Who was Frida Kahlo?
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.
The Blue House
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.
Frida Kahlo, June 15, 1919 (1919) by Guillermo KahloMuseo Frida Kahlo
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.
Portrait of my Father Wilhelm Kahlo (1952) by Frida KahloMuseo Frida Kahlo
Portrait of my Father Wilhelm 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.
La Casa Azul
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.
House as gallery
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.
Tools of an artist
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.
Self-portrait (1930) by Diego RiveraMuseo Dolores Olmedo
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 with red cap (1932) by Frida KahloMuseo Dolores Olmedo
Los Cachuchas (the Peaked Caps)
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.
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.
Accident, September 17, 1926 (1926) by Frida KahloMuseo Dolores Olmedo
Back at home, she spent 3 months in a full body cast. She began painting in bed to pass the time.
Installation view of Appearances Can Be Deceiving exhibitMuseo Frida Kahlo
Pain and suffering
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.
Self-portrait in a velvet dress (1926) by Frida KahloMuseo Dolores Olmedo
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.
The Broken Column (1944) by Frida KahloMuseo Dolores Olmedo
The Broken Column (1944)
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 Bus (1929) by Frida KahloMuseo Dolores Olmedo
The Bus (1929)
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.
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.
Sketch for Self-Portrait with Airplane (1929) by Frida KahloMuseo Dolores Olmedo
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.
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.
Artists and photographers
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.
Portrait of Luther Burbank (1931) by Frida KahloMuseo Dolores Olmedo
Portrait of Luther Burbank (1931)
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.
First public exhibition
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, 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.
Wife of an artist
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.”
Henry Ford Hospital
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.
Henry Ford Hospital (1932) by Frida KahloMuseo Dolores Olmedo
Anger and grief
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.
Henry Ford Hospital (1932)
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.
Frida and the Miscarriage (1932) 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.
Institute of Arts, Detroit
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.
Continue with the next story about Frida Kahlo's life.