Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón, known simply as Frida Kahlo, was born in her beloved family home, la Casa Azul (or “the Blue House”) in Coyoacán, Mexico on July 6, 1907. Frida Kahlo’s celebrated self-portraits reflect a lifetime of pain and sadness that began at the tender age of six when Frida was stricken with polio, confining her to a bed for nine months of her young life. Kahlo never fully recovered from her childhood illness and, from that point forward, she always walked with a limp. However, while the effects of Frida’s polio may have slowed her down, they certainly couldn’t extinguish her spirit.
An athletic and energetic tomboy, Frida Kahlo was one of the only female students at the National Preparatory School where she surrounded herself with bright intellectuals who piqued her interest in politics. It was at school that Kahlo caught her first glimpse of Diego Rivera, the man she would later marry, who had been commissioned to paint the first of his many famous murals in the Bolívar Auditorium. Only a few years later, Frida and a friend were riding the bus together when it collided with a street car, impaling her with a metal handrail, breaking her collarbone and her ribs, and fracturing her spine and pelvis. In the months following her nearly fatal accident, bedridden for the second time in her life, Kahlo began painting self-portraits: deeply personal, piercing works that would soon become her trademark. Just as Frida Kahlo was haunted by her childhood encounter with polio for most of her life, she would be similarly plagued by the consequences of her accident for years to come. The metal handrail failed, however, to fracture Frida’s soul and the spirited artist found solace in painting and politics, joining the Young Communist League and hob nobbing with Mexico’s artistic elite, through which she was formally introduced to Diego Rivera, the muralist she had pined for in her high school days. Rivera was enthralled by Kahlo’s “primitive” art and his encouragement led to a romance. The pair wed in 1929 and Kahlo soon followed her new husband to the United States, where he had been commissioned to paint his remarkable murals.
Though she was in the States to support her husband’s work, Frida Kahlo’s searing self-portraits started garnering attention and praise. Yet, as her success grew, Kahlo still struggled with the effects of her accident: a series of heartbreaking miscarriages was, by far, the most agonizing result of the collision. Frida exorcised her pain through art. Her 1932 painting, Henry Ford Hospital, depicts a nude Kahlo in the Detroit hospital with bloody sheets and her dead fetus attached to her by a blood red cord. Kahlo also used her work to reveal the trauma she experienced as a result of her husband’s many affairs, though she herself wasn’t immune to infidelity. She had a brief affair with Russian socialist, Leon Trotsky, when he stayed with Kahlo and Rivera in the Blue House in 1937. The couple divorced in 1939 but re-married the very next year.
As Frida Kahlo’s health declined in the years that followed, she struggled to paint quickly enough to satisfy her growing number of international fans and funders, who couldn’t seem to get enough of her raw and revealing work. Despite this devoted following, Kahlo only ever had one solo exhibition in her homeland of Mexico and it took place in the spring of 1953. An ambulance escorted Frida to the show and she greeted the crowd from a bed in the center of the gallery. A little over a year later, Kahlo died in the Blue House, finally free of a lifetime of endless pain. When she was alive, Frida’s genius was often overshadowed by that of her husband. In death, Frida Kahlo is no longer just Diego Rivera’s wife; she casts her own shadow as the mother of feminist folk art and an emblem of contemporary Mexican culture.