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Spotlight: Frida Kahlo

Updated: Jan 17, 2021

Frida Kahlo: renowned artist, activist, and feminist. Frida Kahlo has played a critical role in the advancement of Mexican cultural identity, feminist movements, and political activism. Through her surrealist and fantastic art style, she became an icon in both the artistic and political fields.

Frida Kahlo was born on July 6, 1907, in Coyoacán, Mexico City, Mexico. She began painting at a young age but did not pursue the hobby seriously until 1925. In that year, Kahlo was severely injured in a bus accident, which resulted in her being confined to bed for three-months in a full-body cast. During her recovery period, Frida completed her first self-portrait, Self-Portrait in a Velvet Dress, and developed a renewed interest in painting. Kahlo’s injuries from this accident, and the lifelong pain they caused, feature heavily in her work and became a source of inspiration for her painting.

After her recovery, Kahlo pursued painting at the urging of Mexican painter and muralist, Diego Rivera. Kahlo and Rivera were introduced in 1928 and married in 1929, beginning a long but tumultuous marriage. Though Kahlo and Rivera inspired each other artistically and politically, their marriage was plagued by infidelity, with both Rivera and Kahlo having numerous affairs. Kahlo, for example, was romantically involved with famed Marxist, Leon Trotsky, who stayed with the couple while exiled from the Soviet Union. Her painting, Between the Curtains, shows this affair, with Frida holding a letter addressed to Trotsky. Following the series of infidelities, Kahlo and Rivera divorced only to be reconciled a year later.

Throughout her life, Kahlo was avidly involved with political, social, and cultural movements worldwide. The Mexican Revolution and Kahlo’s paintings depicting Mexican culture exemplify this. In her self-portraits, Kahlo uses symbolism and traditional Mexican dress to display her identity, which was influenced by the ongoing realities of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). Similarly, Kahlo’s autobiographical depictions of women showcase her perspective in a tangible way. For example, Kahlo’s painting Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair depicts Frida in menswear, with short hair, while holding a pair of scissors. This painting has been analyzed as a representation of both her bisexuality and a symbol of her frustration with patriarchal culture. Other paintings showing violent images of women signal the inequalities and physical and emotional pain experienced by women.

Overall, Frida Kahlo has a profound influence on art and its depictions of political, social, and cultural realities. Kahlo herself has stated that “I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality,” signaling that her art served to capture the true state of her life and society. Today, growing political and cultural movements have renewed interest in Kahlo’s life and work, and she continues to represent new waves of Mexican cultural identity, feminism, and social activism.

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