08 Feb THE FRIDA PHENOMENON
THE FRIDA PHENOMENON
A Story Of Pain
The name ‘Frida Kahlo’ conjures up colourful mental images of folk art, flowered headdresses and exuberant Mexican style, not to mention those fabulous eyebrows that we’d all recognise from a mile away. But while these typical associations that we know her for today have become iconic, they’re also a massive oversimplification of a complex personality and unusual life.
Simultaneously revered as a Mexican national treasure, as a feminist icon, as a Communist, a style muse and as an LGBT+ poster child, how is it possible that Frida Kahlo represents so much to such diverse causes? What exactly was it about this artist in particular that has fascinated so many and immortalised her as an iconic being?
In truth, her life was hardly glamorous. In fact, it was quite the opposite of a fairy-tale – she had a tragically short, yet vivid life that contained deep love, enduring pain and brave self-expression that captured the adoration of people all over the world.
And it is precisely because her life was difficult that she is regarded as such an inspiration to so many today.
As we mentioned, Frida was complicated. Yes, she was an artist, a feminist and a Marxist. But she was also a seductress, an addict, a possible hypochondriac and is thought to have suffered from both depression and an unusual compulsion to be hospitalised. Her sheer depth and complexity is what has fascinated the masses and created to the Frida-mania we know today.
Kahlo’s struggles began when she was young.
At just 6 or 7 years old, she contracted polio which stunted one leg; a characteristic she would go on to hide for the rest of her life with those instantly recognisable long skirts and dresses. And her luck only worsened at the age of 18 when she was terribly injured in a bus crash. Her pelvis was crushed, her spine, leg and foot all severely broken. Her injuries were so bad that the first prognosis by doctors indicated she may not survive. Yet survive she did.
From the crash onwards, her existence was one filled with chronic pain and other health issues. She would go on to have more than 30 operations over the course of her life, spending much time hospitalised and, by all accounts, lonely. It was this confinement that first led to her developing her artistry, using painting both as therapy and as one of the many means to express herself.
Kahlo became proficient in self-portraiture in particular and as we know, became the main subject of her own art. She poured her feelings about her deteriorating health, her ambiguous gender identity, and her experiences of being a woman into her painting over the years. In doing so, Frida captured an eclectic, fluid, yet unapologetic sense of who she was into her canvases, depicting a non-conformist who thought deeply about the world around her and who mixed realism with the surreal.
In fact, her work was often so fantastical that Surrealists often tried to tie Kahlo to their movement but she felt herself removed from them. According to Kahlo herself, her art came from the world just as she perceived it, not from her dreams.
// “I Paint Myself Because I Am So Often Alone And Because I Am The Subject I Know Best.” - Frida Kahlo //
But Kahlo’s existence was also distinctively marred by her compulsive love.
When Kahlo first met Diego Rivera (a co-member of the Communist Party and famous muralist) and asked for feedback on her work, she could not have known the impact he would have on her for the rest of her life.
Rivera was 20 years her senior and those who knew the couple called them “the Elephant & the Dove” in reference to their difference in sizes. The lovers experienced a truly tumultuous relationship ingrained with extensive infidelities on both sides. His womanising would lead him to have a deeply hurtful affair with her sister, Cristina. Her own extra-marital affairs, with men and women alike, would lead to jealous rages. The love between Rivera and Kahlo was so challenging that they married in 1929, divorced in 1939, and even remarried again a year later. And by all reports, it seems that both fell in love with other people outside of their relationship.
// “There Have Been Two Great Accidents In My Life. One Was The Trolley, And The Other Was Diego. Diego Was By Far The Worst.” - Frida Kahlo //
This lifetime of pain, both physical and emotional, eventually led to multiple suicide attempts. In fact, whilst her death in 1954 was officially ruled as a pulmonary embolism, all signs pointed to a suicide by overdose, most likely brought on by the depression of having her leg amputated. She was only 47. The very last entry in her diary, after giving thanks to people and doctors around her, reads “I hope the leaving is joyful – and I hope never to return – Frida.”
And not even her art could have been enough to rescue her. The truth was that during her life, Kahlo was only really known because of her husband’s fame and was often overshadowed by him. Yes, she did manage to have her own successful shows and rubbed shoulders with the likes of Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro and Elsa Schiaparelli. But ultimately, her primary role was as Rivera’s flamboyant wife – a sassy persona that he helped her to create alongside her painting.
It was only after two decades after her death in the 70’s that Frida Kahlo’s name became one that could stand on its own in the art world, that her name represented more than just her husband’s wife. In fact, we have only recently arrived at a time where some of us might not have even heard of her husband at all, and yet she never got to witness that transformation.
// “I Hope The Leaving Is Joyful - And I Hope Never To Return - Frida.” - Frida Kahlo //
Kahlo was a fantastically imaginative woman who captured the experience of her short life in moving detail through her art and journals.
And she’s become so iconic today that friends and celebrities alike choose to channel her spirit and style whenever there’s an opportunity for dress up. Even designers are looking to her for references. But how many people even now actually know much about her life or could name a piece of her art?
Skipping past the immense struggles Frida Kahlo experienced in her life – feeling deformed, unloved and unappreciated is to do her a disservice when those were the very real factors that contributed to creating the multifaceted persona she once was. And it is only with that information that we can truly understand what was so very special about her.
That in the end, it was everything.