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The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo
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In This Section:
Honestly Frida
Photo Gallery
People in Frida's World
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Honestly Frida
Frida, winking, NYC With slim sable brushes, Frida Kahlo painstakingly rendered her bold unibrow and mustache in dozens of self-portraits. This same Frida also shaved three years off her age, claiming 1910 to be the year she was born in Coyoacán, Mexico, instead of 1907.

Vanity? Hardly. Frida, always her own favorite model, was not about preserving youthful beauty so much as identifying herself with Mexico, her beloved homeland. Frida's "acquired birth year" just so happens to coincide with the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution (1910) and the overthrow of President Porfirio Diaz.

If her glaring lie seems jarring and incongruous – disturbing, even, in the face of her usual unabashed candor – reflect for a moment on the juxtaposed images that characterize her paintings. Frida never allowed apparent facts – her own birth certificate, for instance – to get in the way of a higher truth; the truth in this case being that she and modern Mexico were inextricably bound in both revolution and renaissance.

An understanding of Frida Kahlo, the person as well as the paintings, requires a setting aside of conventional thoughts – and dates, as the case may be. At the same time, paradoxically enough, it requires the context of history. She was a revolutionary artist born amidst political chaos in her homeland; born in the year of its own bloody rebirth, give or take a couple years. That image, according to the artist, is more truthful than fact itself. It would be quibbling to disagree.

Frida An Unconventional Union

No matter whether she was in Paris, New York or Coyoacán, she clothed herself elaborately in the Tehuana costumes of Indian maidens. As much as Frida's country defined her, so, too, did her husband, the celebrated muralist, Diego Rivera. If Mexico was her parent, then Rivera – 20 years her senior – was her "big-child." She often referred to him as her baby. She met him while still a schoolgirl and later, in 1929, became the third wife of a man who gaily accepted the diagnosis of his doctor that he was "unfit for monogamy."

Needless to say, theirs was an unconventional and problematic, if passionate, union that survived numerous affairs (on both their parts), separations and even a divorce in 1939 and subsequent remarriage in 1940. Their love proved hardy, like the roots in Frida's painting "The Love Embrace." But Frida's hold on Diego as a husband was tenuous. Marriage was hardly a salve for the suffering that had characterized Frida's young life – a horrific trolley car accident left her broken as a youth and debilitated throughout much of her adulthood. Diego's incorrigible philandering – once with Frida's own younger sister, Cristina – only exacerbated her pain. "I suffered two grave accidents in my life," she once said, "One in which a streetcar knocked me down … The other accident is Diego."

As a couple, the Riveras remained childless; this, as much as Diego's infidelities, was a source of great anguish for Frida for whom Diego was everything: "my child, my lover, my universe."

As individual artists, the pair was wildly productive. Each regarded the other as Mexico's greatest painter. Frida referred to Diego as the "architect of life." Each took a deep, proprietary pride in the other's creations, drastically different as they were in habit and style.

Diego Rivera, seated in front of mural depicting America class struggle On a high scaffold in the outdoors, the driven Diego painted for days on end. He loved painting as obsessively as Frida loved him, rendering grand public murals with political themes. Frida, meanwhile, was often immobilized in a cast in her bed, or confined to a hospital room, either anticipating a surgery or recovering from one. She alternately languished and painted intensely personal works. About a third of her entire body of work – about 55 paintings – consists of self-portraits. In some, she stares out, willfully impassive, her face mask-like; in others, graphic depictions of her internal bodily organs reveal corresponding states of mind. She shied away from nothing, revealing – indeed, reveling in – the indignity of heartbreak, as well as the gut-wrenching pain of abortion and miscarriage.

Diego, a social realist, actually welled up with tears of pride when Picasso once admired the eyes in a painting of Frida's. And he wrote this glowing recommendation to a friend about an early exhibition of her work: "I recommend her to you, not as a husband but as an enthusiastic admirer of her work, acid and tender, hard as steel and delicate and fine as a butterfly's wing, loveable as a beautiful smile, and profound and cruel as the bitterness of life."

Frida the Surrealist?

Although Frida's work, often fantastic and sometimes gory, has been described as surrealism, she once wrote that she never knew she was a surrealist "until André Breton came to Mexico and told me I was one." ("The art of Frida Kahlo is a ribbon about a bomb," Breton wrote, admiringly.) However, Frida eschewed labels. Diego argued that Frida was a realist. Her principal biographer, Hayden Herrera, seems to agree, writing that even in her most enigmatic and complex painting, "What the Water Gave Me," Frida is "down to earth," having depicted "real images in the most literal, straightforward way." Like much of Mexican art, Frida's paintings "interweave fact and fantasy as if the two were inseparable and equally real," Herrera adds.

"Really I do not know whether my paintings are surrealist or not, but I do know that they are the frankest expression of myself," Frida once wrote. "Since my subjects have always been my sensations, my states of mind and the profound reactions that life has been producing in me, I have frequently objectified all this in figures of myself, which were the most sincere and real thing that I could do in order to express what I felt inside and outside of myself."

Frida painting “The Two Fridas” A Lust for Life

Frida, the person and her art, defy easy definition. Rather, they lend themselves to ambiguous description. Often volatile and obsessive, Frida was alternately hopeful and despairing. She loved dancing and crowds and flirtation and seduction – and was often miserably lonely, begging friends and lovers to visit, not to "forget" her. She had a ferocious and often black sense of humor, as well as a sharp command of wit and metaphor. She took great pride in keeping a home for Diego and loved fussing over him, cooking for him and bathing him. She delighted in pets – mischievous spider monkeys and dogs – and adored children, who she treated as equals. She loved nonsense, gossip and dirty jokes. She abhorred pretension. She treated servants like family and students like esteemed colleagues. Frida Kahlo embodied alegría, – a lust for life. She valued honesty, especially to self.

She once wrote to a former lover (who allegedly had jilted her because of her physical infirmities), "you deserve the best, the very best, because you are one of the few people in this lousy world who are honest to themselves, and that is the only thing that really counts."

When Frida Kahlo died at the age of 47 on July 13, 1954, she left paintings, each of which corresponds to her evolving persona, as well as a collection of effusive letters to lovers and friends, and colorfully candid journal entries. All are irrefutable evidence that her life was nothing less than a quest to be honest to herself – 1910 birthday and all.

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