Editorial Feature

How Frida Kahlo Fused Her Mexicanness with Socialism

Historian Alejandro Rosas on how the artist's work was influenced by the Mexican revolution

When we talk about Frida Kahlo, the most common misconception is the association of her work with the Mexican Revolution. Nothing could be further from the truth: the essence of Frida does not come from the armed conflict, but rather the Mexico that emerged afterward.

She was almost 4 years old when Porfirio Díaz resigned as President of Mexico in 1911; she was nearly 6 when President Francisco Madero was assassinated in 1913; and she was 7 when the constitutionalist forces defeated Victoriano Huerta and occupied Mexico City in 1914. Frida Kahlo turned 10 in 1917—the same year that the new constitution was established, finally consecrating all the principles that had formed the ideological basis for the armed conflict.

The Mexican Revolution was like a bad dream that accompanied Frida throughout her childhood; a shadow that came and went in her personal and family life, creating a sense of unease and uncertainty. It was a series of isolated news stories that were quickly forgotten in the face of her daily struggles.

Frida Kahlo aged 4 by Guillermo Kahlo (From the collection of Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo)

The Blue House welcomed Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderón on July 6, 1907. At that time, Coyoacán was a small town on the outskirts of Mexico City—a place of rest and relaxation that held onto its sense of tranquility even after the revolution broke out in 1910.

On the face of it, Coyoacán should have been the perfect place for a happy childhood, but pain and suffering marked Frida's life from a very young age. In 1913, she contracted polio, a condition that undermined her spirit and confidence, not least because she was given the nickname "Peg Leg Frida" at school. The disease left her isolated from the outside world. Faced with unbearable taunting, she invented an imaginary friend who accompanied her through the pain. The condition was carefully managed, but its devastating consequences were irreversible. Her right leg suffered severe lasting damage.

Coyocán (From the collection of Archivo General de la Nación - Mexico)

The family finances also suffered as the revolution progressed, and there were times when they had to remortgage the house, sell their furniture, and even rent out rooms just to get by. Later in life, the painter would recall the time, around 1915, when Emiliano Zapata's troops patrolled Coyoacán and she witnessed several clashes between supporters of Zapata ("Zapatistas") and Venustiano Carranza ("Carrancistas"). "My mother," Frida recollects, "would open the windows onto Calle de Allende to let the Zapatistas in. She made sure that the wounded and the hungry jumped through the windows of the house into the living room. There, she tended to them and fed them corn tortillas, which were the only thing there was to eat in Coyoacán at that time…"

The Kahlo family experienced the Mexican Revolution like most of the country's 15 million inhabitants in 1910: as witnesses, by chance, trying to hold on to their normality for as long as possible. At the point when the armed combat came to an end in 1917, the revolution meant nothing to Frida: it was still a very small movement at that time, and the names that would later be written into legend—Madero, Carranza, Villa, Zapata—held little meaning for her.

Self-portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States by Frida Kahlo (From the collection of Detroit Institute of Arts)

The revolution was the precursor to Mexicanness. At the start of the 1920s, for the first time in its entire independent history, Mexico saw itself clearly: it discovered its roots and its own history, its food, aromas, and colors, its faces and different skin tones, and its music, folklore, customs, and traditions. It was a nationalist renaissance, and the emergence of a cultural identity.

In 1921, through the Ministry of Public Education, José Vasconcelos launched a crusade based on the idea of Mexicanness, for which he summoned writers, artists, and musicians. He offered up the walls of churches, public buildings, and schools for painters to tell the story of Mexico. These walls were filled with Mexican symbols: flora and fauna, volcanoes, lakes, skies, national dress, and different ethnicities, and all with a particular vision of the country's history.

It could be said that Frida Kahlo discovered Mexico in 1922, when she joined the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria (National Preparatory School) as one of only 35 women to enroll in the renowned institution. With an adolescent passion, she drank up that Mexicanness: a nationalism that started with the Mexican Revolution but went far beyond it.

Portrait of Frida Kahlo on the patio of her house (From the collection of Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

At that time, she did not even think of herself as an artist, but she could not escape the Mexicanist whirlwind that was sweeping the country under the government of Álvaro Obregón, manifesting itself in all areas of knowledge and education. It was not the revolution that inspired Frida, but Mexicanness itself, which eventually embedded itself in her conscience.

Alongside this Mexicanness, Frida's thoughts, and her ideas about the world, were also influenced by an ideology that was peaking in popularity in the early 1920s: socialism. Its principles had arrived in Mexico a few years earlier, and several leading ideologists of the Mexican Revolution had been covertly spreading its message. However, the triumph of the Russian Revolution in 1917, and the creation of the Soviet Union in 1922, gave it a definitive boost. It was no coincidence that the Mexican Communist Party was founded in 1919. Nor was it by chance that at Frida's funeral in 1954, at the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts), Diego placed the communist party's flag on top of her coffin.

Frida Kahlo's funeral with her coffin covered with a communist flag (From the collection of Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo)
Diego and Frida at an demonstration (From the collection of Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo)

Frida assimilated the socialist principles, which were a natural fit with the nationalist theory of the period. She participated in groups such as "Los Cachuchas" (The Peaked Caps) at the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria (National Preparatory School) and later joined the Young Communist League in around 1927. From that moment on, Mexicanness and socialism shaped Frida's thinking right up until the end of her life. This was reinforced by her intense relationship with Diego Rivera—a communist to his core—whom she met in 1928.

Nevertheless, Mexicanness, socialism, and even certain touches of the Mexican Revolution were not Frida's greatest source of inspiration. The origins of her creativity can be traced back to 1925, when the bus she was traveling home on one day was hit by a streetcar. Her fractured body filled her life with pain until the end of her days.

Self-portrait with Red Cap by Frida Kahlo (From the collection of Museo Dolores Olmedo)
Diego and Frida heading the Delegation of the Union of Painters, Sculptors and Revolutionary Recorders (From the collection of Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo)
Words by Alejandro Rosas
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