It’s difficult not to love the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Both famously eccentric and eccentrically famous, she radiated an enormous force and was an undoubtedly captivating individual. Since her death in 1954, the artist’s exotic, passionate nature has acted as a template for how female bohemians should behave. She was openly bisexual and had a tempestuous on-off marriage with the famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. With her fiery temperament, vivid clothing and glamorous friends and lovers, Frida obtained the ideals for a celebrity artist, and that is what she became. She had a unique quality that was evident through her artwork, but also in the way she presented herself. At a young age Frida experimented with wearing male clothing, something almost unheard of during the early 1900s, and she was proud of her mono-brow and moustache. She later became known for wearing traditional Native Mexican dress and adorning herself in beads and flowers. Her appearance, as well as her art, reflected her support and involvement with the Mexican Revolution and the visual forming of a United National Identity that had been stripped of Mexico during colonialism.
Images via fridakahlo.org.
She had original artistic talent, but it is Frida’s turbulent personal life and character that has brought her the most fame.
She was known to suffer severe physical and emotional torment throughout her short life and Frida has become an “icon of pain”. She was diagnosed with polio at six, which resulted in a withering leg that became repeatedly infected and was eventually amputated later in her life. At 18 she had a devastating bus accident, the injuries of which she would never fully recover and would bring her chronic pain for the rest of her life. The accident also prevented her from bearing children and she endured a number of miscarriages. Frida’s difficult and extremely passionate relationship with renowned womaniser Diego Rivera, also brought her deep emotional anguish. These elements of her life provoke psychological discussions of her work, as her painting was an essential outlet for Frida, both emotionally and spiritually. Through art, she documented the suffering in her life, and her works are described as unashamedly self-absorbed and confessional.
Images: The Broken Collumn (1944), and Diego and I (1949). Via fridakahlo.org.
However, there is a prevailing emphasis put onto Frida’s ‘female aesthetic’ and her apparent narcissism that has distorted the meaning behind much of her work. The consistent attention to Frida’s life story has overshadowed the deeper and more revealing truths in her work, namely her communist politics and the impact they had on her art.
In an oppressive and repressive political and social climate, she was an outspoken leftist, a feminist, and a fighter for equality. She used the intense tyranny of her own pain as a means of translating the tyranny experienced by her people and her society.
Image: Tree of Hope, Keep Firm (1946). Via Wikipedia.
Frida was a ‘child of the Revolution’ in Mexico, which started in 1910 as a movement of middle-class protest against the long-standing dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz (1876-1911). The revolution persisted with the aim of mobilising those who had been pushed into the margins of politics. With many other Revolutionaries, Frida fought against the establishment of colonialism that frowned upon the national culture of indigenous Mexican people. The Russian Revolution of 1917 exerted a strong attraction for critical intellectuals and artists in their fight, and Mexican communist artists including Frida and Diego saw the opportunity to utilise art in the Mexican uprising.
Image: Frida displays her hand painted spinal support cast that shows her support for Communism through the Communist symbol of a Hammer and Sickle. Via fridakahlo.org.
Russian and Mexican artists and theorists discussed the relationship between avant-garde art and revolutionary politics. It was the epoch of modernism, in which the twin poles of “Art and Revolution” became the driving force for many artists, both in the Soviet Union and in cities such as Berlin and Paris. Diego Rivera, who openly supported the Russian Revolution, played a leading role in this artistic movement in Mexico through his communist murals. Frida joined the Communist Party in 1928 and in 1929 there was huge social instability and the Communist Party was banned in Mexico. In the wake of anti-communist hysteria, a hate campaign was launched against dissident intellectuals and artists, the serious consequences of which – detention, deportation, murder – forced many to leave the country. In 1930, Frida and Diego fled to the United States.
Image: Self-Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States” (1932). Via Wikipedia.
In the U.S, Frida and Diego met Leon Trotsky, who was founder of the Red Army and one of the most important leaders of the Russian Revolution. For some time Trotsky lived in exile in Mexico where he stayed at Frida’s parent’s home. When they returned to Mexico after 5 years in the States, Frida and Diego’s marital home was open to many political radicals throughout the world, and Frida taught groups of young artists about how their work should reflect firm political and social views. Within her artwork, and that of her students, there is often a complex weaving together of mythology and symbolism, political and religious allegory, that results in intricate messages and meanings.
Image: Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo march with communist artists in Mexico City, 1929. Via artmatters.ca.
Despite this, Frida’s communist politics and their impact on her paintings have either been ignored or trivialised, with the focus remaining on her own inner anguish. It is argued that it is ‘great artists’ rather than great art that drives Art History. But establishing Frida only as a tragic and exotic figure results in whitewashing the brutal, bloody and overtly political content of her art production.
Image: Without Hope (1945). Via fridakahlo.org.
She is presented as artist, martyr, woman of pain, goddess, lover, Mexican, loner and self-promoter, which have all contributed to her iconisation. Furthermore, the popular Art Historical and romanticised notion of Frida Kahlo prevails; that she matured from a young girl into an artist, shaped by marital problems, physical trauma, psychological crises and her inability to have children.
All of these factors played an important role in her life, and it is beyond admirable that she was able to develop the power and the will to paint, throughout her pain and often during tragic circumstances, and produce images that so many people can connect with. However, suffering is not a mandatory requirement for the creation of art. What is needed is the awareness and dissatisfaction with the state of the world and the desire to creatively explore the sources of this dissatisfaction. Frida did this brilliantly and her art had the power to influence the masses.
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