Life and Art of Frida Kahlo – Early Years

A look at the life of the artist through the places she lived, her possessions and her art.

By Museo Dolores Olmedo

Frida Kahlo (1907–1954) was a ground-breaking Mexican artist and political activist whose work continues to influence artists today. Kahlo’s life was full of tragedy and pain, and she used her suffering to shape her art. Known for her many self-portraits, she explained, “I paint myself because I am often alone, and I am the subject I know best.” In this Expedition, we’ll visit important locations in Kahlo’s life and examine some of her most famous works.

La Casa Azul, or the Blue House, was built in 1904 by Frida Kahlo’s father, Guillermo. It was here that Frida was born, spent much of her life, and died. The structure you see today is larger than the original home. Throughout the 1930s and 40s, Kahlo and her husband, artist Diego Rivera, added several wings, a courtyard and an art studio. In 1958, La Casa Azul became a museum.

Kahlo, pictured here at age 12, was born on July 6, 1907. At age 6, she contracted polio and was bedridden for 9 months. She recovered from the disease, but her right leg was permanently thinner and shorter than the left.

Frida Kahlo, June 15, 1919 by Guillermo KahloMuseo Frida Kahlo

This 1951 painting, Portrait of my Father Wilhelm Kahlo, is on display in the Museo Frida Kahlo. Wilhelm, the German version of Guillermo, emigrated from Germany to Mexico in the 1890s. A professional photographer, he shared a close bond with Kahlo.

Portrait of my Father Wilhelm Kahlo by Frida KahloMuseo Frida Kahlo

In the late 1930s, Kahlo and Rivera built a courtyard at La Casa Azul. The enclosed space, which featured a pyramid, several gardens, and numerous statues and artifacts, provided a private space where the couple could create art, relax, and entertain friends and family.

Designed to resemble an ancient Inca or Maya pyramid, this structure serves as a plinth for pre-Hispanic artifacts that Kahlo and Rivera collected throughout their lives.

Numerous pre-Hispanic artifacts such as this carved face are displayed on the courtyard pyramid and nestled between plants throughout the gardens. Kahlo and Rivera collected pre-Columbian pieces as a way to preserve and honor their Mexican heritage.

A small pool adds to the tranquility and beauty of the courtyard. Stone walkways weave through numerous gardens which feature a variety of tropical plants.

La Casa Azul is divided into 10 rooms. Each one features pieces of Kahlo and Rivera’s art, works from other artists, as well as pre-Columbian artefacts. Many of the rooms still contain the original furniture, and they are set up to look as though Kahlo is still living and working in the house.

Kahlo’s paints and brushes are neatly displayed behind her wheelchair and adjustable easel. The large window provides not only plenty of sunlight but also an inspiring view of the vibrant gardens outside.

This is one of many papier-mâché Judas sculptures found in La Casa Azul. Traditionally, the sculptures were filled with firecrackers and exploded during festivities on the Saturday prior to Easter.

While Kahlo did not create this poster titled “Intra-Uterine Life,” it reflects her life-long struggle to conceive a child and suggests the recurring images of fetuses in her paintings.

This building was erected in 1588 and originally housed a Jesuit boarding school. In the late 1860s, it became the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria (National Preparatory School), an elite preparatory school which Kahlo began attending in 1922. The school closed in 1978, and since then, the building has housed San Ildefonso College, a cultural center and museum.

One of only 35 girls at the school, Kahlo, who had not yet begun painting, was enrolled in a premedical program. She was remembered by fellow students as outgoing and outspoken and for her love of colorful traditional clothing.

Installation shot of Appearances Can Be Deceiving exhibitMuseo Frida Kahlo

Kahlo met her husband-to-be, Diego Rivera, in 1922 while he was painting a mural at the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria. Entitled Creation, it was the first government-sponsored mural in Mexico, and it gave birth to the Mexican muralism movement. This self portrait is from 1930.

Self-portrait by Diego RiveraMuseo Dolores Olmedo

While a student, Kahlo joined the socialist-nationalist group “Los Cachuchas” (the Peaked Caps). This sketch, made by Kahlo in 1932, shows her wearing a cap like those worn by the group. Members discussed literature and politics, recited poetry, and performed plays.

Self-portrait with red cap by Frida KahloMuseo Dolores Olmedo

In 1925, 18-year old Kahlo and her boyfriend, Alejandro Gómez Arias, were in a bus accident at the intersection of Cuauhtemotzin and 5 de Febrero (now called Fray Servando Avenue) in Mexico City. Kahlo was impaled through the pelvis by a metal handrail. She was rushed to the Cruz Roja Mexicana (Red Cross Hospital), where she underwent numerous surgeries to repair her broken spinal column and pelvis. Back at home, she spent 3 months in a full body cast. She began painting in bed to pass the time.

Many of the apparatuses Kahlo wore following the accident, including these crutches, corsets, and leg brace, can be seen at the Museo Frida Kahlo. These objects help viewers understand Kahlo’s pain and suffering, and in turn, her art.

Installation view of Appearances Can Be Deceiving exhibitMuseo Frida Kahlo

Finished in 1926 while recovering from the accident, Self-portrait in a Velvet Dress is Kahlo’s first self-portrait. Her parents encouraged her painting. They bought her paints and brushes and had an easel made that allowed her to paint while in bed.

Self-portrait in a velvet dress by Frida KahloMuseo Dolores Olmedo

Painted in 1929, The Bus shows passengers riding on a bus. Some critics have suggested that Kahlo made this painting to process the grief she experienced upon learning that, because of her pelvic injuries, she could not have children.

The Bus by Frida KahloMuseo Dolores Olmedo

The Broken Column (1944) represents Kahlo’s constant physical and emotional pain. Throughout her life, she endured numerous surgeries and countless hours recovering in bed. In this self-portrait, Kahlo’s spine is a fractured Ionic column, and her body is held together by metal bands.

The Broken Column by Frida KahloMuseo Dolores Olmedo

In 1928, Kahlo met Rivera again, and asked him to critique her paintings. Soon after, the two were romantically involved, and just one year later, they were married at the Casa Municipal of Coyoacán, a borough of Mexico City. Kahlo’s mother didn’t approve of the 20-year age gap and refused to attend the wedding. Kahlo’s father, Guillermo, however, was thankful Rivera could financially support Kahlo’s medical needs. He was the only family member to attend the wedding.

On August 21, 1929, Kahlo and Rivera married in a civil ceremony in Coyoacán’s town hall. Kahlo soon became pregnant, but she had to terminate the pregnancy due to her incorrectly-positioned pelvis. This was the first of 3 failed pregnancies for Kahlo.

Kahlo made this sketch for a self-portrait in 1929. In 2000, the painting, called Self-portrait with Airplane, sold at auction for more money than any work by a Latin American artist up to that time.

Sketch for Self-Portrait with Airplane by Frida KahloMuseo Dolores Olmedo

In 1930, Kahlo and Rivera moved to San Francisco, where Rivera had been commissioned to paint two murals, one for the San Francisco Stock Exchange Luncheon Club and another for the California School of Fine Arts. While there, the couple lived in the art studio of Ralph Stackpole at 716 Montgomery Street. Stackpole was one of the city’s most important artists. Kahlo continued to paint to pass the time while Rivera worked, but she still didn’t view herself as a serious artist.

This was the location of Stackpole’s studio in the 1930s. Here Kahlo met several important American artists and photographers, including Timothy Pflueger, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and Nickolas Muray, with whom she would later have a romantic relationship.

During her 6-month stay in San Francisco, Kahlo produced several oil paintings, including this one, titled Portrait of Luther Burbank. Kahlo depicts Burbank, a horticulturist, as a human-tree hybrid. The tree feeds off a human form buried beneath the ground.

Portrait of Luther Burbank by Frida KahloMuseo Dolores Olmedo

Kahlo’s work was first publicly exhibited in 1931 in the Sixth Annual Exhibition of the San Francisco Society of Women Artists. The exhibition, held at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, was founded in 1924 by the Society of Women Artists, known today as San Francisco Women Artists (SFWA). The exhibit included Kahlo’s Frieda and Diego Rivera, a double portrait based on a photograph taken at her wedding.

In 1931, Kahlo was still not taken seriously as an artist. After her first public showing, one newspaper article stated that her art was “. . . valuable only because it was painted by the wife of Diego Rivera.”

In April 1932, Diego Rivera was commissioned by the Ford Motor Company to paint a mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and he an Kahlo moved to Detroit. She was pregnant for the second time. While living in Detroit, she began to experience complications with her pregnancy and was rushed to the Henry Ford Hospital. Sadly, On July 4, 1932, Kahlo’s pregnancy ended in a miscarriage.

Kahlo, who desperately wanted a child, used her art to process her anger and grief. The theme of lost pregnancies resonates throughout many of her works.

Soon after her miscarriage, Kahlo painted Henry Ford Hospital . Naked and bloody in a hospital bed, she is surrounded by several figures, including the lost baby and her own pelvis. The Ford Motor Company can be seen in the background.

Henry Ford Hospital by Frida KahloMuseo Dolores Olmedo

This 1932 lithograph entitled Frida and the Miscarriage is another work through which Kahlo processed the pain of her miscarriage. A fetus, still connected to Kahlo’s womb, floats beside her. Her blood seeps into the ground where it nourishes the plants.

Frida and the Miscarriage by Frida KahloMuseo Dolores Olmedo

In Detroit, Diego Rivera painted a major mural at the city’s Institute of Arts. This was a busy time for the muralist; between 1930 and 1933 he was commissioned to paint murals in several U.S. cities. Rivera liked the U.S. and was impressed by the country’s industrial progress. Kahlo, however, viewed the United States as corrupt and materialistic and she longed to return to Mexico. Her experiences in the U.S. inspired several paintings.

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