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Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, National Museum of Women in the Arts
Arts and Culture:
Julie Taymor Interprets Frida Kahlo
More on This Story:
The Life of Frida Kahlo

BILL MOYERS: We don't often review films on now, but every now and then one comes along whose human touch connects with all of us. The name of this movie is FRIDA — for Frida Kahlo, a Mexican painter and cult-hero whose paintings are both evocative and disturbing, and whose colorful, conflicted, and controversial life is the stuff of artistic legend.

The film FRIDA was directed by Julie Taymor. She directed it on location in Mexico. She also designed and directed the LION KING on Broadway. And it was her film version of Shakespeare's TITUS ANDRONICUS — a portrayal of blood feuds and vengeance — that prompted me to interview her last year about terror and tragedy.

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)

Frida Kahlo was barely known outside of her native Mexico when she died in 1954. Yet, in the years since, she has become one of the most celebrated Mexican painters of all time - with over 100 books written about her in Spanish and English - and the first Latin woman ever to be honored on a U.S. postage stamp.

How does a physically crippled bisexual communist painter whose works are as often described as "disturbing" as they are "magnificent" become an icon in the public imagination? Although the intriguing details of her life often sound like events out of a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the wide appeal of her work lies in the raw humanity and intense realism of her art.

Frida Kahlo was born in 1907 to Guillermo Kahlo, son of Hungarian Jews from the German town of Baden-Baden who emigrated to Mexico, and Matilde Calderon, a Mexican of Indian and Spanish descent. She was stricken with polio at the age of six, a disease that stunted the growth of her right leg and foot. After her recovery, she took to several sports, soccer, boxing, wrestling, and swimming among them, and became something of a tomboy.

In 1922, Kahlo enrolled in the predominantly male National Preparatory School in Mexico City, where she first encountered the renowned muralist Diego Rivera. She admired his work immensely, and legend has it that he played a role in her life even before they met. Apparently, she swore to friends that she would bear the child of Rivera, and when she found herself in proximity to where he was working on his first mural, she played pranks on him to try to attract his attention.

In 1925, she was traveling home from school on a bus and was involved in a devastating accident, in which several passengers were killed, and Kahlo was severely injured. Her spine was fractured, her pelvis was crushed, and her right leg and foot were broken. While she spent the next three months confined to bed and fitted with a plaster brace, she began to paint as a form of expression at a time when she was otherwise limited. Although she was soon able to walk again, she would experience pain from her accident for the rest of her life.

After her recovery, she concentrated on her painting, and became involved in a new sphere of art and leftist politics, befriending photographer Tina Modotti, and once again coming into contact with active Communist Diego Rivera. Although they seemed to be an unlikely pair - he was 21 years her senior, and three times her size - Kahlo and Rivera grew to share a passionate love and respect for each other's talents. On August 21, 1929, the couple married in a civil ceremony.

Two strong personalities, Kahlo and Rivera had a tumultuous life together, both having extramarital affairs and even divorcing in 1939 and then remarrying a year later. Throughout it all, they remained at the center of an international intellectual circle, engaging in political activism and using art as a medium to express their views.

In addition to the pain that hounded her for the rest of her life following the bus accident, Kahlo suffered numerous miscarriages, and on multiple occasions, was relegated to her bed for months at a time.

But over the course of her life, her art would be informed by the physical trials she underwent as well as her strong political beliefs.

There is an exhibit of Frida Kahlo's works at the Seattle Art Museum through January 5, 2003.

IMAGE CREDIT "Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky" from 1937. National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC.


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