Frida Kahlo began to paint in 1925 while recovering from a streetcar accident that left her permanently disabled. She underwent more than thirty operations in the course of her life, and many of her approximately two hundred paintings directly relate to her experiences with physical pain. They also chronicle her turbulent relationship with Diego Rivera.
Kahlo met Rivera in 1928 and married him in 1929. She shared his faith in communism and passionate interest in the indigenous cultures of Mexico. Rivera encouraged Kahlo in her work, extolling her as authentic, unspoiled and primitive, and stressing the Indian aspects of her heritage. During this period "Mexicanidad," the fervent embrace of pre-Hispanic Mexican history and culture, gave great currency to the notion of native roots. At the same time, being seen as a primitive provided an avenue for recognition for a few women artists. Kahlo, who had Indian blood on her mother’s side, was of Hungarian-Jewish descent on her father’s. Although initially a self-taught painter, she was, through her relationship with Rivera, soon travelling in the most sophisticated artistic circles. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that anyone who shared Rivera’s life could have remained artistically naive. Presumably because it generated respect and imparted credibility in the art world, Kahlo encouraged the myth of her own primitiveness—in part by adopting traditional Mexican dress—and it stayed with her throughout her career. During her lifetime, Kahlo did not enjoy the same level of recognition as the great artists of Mexican muralism, Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros. However, over the last two decades that has changed and today Kahlo’ s idiosyncratic, intensely autobiographical work is critically and monetarily as prized as that of her male peers, sometimes more so.
Kahlo and Rivera divorced briefly in 1939, remarrying in 1940. She appears in several of Rivera’s murals, notably as a communist militant in his Corrido de la revoluci Un proletaria, repartiendo armas (Ballad of the proletarian revolution, distributing arms) at the Ministry of Education in Mexico City.
Kahlo’s paintings, especially her self-portraits, begin as the most personal statements imaginable. Yet they somehow transcend the here-and-now to tap into something universal, and it is that transcendence which has lifted Kahlo’s stature as artist and popular icon to an unprecedented level for a Mexican figure, male or female.
Presented by Bell Canada
With support from the Province of Ontario and the Ontario Cultural Attractions Fund
Frida Kahlo in Xochimilco, 1936 Photograph courtesy Fritz Henle Estate