Frida Kahlo is one of the 20th century’s most famous painters, best known for her personal self-portraits. A self-mythologizing artist, many of her paintings related directly to her physical pain, caused by a tragic accident when young, and to the emotional pain, caused by the infidelities of her husband, artist Diego Rivera, whom she would marry twice.
Kahlo experimented with Surrealist techniques throughout her career. While the Surrealist poet Andre Breton described her as a Surrealist, she never accepted this definition for herself. She said that it was not dreams that informed her art but rather her own reality. Her iconography, in which she depicted herself as abandoned, drew from traditional Mexican votive painting, folk art, and pre-Columbian symbolism. When inspired by Christian Renaissance art, she personalized the suffering of martyrs and portrayed herself in their roles, transforming herself into the Woman of Sorrows.
Born near Mexico City, Kahlo was a cultured, cosmopolitan painter who spoke three languages. Although steeped in Mexican traditions, she had access to knowledge of European artistic movements. She had polio as a child, but when she was 18 years old, she was injured in a terrible bus accident. She had to undergo 30 operations in her life for injuries sustained in this accident. Her self-portraits revealed the physical pain she felt all through her adult life.
She married Mexican muralist Diego Rivera in 1929. The two of them expressed their political beliefs through their paintings, and in Kahlo’s case – through her wearing of traditional Mexican skirts, tops, and shawls. In the early 1930s she accompanied Rivera to the United States as he worked on mural commissions. In 1938, Kahlo met Andre Breton and Jacqueline Lamba when the couple visited Mexico. A year later she traveled to Paris where Breton had organized an exhibition that included her work. Kahlo’s first solo exhibition was in New York in 1938, and her only one-woman show in Mexico City was held in 1953.
Her 1939 “The Two Fridas” is a monumental, double self-portrait of a divided self, who invokes her German and Mexican ancestry in mirrored images of a European woman and a Tehuana Indian woman holding hands. It also transforms a traditional Mexican wedding portrait into something personal. Painted at the time of her stormy divorce from Diego Rivera, she pictures an unorthodox determination to marry herself.
In the same year she painted the narrative of the actual suicide of her friend, a New York socialite, “The Suicide of Dorothy Hale.” Her painting shows a literal telling of Hale’s suicide from a skyscraper leap. It is rendered in the manner of a traditional Mexican votive offering, with Kahlo sympathizing with the beautiful Hale, who had recently been abandoned by her husband, just as Kahlo was.
She participated in the 1940 “International Exhibition of Surrealism” in Mexico City, and in the 1940s she kept a diary in which she created automatism drawings and paintings. She had her first solo exhibition in Mexico in 1953, a year before she died. Her home, La Casa Azul, was turned into a museum in 1958 where 25,000 visitors come each month. In 1978, there were two retrospectives of her work in Mexico City and in Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.