Her face was one known by many, iconic and beautiful in one of the most unconventional ways of her time. However, the tragic circumstances that led to her success are far lesser known, and despite this, the works created in this woman’s image have earned world-wide acclaim.
As a Mexican painter and a woman unafraid to speak her mind, Frida Kahlo dedicated herself to translating her reality to canvas. Kahlo’s paintings, known widely for their symbolic nature, reveal her life in such powerful way, that the use of words can not articulate it with nearly as much depth. However, in explaining why this extraordinary woman has won me over as the subject of my Eminent Person study, I will attempt to do so. In this and following posts, her paintings will serve as an important element for me to observe Kahlo’s own artistic interpretation of her experiences, as well as complement some of the points I talk about here on my blog.
To start, we’ll go back about a hundred years to a small town just outside of Mexico City.
It is during the summer of 1907 when Frida Kahlo is born, just a few years before the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. Born into a family of two sisters in addition to her mother and father, Frida lived a typical life as any girl alive at the time, until she contracted Polio at age six. Although her condition left her with one leg thinner than the other, this health issue was nothing compared to the event that shaped the rest of her life and career in one fell swoop. As a teenager set on her path to study medicine, her plans and healths were compromised after she was involved in a tragic bus accident, which left her with countless injuries, including many broken and fractured bones and a punctured uterus. Although Frida may not have know it at the time, the following three months in which she was confined to her bed were some of the most pivotal moments of her eminence.
One of the first things that attracted me to Frida was her resilience, which is shown in how quickly she used artistic expression to cope with her feelings of isolation and pain following her accident. It is during this time that her interest in art was sparked, as she first began to paint on her body cast, and then moved on to a canvas fitted to her hospital bed. Despite the fact that her only artistic experience at this point was summed up in a few lessons as a child, she was not hesitant to teach herself. Self portraiture was her main point of interest, which later presented itself as one of the most prominent aspects of her work. Frida famously said, “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.”
As you can see in Kahlos’ Tree of Hope, Keep Firm, her time in the hospital had a striking influence on the themes in her paintings. And this is only an example of many. The physical and phycological wounds that Frida Kahlo sustained from her accident provided inspiration, as she is often depicted being pierced with barbs or thorns, or somehow appearing as a victim or subject of pain. In addition, because her possibilities for bearing children were also compromised, images of fertility are apparent in her work as well, creating an interesting juxtaposition of birth and suffering.
What draws me me to Frida’s work during her recovery period is not only the sophistication of her technique, but how her work can only be fully appreciated once it is put into context. Those who have an understanding of Kahlo’s life are able to experience her art in a way more closely to how she herself experienced it. As viewers, we can only pin blind interpretations to her work until we see the source of inspiration, the artfully constructed fragments of experience that work to create an original image. I respect and appreciate Frida’s work for this reason, and especially admire how she persistently argued, contrary to the word of critics at the time, that her art was not surrealism or a representation of her dreams, but rather her own realities brought to light and amplified. Truly, what is more real than suffering itself, and the face that endured it all?
As Frida continued on with her artistic endeavours throughout her life, she continued to draw inspiration from her own relationships and experiences. In 1929, Frida married fellow Mexican artist Diego Rivera, which signalled the beginning of a very troubled time for the two of them. Their marriage was riddled with extramarital affairs on both sides, while Kahlo had intimacy with both men and women. Jealousy caused them to split apart and divorce, but they remarried later in life. Again, Diego is a prominent image found in Frida’s work, and as I continue on in this study, I expect to find many more symbols and nuances in her paintings that reflect her reality.
After creating at least 140 paintings, and hosting her own solo exhibits in the United States, Frida Kahlo was on her way to eminence. Even after her death in 1954, her work stills lives on to be admired, but only became widely popular in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Today, we can see Kahlo’s face as a focal point for pop culture art, her mesmerizing features living on to fascinate more and more people. The mysterious nature of Frida’s paintings are also what first drew me to her as a person of study, but I quickly realized that I knew nothing of this woman, or even her name. With such a rich perspective on her own life, I realized that knowing more about this was an extremely worthwhile cause, as well as a method to explore some of my goals in this project and beyond, including self reflection. I have found that it becomes so easy in school and in other aspects of my own life to speed through things that need to be done, and then move on to the next task without thought, and I hope to incorporate some more meaningful reflection into how I perform in my day-to-day life at school and at home. As the master of self-perception, I believe Frida can help me out with some of that.
In terms of this the Eminent Person study, self reflection can take form throughout and at the end of the project. As I am heavily involved in spoken word poetry, I look forward to exploring how Frida and I compare in terms of how we express our personal experiences through art, as different as poetry and painting may be. This is a point of interest that I believe will span the entire project, and help me in creating a relationship with Frida that is personal and valuable, providing context into what I create as an artist. It is my hope that through this connective process, I will then be able to embody Frida on the Night of the Notables in a way that feels true to what she stood for as artist, and to create a presentation that is honest to what I find valuable within Frida Kahlo’s accomplishments. For now at least, it is time to hit the books to find out more of this extraordinary woman, but what I look forward to in the long term is how I can represent Frida in a way that goes beyond just simply her face, and further into why the person behind it deserves eminence.