unknown. Featured in 'The Militant Muse'.

In 1925, an 18-year-old schoolgirl was heading home from class in Mexico City when a tram hit her bus and impaled her on a handrail. The impact dislocated her foot and broke her collarbone, pelvis and back. She spent the next two years recovering in bed, and spent the rest of her life in profound physical discomfort.

In the near-century since, Frida Kahlo and her paintings have become synonymous with style, flamboyance and rebellion. She became a Hollywood heroine, the subject of a 2003 biopic. Her unibrowed, moustachioed face became a brand, adorning fridge magnets across the world, as well as the bracelet of Theresa May, the former British prime minister. Her clothes turned her into a fashion icon, the focus of an enduring cultural phenomenon known as “Fridamania”.

Amid Kahlo’s posthumous commodification, it is easy to forget that her career started unglamorously, in a period of prolonged agony. For it was while lying in bed in 1925, convalescing after the bus crash, that Kahlo began to paint. Unable to sit up, she passed the time painting on a special easel designed to allow her to daub oils on canvas without leaving her mattress. “I was bored as hell in bed,” she wrote to a gallerist more than a decade later. “So I decided to do something.”

In many senses, the work that Kahlo then created until her untimely death in 1954, aged 47, remained defined by both physical and emotional pain. Of her 143 works, over a third are self-portraits that often explore her psychological and corporeal trauma, typically using an aesthetic sometimes described as a blend of surrealism, fantasy, and Mexican iconography.

Perhaps her most famous work, The Two Fridas (1939), is as its name suggests: a double self-portrait of two Kahlos sitting side by side, each representing a different side of her personality. On the left sits a Frida in traditional clothing, her heart ripped open, blood splattered over her white dress. Holding her hand to the right is a Frida in more modern clothes — calm and unbloodied.

Completed soon after her divorce from Diego Rivera, a muralist two decades her senior, the painting is usually interpreted as an exploration of the loss and loneliness caused by their separation. Married in 1929, the couple had a tempestuous relationship defined by furious rows, philandering on both sides — and an eclectic social life among the glitterati of the Mexican and American elite.

Staunch leftists, Kahlo and Rivera hosted the Russian revolutionary leader, Leon Trotsky, for two years between 1937 and 1939, following his exile from the Soviet Union. Kahlo even had a short affair with him, and both she and Rivera were briefly suspected of involvement in his murder in 1940 by an axe-wielding assassin. The couple remarried months later.

Throughout the 1940s, Kahlo lived in increasingly unmanageable pain as her body — particularly her spine — deteriorated due to the effects of congenital defects, childhood polio and her accident in 1925. Her work became ever darker. Her famous 1946 self-portrait, The Wounded Deer, depicts Kahlo as a bloodied doe, pieced by eight hunters’ arrows.

After Kahlo died in 1954, the headline of her obituary in The New York Times, remembered her as “Diego Rivera’s Wife”. But it is Kahlo, not Rivera, whose legacy has lasted longest.


Words by Eliza Apperly

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