The launching of Frida Kahlo's career can be attributed to the Surrealist artist André Breton who arranged her first solo exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in 1938. Following this she had another exhibition in Paris in 1939 when the Louvre purchased her painting The Frame. This acquisition made Frida Kahlo the first Mexican artist to be featured in the Lourve. This is The Frame.
Many of the paintings of Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) illustrate the physical pain she suffered from a very young age starting with the effects of polio which were exacerbated by a serious accident when she was 18 on the way home from school. The school bus collided with a streetcar and an iron handrail impaled Frida through her pelvis causing numerous fractures. Later in life Frida developed scoliosis possibly because she has one leg shorter than the other and a year before she died she had one leg amputated below the knee. You can see her expression of the effects of this horrendous damage to her body in Tree of Hope painted in 1946 when she was 39 years. Below is an analysis of the painting from the Frida Kahlo site for those of you who are interested in symbolism.
In this painting, under the gloomy sky the sun and moon divided the background into two halves of light and dark. In the middle Frida was sitting there and weeping in a read Tehuana costume. Nevertheless she seems strong and confident. Behind her on a hospital trolley, lying a second Frida, who is anesthetized and her surgical incisions still open and dripping with blood. Frida was holding a pink orthopedic corset while sitting in the wooden chair. In her another hand she was holding a flag which has words from a song ""Cielito Lindo" - "Tree of Hope, keep firm."
On the flagpole, there is a red tip looks like a surgical instrument stained with blood, or a paintbrush dipped in red paint. The barren landscape behind her has two fissures which is metaphor of the wounds on her back. Frida painted this painting for her patron Eduardo Morillo Safa. In a letter to him Frida mentioned: "There is a skeleton (or death) that flees in the face of my will to live." But she later removed the skeleton to please Eduardo. But she cannot eliminate the menace of death. In this portrait, by putting two Frida's images together, one is a victim of botched tragedy, the other is the heroic survivor, Frida used it as a retablo and an act of faith. Frida takes charge of her destiny and become her own saver and hero. (Ref: https://www.fridakahlo.org/tree-of-hope.jsp)
The Broken Column, painted in 1944, shows us the depth of physical and psychological pain Frida suffered throughout her life and implies that without the steel corset she would fall apart.
The association of the cloth to Christ’s loincloth and Kahlo’s wounds resembling those of Saint Sebastian could be a reaction to Frida’s relationship with her mother whom she described as kind, active and intelligent but also calculating, cruel and fanatically religious. Ref: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-kahlo-frida-artworks.htm)
I tell you these details not to horrify you but to demonstrate the strength of character that was Frida Kahlo. According to the Tate Gallery, Frida has become one of the significant painters of the C20th. She was also politically active insisting on recording 7 July 1910 as her birth date (not 1907) as this was the start of the Mexican revolution and she wanted to be seen as part of modern Mexico. Frida and Diago were both members of the Communist Party as illustrated in Marxism will give health to the sick. During Frida's time in the Communist Party she favoured wearing workman's shirts with her skirts. Earlier she had made political statements dressed like a boy. Her point about the subservient role of women in Mexican society is made and reminded me of Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, the writer who used the nom de plume George Sands and who dressed as a man to gain the freedom to ignore social barriers and go where she pleased. We have little idea of suffering the women of these times experienced.
It is interesting to note that one of Frida Kahlo’s favourite artists was Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the Flemish painter we looked at some weeks back and whose focus on peasant life corresponded to her own interest in the Mexican people.
Frida Kahlo became a champion for women especially their suffering. In some cases she was seen as almost a cult figure. Her paintings, some of them too graphic to show in the Blog, expressed the pain suffered by women and for this she has become a role model for many people. Here she is painting from her hospital bed as she had to undergo many operations during her life.
And here she shows graphically the physical condition she had to live with. The portrait on the easel is of Doctor Farill her surgeon and apparently was the last work she signed. It was completed in 1951 and she died three years later.
She also painted some very graphic illustrations of childbirth which I have chosen not to show.
Before the car accident Frida had been intending to study medicine but the long recovery period prevented this happening and she decided to follow her childhood interest in art. As I mentioned in the previous blog she did learn some of her artistic skill when young working with her father who was a photographer and she was learning the trade of engraving from her father's friend. At one time she even considered becoming a medical illustrator so as to combine her two great interests. But what shone through all of this was her desire to capture her own identity and a sense of existing. Frida taught at the Escuela Nacional de Pintura, Escultura y Grabado "La Esmeralda", and became a founding member of the Seminario de Cultura Mexicana. She encouraged her students to appreciate Mexican popular culture and folk art and to derive their subjects from the street. This is an unfinished work of A Girl.
The paintings of Frida Kahlo often contain root imagery with roots growing out of her body and tying her to the ground. The roots could be seen as symbolising personal growth or conversely being trapped in a particular context.
Unfortunately I find that the paintings of Frida’s that have the strong message of suffering take somewhat from her obvious ability as a painter because the viewer can become so disturbed by the image. So let's have a look at some of her more conventional portraits to appreciate how talented she really was. This is the agronomist Eduardo Morillo Safa painted in 1944. Safa purchased 30 works done by Frida Kahlo including commissions of family portraits.
This is Frida's portrait of Alicia Safa and son Eduardo.
And here we see Mariana Morilla Safa their daughter.
This beautiful young woman is another of Eduardo's daughters Lupita Morillo Safa.
For those of you who are interested in painting portraits you can learn much from studying these images, especially the eyes. And I love the backgrounds Frida has chosen.
We will conclude with The Two Fridas baring their hearts to the world.
There are numerous interpretation of the painting which is probably her most famous. On a simple level, one Frida saw herself as European, probably from her father's influence as he was German; the other a lover of the Mexican culture coming from her mother. Frida's explanation was that one of the Fridas was an imaginary friend from childhood. From my reading it is clear that there was an ambivalence about Frida Kahlo. There can be no doubt she was passionate about her Mexican heritage but Frida certainly enjoyed the privileges arising from her contact with European culture while at the same time being critical of the gap between the rich and poor especially in America.
Frida Kahlo had her first solo exhibition in Mexico in 1953, shortly before her death in 1954 at the age of 47. However in 1984, Mexico declared her works a national cultural heritage, prohibiting their export from the country. Her paintings have broken records for Latin American art. In 1990 she became the first Latin American artist to break the one-million-dollar threshold when Diego and I was auctioned by Sotheby's for $1,430,000 and Roots (1943) reached US$5.6 million.
Where to next with the Blog? We will stay close to Frida and look at the mural works of her husband Diego Rivera.