The Frida Kahlo Exhibition at the Tate Modern: A brief biography and review of her works

In a few days the Frida Kahlo Exhibition at the Tate Modern comes to an end. If you are in London you have a last chance to go and see it. Here Harry Whittaker looks at the life and works of this artist.

The outstanding success of the exhibition is a testimony to Kahlo’s international eminence in the art world and her powerful image as a cult figure and feminist icon. More than fifty years after her death she is admired not only for her work, but also for her rebellious bohemian nonconformity, her passionate socialism, and her iron-willed determination to overcome her many misfortunes and live life to the full.

But to admire her work is one thing, to fully appreciate it is another. To do so it is necessary to know something of her story and her cultural background.

Frida was born on July 6, 1907, the third daughter of Matilde Calderon, a Mexican woman, and Wilhelm Kahlo, a German Jew of Hungarian parentage who arrived in Mexico when he was 19 years old. From an early age she was acutely aware of the frailty of the human frame, often witnessing her father’s epileptic fits while she was still in her infancy. When she was six years old she was stricken by polio, which left her right leg and foot thin and deformed. Other children called her “Peg-leg Frida”, which must have hurt her deeply, but her father did his best to help her through the ordeal; he massaged her leg, encouraged her with her therapy, and displayed his great love for his favourite daughter. She was always much closer to him than to her deeply religious mother.

In 1922 she was one of only 35 girls in an intake of 2,000 pupils accepted into the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, the best school in Mexico. There she would study languages and natural sciences, hoping eventually to become a doctor.

This was at a time when Mexico was experiencing a rebirth of national pride, rejecting the old European colonial influences and reviving its native culture.

The Preparatoria was at the very heart of this revival and it was here that Frida’s pride in her Mexican heritage was intensified; hereafter she would give her year of birth as 1910, the year which saw the start of the Mexican revolution. In the school there were several cliques; most prominent among them was “The Cachuchas”, several of whom were later to become left-leaning members of Mexico’s intelligentsia. Frida joined this clique and became the girl friend of its undisputed leader, a handsome young law student named Alejandro Gomez Arias. Throughout her student days she still had to work to help support her family, but life was looking good, the future was full of promise. Then, on the afternoon of September 17, 1925, all her dreams were shattered.

It was the most terrible day in her life; she and Alejandro were travelling in a wooden bus which was hit by an electric trolley car, apparently not an unusual occurrence in Mexico City in those days. Her injuries were horrendous: her collarbone was broken, her right leg had eleven fractures and her right foot was dislocated and crushed. Her spinal column was broken in three places, her left shoulder dislocated and two ribs broken. Her pelvis was also broken in three places, thus denying her the children she longed for in later life. A steel handrail had pierced the left side of her body and exited through her vagina. To add indignity to her pain the wreckage had by some fluke ripped the clothes from her body, leaving her completely nude. Alejandro, who had been sitting beside her, was not seriously injured.

The doctors did not believe she would survive, but a month later she was released from hospital to convalesce at home. From then onwards her life was a struggle against her relentlessly deteriorating physical condition. She would undergo dozens of operations, suffer almost constant pain, and be continually reminded of her own mortality. It was at this time that she began to paint. Her parents had a canopy placed over her bed with a mirror on the underside so that she could paint herself. She sent her first self-portrait as a gift to her beloved Alejandro, along with many letters imploring him to visit her. But although they remained good friends Alejandro was no longer interested in a romantic relationship with the battered, broken eighteen-year-old who so recently had been the object of his affection.

So Frida continued to paint, gradually adapting her style until it became more identifiably Mexican. She struck up a friendship with the beautiful American photographer Tina Modoti, and it was through her that she joined the Communist party. She also became acquainted with the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. She had seen Diego at work in the Preparatoria when she was a student there. She and Diego fell in love and in 1928 he included her in his painting “The Ballad of the Revolution”. He depicted her distributing guns to revolutionary fighters. The following year they were married. Her mother was strongly opposed to the marriage because Diego was ugly, he was twenty years her senior, and he was a communist. She did not attend the wedding.

Diego was an incurable philanderer, but although women found him irresistible he was no handsome prince; once when they were trading insults Frida told him he had a face like a frog, and she was not exaggerating – any frog within earshot would have demanded an apology! But there was a plus side to the flamboyant artist; he was generous to Frida and her family, and he was sincere in his socialist beliefs. In 1929 he was expelled from the Communist party because of his opposition to Stalin, so Frida resigned out of loyalty to her husband. She continued to paint, and her painting continued to improve, but for years she felt that she was living under the shadow of her husband.

In 1930, after her first pregnancy was terminated, she accompanied Diego to San Francisco where he had a commission. Diego’s next commission was in Detroit, where Frida’s second pregnancy ended with a miscarriage in 1932. Her mother died the same year, and although she had always claimed there was no real bond between her and her mother, she wept uncontrollably at the news. Diego’s last major commission before returning to Mexico was a mural for the Rockefeller centre in New York. This led to his famous altercation with Rockefeller, who ordered him to remove Lenin’s face from the mural. To his credit Diego refused, so Rockefeller paid him off, had him evicted from the centre, and later destroyed the mural. They returned to Mexico at the end of 1933.

Although she did not like America’s puritanical bourgeois society she did make many good friends there, including Dr. Leo Eloesser, who became her lifelong medical adviser. She also conceded that when the Americans fight you “…even the Rockefellers don’t stab you in the back.” Her visit to America also inspired two of her best-known paintings, ‘My Dress Hangs Here’ and ‘Self-Portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States’. It was also during their stay in New York that Diego angered Frida’s American friends by neglecting her in order to have an affair with a young divorcee. “I have this deplorable trend of hurting those I love,” he explained. The following year he was to hurt her even more.

1934 was a terrible year in Frida’s life: her third pregnancy was terminated, her right foot was operated on and several toes amputated, and to add to her anguish Diego had an affair with her sister Cristina. This was too much. In 1935 she moved into a small apartment in Mexico City. She could not stop loving Diego, but from now she was going to give as good as she got; that year she met and had an affair with the American sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Diego threatened to shoot him. All Frida’s pain and anger can be seen in the painting she did that year: ‘A few small nips’.

They were reunited and parted several times after that, but Frida was now moving out of Diego’s shadow. In 1936 she had another operation on her right foot. She was back in the couple’s joint home that year and was very active in her support of the Spanish Republicans. At this time the plight of the great hero of the Russian revolution, Leon Trotsky, became desperate. Expelled from Norway under pressure from Russia, he and his wife had been refused asylum by country after country. Diego Rivera presented president Cárdenas with a petition for Trotsky’s asylum, and Cárdenas consented; thus on the morning of January 9, 1937, Trotsky and his wife set foot on Mexican soil.

Frida gave them the use of the Blue House in Coyoacán, the house in which she had been born.

It has been suggested that Frida’s affair with Trotsky was an attempt by her to get revenge on Diego for his affair with her sister. Utter nonsense! When Frida Kahlo looked at Leon Trotsky she knew she was looking at no ordinary man. This was the intellectual giant driven by an unshakeable resolve to change the world, this was the living legend hero-worshipped by revolutionaries the world over; it is hardly surprising that these two outstanding personalities were drawn to each other.

Their liaisons took place in Cristina’s house, but it was doomed to be a brief affair. Trotsky’s bodyguards were worried that the volatile Diego would get wind of it and impulsively end the career of his political idol with a bullet, and furthermore, Natalia Trotsky was no fool; she knew what was going on and she did not deserve to be hurt this way. So after a few weeks the affair was ended. Trotsky moved to a farm eighty miles outside of Mexico City. The affair was not just another conquest for Frida; she gave him a gift of a self-portrait inscribed: “For Leon Trotsky with all love I dedicate this painting.” She also wrote to a friend in 1938 that meeting Trotsky was the best thing that ever happened in her life.

In the following years she greatly increased her painting output, and concentrated on improving her technique; she was determined to be financially independent although she pretended to be modest, implying that anyone who would buy her paintings had more money than sense. But people did start buying her pictures. It began when Diego showed some of her work to the film actor and serious art collector Edward G. Robinson. He bought four of them at $200 each. She was delighted at this breakthrough: “This way I’ll be free, I’ll be able to travel and do what I want without asking Diego for money.” Her confidence boosted by this unexpected sale, she held her first solo exhibition in the Julian Levy gallery in New York.

Although the exhibition gained much favourable publicity from the fact that she was Diego’s wife it established her reputation as an artist in her own right. More than half the paintings were sold and she received great acclaim from the press and the art world. She had now truly emerged from Diego Rivera’s shadow. And just to emphasize the point she had an affair with the photographer Nicholas Murray.

From there she took her work to Paris where the French surrealist André Breton had helped arrange an exhibition of her works. Before the exhibition could open she wound up in hospital with inflammation of the kidneys and bladder. When she recovered she arranged, with Diego’s help, for four hundred refugees from the Spanish Civil War to gain asylum in Mexico. When the show opened in March 1939, it was a critical but not a financial success. Afterwards she returned to New York for a short stay then moved back to her family home in Coyoacán. That year she and Diego were divorced.

There are several rumours about the reason for the divorce (which was instigated by Diego). Both claimed it was the only way to preserve their friendship, and it is also thought that Diego was trying to protect her from possible reprisals by his political enemies. In any case the split was amicable and they continued to see each other and work together, although Frida confided in a letter to her ex-lover Nick Murray that she was feeling rejected and depressed. In truth, she was heartbroken.

During that period she worked harder than ever, not only because she needed to make a living, but also because she needed to smother the pain that Diego had caused her. Her friends rallied round her at this time, sending her money and helping with her medical bills.

In May, 1940, an unsuccessful attempt was made on Trotsky’s life by a group of Stalinists. Diego Rivera was wrongly implicated and had to leave Mexico for his own safety. He went to San Francisco where he had been promised some work. But on August 20, a Stalinist agent named Ramón Mercader murdered Trotsky by smashing into his skull with an ice pick. Because she had known Mercader, Frida was also wrongly suspected of complicity. Although her health was very poor at this time, she and Cristina were arrested and imprisoned for two days. Worried about Frida’s worsening health, Diego informed her medical adviser Dr Eolesser about her situation. The doctor immediately contacted her and implored her to come to San Francisco. She did so and under his supervision her health greatly improved. During this time Diego realized how badly the divorce had affected Frida’s health; he also realized that he needed her as much as she needed him. They remarried on December 5. Frida stipulated that there would be no more sexual intercourse between them and that she would accept no money from him, living only on the money from her paintings. Diego was happy to have her back whatever the conditions. She returned to Mexico to spend Christmas with her family and Diego followed her in February after being cleared of any implication in Trotsky’s assassination. They settled quickly into a much more contented relationship, but Frida’s new found happiness was marred by the death of her beloved father that year.

In the 1940s Frida’s artistic reputation continued to grow. She became a member of the Seminario de Cultura Mexicano in 1942, and the following year was awarded a professorship at the La Esmeralda School of Art. She taught twelve lessons a week there.

After a few months, crippled by pain and forced to wear a steel corset, she became housebound; undeterred, she conducted her lessons from her home. In the years that followed her health deteriorated at an increasing pace, but she still remained politically active (she rejoined the Communist Party in 1948) and still continued to paint when she could, although the quality of her work would decline along with her health. In 1946 the Ministry of Public Education awarded her a national prize for her picture ‘Moses,’ and that same year she had to go to New York for a spinal operation.

In 1950 she underwent seven operations on her spine and had to spend nine months in hospital. After being discharged from hospital she spent most of her time in a wheelchair and was constantly dependent on painkillers.

In 1953, sensing that Frida had not long to live, her friend Lola Alvarez Bravo planned the first solo exhibition of Frida’s work in Mexico. Frida was delighted and was determined to ignore her doctor’s advice and attend the exhibition personally. On the opening night her four-poster bed was wheeled into the hall. Shortly afterwards Frida arrived by ambulance and was laid on the bed wearing one of her traditional Mexican dresses. Her friends gathered round her and they drank and sang songs well into the night. Despite her pain and great physical discomfort it must surely have been one of the happiest nights of her life. The show was such a success that it had to be extended for a month.

But yet another setback was in store for her that year; she was told that she would have to lose her right leg. There was no choice, she was in terrible pain, her body was ravaged by drugs and the gangrene was advancing. She became deeply depressed after the operation, but her spirits lifted when, after a few months, she learned to walk short distances with the aid of an artificial leg.

Still full of fight, Frida defied doctor’s orders in July, 1954, to take part in a demonstration. She joined thousands of Mexicans in the streets, Diego pushing her wheelchair, to protest against the CIA’s interference in Guatemala. A photograph of her at the protest shows her looking ill and tired, but still defiant.

On the July 12, she gave Diego a ring as a twenty-fifth anniversary present. When Diego asked why she was giving him it when the anniversary date was still about a month away, she said “Because I feel I’m going to leave you soon.”

The next day, in the very same house where it began, her life came to an end.

The Paintings

Let us now view some of her work at the exhibition and see what it can tell us.

Self-Portrait in a Velvet Dress, 1926

This was the painting she gave as a gift to Alejandro Gomez Arias in an unsuccessful attempt to regain his affections while she was recovering from the horrendous injuries she sustained in the streetcar accident. A strong European influence is obvious in her style, reminiscent of the old Italian masters. It is a style she was soon to change.

My Grandparents, My Parents and I, 1936

She was intensely conscious of her roots, of where she was coming from and who she was. She portrays herself as a very young child standing in the garden of her family home. She is holding a red ribbon, one end of which reaches up to her maternal grandparents hovering above the Mexican landscape, the other reaching to her paternal grandparents hovering above the sea. She also paints herself as a foetus in her mother’s womb, and below that, the moment of her conception. This fascination with her origins would appear in many of her works.

La Adelita, Pancho Villa, and Frida, 1927

Political from an early age, here she identifies herself with The Mexican Revolution by painting herself with its heroes.

My Birth, 1932

Her lifelong fascination with birth, life and death. While she was working on this picture her own mother died. The child being born is herself and the covered head and upper torso is almost certainly a reference to her mother’s death.

A Few Small Nips, 1935

This work was inspired by a real murder case in which the killer tried to defend his actions by claiming, “…it was only a few small pricks.” We see the jealous man showing no sign of remorse as he looks down on the bloody corpse of the woman he has just butchered. It refers not only to the violent abuse of women but also to the pain beyond measure that Frida felt on discovering that her husband and her favourite sister were having an affair.

Henry Ford Hospital, 1932

This was one of the paintings that gained her recognition among the surrealists but strictly speaking her work was not surrealist and she did not wish to be associated with the movement. Many of her paintings were symbolic and could be easily decoded. All the objects surrounding her in this painting are related to her miscarriage at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. She was still desperately longing for a child of her own.

My Nurse and I, 1937

When she was born Frida was wet nursed by a native woman. There is no sign of affection on the woman’s mask like face but Frida is absorbing the culture of her native land and her Mexican ancestors.

Self-Portrait On The Borderline Between Mexico and The United States, 1932

Here we see Frida standing between her ancient Mexican homeland and the brash, heavily industrialized United States. The Mexican flag she holds indicates where her loyalties lie. Unlike Diego, who loved being in America, she was never happy to be away from her native land.

My Dress Hangs Here, 1933

Here she is showing her strong dislike of American capitalism with its destructive, wasteful vulgarity and its lack of basic human values.

The Two Fridas, 1939

Possibly her best-known work, she painted this while she was divorced from Diego Rivera. The Frida on the right is the one Diego loves; she is wearing a Tehuana costume and holding a small picture of Diego as a child (she often referred to him as a child). An artery from her exposed heart is connected to the heart of the other Frida, the one he does not love. This Frida wears a European dress and she is trying unsuccessfully to stop the artery from her heart bleeding on to her dress; she is slowly dying because Diego does not love her.

Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, 1940

“See if I loved you, it was only for your hair. Now that you’re bald I don’t love you any more.” These are the words, written in Spanish at the top of the painting, of a song that was popular in Mexico at the time. Believing that she was loved only for her feminine allure, Frida crops her hair to make herself less sexually attractive. She also wears a man’s suit, probably to reflect her bisexuality. More than half of her paintings were self-portraits. This was not vanity; she often exaggerated her joined eyebrows and the facial hair on her upper lip; she even entitled one of her self-portraits ‘Very Ugly.’

The Broken Column, 1944

A lonely desolate figure stands in a lonely desolate landscape. The broken column is her shattered spine and her body is held together by the steel corset she was forced to wear. The pins obviously represent her mental and physical pain and the tear stained face says it all. There have been many fanciful interpretations put on this painting, but the picture speaks for itself: “I still want to live, my friends, but how much more can I take?” Never in the history of art has there been a more powerful portrayal of human loneliness and despair.

Conclusion

Frida Kahlo’s work is gaining a huge number of admirers all over the world. It is significant that once she was famous for being Diego Rivera’s wife, but now her fame has eclipsed even that of the great Mexican muralist who gave her so much joy and caused her so much pain. Her too brief life was an incessant struggle against physical and emotional torture and she fought hard against increasingly insurmountable odds until the fight became just too much for her. To know her, and to empathize with her, makes it so much easier to appreciate the unique greatness of her art. Standing in a gallery looking at her work the viewer feels as if he can see right into her heart and soul.