As one of the most iconic artists of recent times, Frida Kahlo has a life story that has become almost as popular as her art. Here are some fascinating facts about her life.
Frida was born in 1907 in a village on the outskirts of Mexico City.
Her father, Wilhelm, was a German photographer who moved to Mexico in 1891. There, he met and married Frida’s mother, Matilde, who was from a Spanish and American Indian background.
Matilde was a very religious lady and Frida’s upbringing was strict. She later described her mum as “kind, active and intelligent, but also calculating, cruel and fanatically religious”.
Frida was especially close to her father, and she would spend days on end helping him out in his photography studio, where she got a taste for the arts. But even though she loved helping her dad out, and even took some drawing lessons from a family friend, she never really thought much more of it!
Instead, she was fascinated by the sciences and biology, and dreamed of one day becoming a doctor.
When Frida was growing up, polio epidemics were still reasonably common. When she was six, she caught the virus which caused her right leg to become thinner and shorter than her left. Later in life, Frida became well known for wearing long colourful skirts– something she started wearing to hide her leg.
Because of the illness, Frida had to take months off school. When she did return to class after being away for so long, the other kids didn’t want anything to do with her, and they bullied her for the limp she now had.
But Frida’s dad was there to help his daughter bounce back after the illness. Even though at the time many said physical exercise was ‘unsuitable’ for girls, her dad urged her to get out and play sports which helped her get her strength back!
When Frida was 18, she was travelling with her boyfriend on a wooden bus when it collided with a streetcar. Remembering the tragedy, her boyfriend described the bus as “burst(ing) into a thousand pieces”.
Frida was nearly killed in the crash when an iron handrail went into her hip and came out the other side. On top of this, she also broke her spinal column, collarbone, ribs, pelvis, right leg in 11 places, and dislocated her shoulder.
Although she did eventually recover, she had to have 35 operations over her life to help with her spinal injuries, and she lived with chronic pain.
Frida’s long recovery was however when she did begin to paint. She would sit in her bed with an easle, mostly painting self-portraits by looking at herself in a mirror across the room.
During her life, Frida created 143 paintings including 55 self-portraits. Kahlo said, “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.”
Her raw and emotional self-portraits often showed both her physical and psychological wounds from her life and accident with themes of pain, disability, injury and fragility.
One of her most famous paintings, The Broken Column, shows her shattered spine looking like an earthquake fissure. Another, Without Hope, shows a time in her life when Frida had lost her appetite, so her doctor prescribed the force-feeding of a fattening purée every two hours.
She even showed one of the several miscarriages she experienced – likely due to the accident which damaged her uterus and had made pregnancy impossible.
In 1927 when Frida was 20, she had admired the work of the famous Mexican painter Diego Rivera for many years. When she did eventually get to meet him, despite a 20-year age difference, the pair quickly fell for each other, leading Diego to leave his second wife and marry Frida in 1929.
People often referred to the couple as “The Elephant and the Dove” due to the difference in their size.
Frida’s 10 year marriage with Diego was stormy with both having multiple affairs. Frida had affairs with both men and women. Diego even had an affair with Frida’s younger sister Cristina which infuriated her!
They divorced in 1939 but remarried a year later. Although their second marriage was as troubled as the first, Frida remained married to Diego till her death.
As the years passed, Frida’s health had been getting worse and worse, and she spent the last few years in and out of hospital. She now mainly used a wheelchair or crutches to move around. Even so, she continued to paint.
In 1953, toward the end of her short life, Frida was excited to be opening her first solo exhibition in Mexico.
At the time, she was on bed rest under doctor’s orders and nobody expected her to make it. However, she made sure she was there.
She arrived at the gallery in an ambulance, and ordered that she be brought in on a stretcher and moved to a bed, where she was able to enjoy the opening.
Just a few months after her gallery opening, Frida’s health worsened, and her right leg was eventually amputated at the knee due to gangrene. She became depressed and anxious, and her dependency to painkillers worsened.
In her last days, Kahlo had been mostly bedridden with bronchopneumonia. Even so, she attended and spoke at a demonstration against the CIA invasion of Guatemala. Afterwards her illness worsened, and that night she had a high fever and was in extreme pain.
That night in 1954, Frida died age 47. She is reported to have died from a pulmonary embolism, but some suggest she may have died through suicide or overdose.
A few days before her death, she wrote in her diary: “I hope the exit is joyful — and I hope never to return — Frida”.
Kahlo was successful during her lifetime but her work at the time was often dismissed as being that of “the wife of Diego Rivera”.
It was only several years after her death that her work became widely acclaimed. Her reputation grew in the 1970s and reached what some critics called “Fridamania” by the 21st century.
Over the years her work has continued to grow in value, with her famous piece, Two Nudes in a Forest, selling for $8 million in 2016.
Her life including the bus accident, the turbulent marriage, the love affairs, her heavy drinking and drug use, have inspired many books and movies over the years including the 2002 biographical film ‘Frida’, staring Salma Hayek.
After her death, the rise of feminism in the 1970s led to Frida become a feminist and LGBTQI icon.
Frida’s work has been widely praised for being deeply personal and for showing an insight into the female experience. She has also been praised for capturing her natural unibrow and other facial hair which speaks to many about gender roles and body-positivity.
Her openness with her sexuality—she was bisexual—and her gender-neutral dress at times has made her an iconic figure in the LGBTQI community. Her fierce pride in her Mexican roots have also made her a source of pride for many in her culture.