How Does Folk Art Set Frida Apart?

Words by Juan Rafael Coronel Rivera, the grandson of Diego Rivera

The key element that distinguishes Latin American countries from the rest of the world is the cultural wealth that their early civilizations have contributed to their modern development. Take a walk through the streets of Mérida, Chichicastenango, or Otavalo, and you will discover a completely unique melting pot of identities. This distinctive social fabric is personified by the Yucatecan mestiza (mixed-race woman), dressed in exquisitely embroidered traditional costume and speaking in Mayan on the latest smartphone: a sure sign that she has managed to retain all her traditional cultural beliefs while integrating them into her everyday, 21st-century life.

This same phenomenon is illustrated in Frida Kahlo's art. As the daughter of a German photographer, Guillermo Kahlo, and his Oaxacan wife, Matilde Calderón, Frida grew up with 2 distinctive ethnic influences; she represents the union of the traditional cultures of both her father and mother. Frida's early work is a testament to this cultural synthesis, which shaped her unique artistry and continued throughout her entire career.

Matilde Calderón and Guillermo Kahlo, by Guillermo Kahlo (From the collection of Museo Frida Kahlo)

By 1927 the 20-year-old Frida was confident that she would develop her creative work as a visual artist. Significantly, she did not only focus on painting. Influenced by her father, and particularly by the Italian photographer Tina Modotti, she also worked professionally within the field of photography.

At the time when she settled on her chosen career, being a female artist was a transgression in itself, and to make things worse, her style of painting was not that well understood by the Mexican public.

Pancho Villa y la Adelita, by Frida Kahlo, 1927 (From the collection of Museo de Arte de Tlaxcala)

One of Frida's paintings, The Adelita, Pancho Villa, and Frida (1927), is an example of how Frida incorporated her family traditions into her art. In this oil painting, Kahlo uses an artistic style that first emerged in Europe in 1909: futurism. This avant-garde movement arrived in Mexico in 1921, where it was known as stridentism, and Frida was the only female painter to use the style in her work. For Kahlo, there was no taboo surrounding European pioneers or technical innovations because her father, as a photographer, had always been at the cutting edge of developments in his field.

European and Western cultures were part of the everyday in Frida's house. Her father had a commercial studio, where he used long lengths of cloth as backgrounds to take portraits of his clients. These were mostly snowy Bavarian landscapes, which Frida helped paint. Her father was able to recreate these scenes with great familiarity, having spent time in Bavaria in his youth before emigrating to Mexico.

Portrait of my Father Wilhelm Kahlo, by Frida Kahlo, 1952 (From the collection of Museo Frida Kahlo)
Matilde, Adriana, Frida and Cristina Kahlo, by Guillermo Kahlo, 1916 (From the collection of Museo Frida Kahlo)

These experiences were equally matched by her mother's evocative recollections of the indigenous traditions of Oaxaca. She had photographs of her family all dressed in the traditional Juchitán or Tehuantepec style. Her mother's possessions included some black clay bells, which Frida used as a metaphor to describe her. The kitchen would be filled with the aroma of black "mole" chilli sauce, "tlayudas" (a Oaxacan-style tortilla pizza), and thick drinking chocolate accompanied by sweet bread.

Family portrait (Unfinished), by Frida Kahlo, 1949 - 1950 (From the collection of Museo Frida Kahlo)

The regional nostalgia instilled by her mother can also be appreciated in this picture: it is a perfect example of this dual tradition so often found in Frida's paintings. Although she adopted a European aesthetic, she also incorporated a whole host of iconography from Mexican folklore. The symbolism of the Popocatépetl volcano dates back to Nahua mythology. The "adelitas" were indigenous women who followed their partners—peasants from all over the country—to fight for the revolution. This syncretism gives Kahlo's work a unique visual impact.

Family of Matilde Calderón y González, by Ricardo Ayluardo, 1890 (From the collection of Museo Frida Kahlo)

Frida had been a fan of folk art in her younger years, but she only fully came to understand it after marrying Diego Rivera in 1929, since he was an unequivocal admirer of the indigenous voice. After they got married, Frida began to incorporate a series of elements into her work that would soon become her hallmark, such as the papier-mâché sculptures made for "Semana Santa," or Holy Week, known as "Judases."

Frida and Diego Rivera, by Frida Kahlo, 1931 (From the collection of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)

One of the most important sculptors to have come out of Mexico was Carmen Caballero Sevilla, who created the most extraordinary "Judases" of that time, and was a good friend of Frida and Diego. Another remarkable sculptor and friend of the couple was Pedro Linares, who pioneered the folk art known as "alebrijes": sculptures of hybrid mythological creatures.

Alebrije [highly coloured Oaxacan-Mexican folk art sculpture], by Pedro Linares (From the collection of National Museum of Death)
Studio of Frida Kahlo, by Guillermo Zamora, 1950 (From the collection of Colección Blaisten)

One of the most interesting visual tours you can take at the Blue House (the Frida Kahlo Museum) is to look at each of the pieces of folk art on display in turn. They chronicle Frida's travels, as well as all the folk artists that she admired, and with whom she tried, sometimes successfully, to become friends. Also on display in the house are masterpieces by Modesta Fernández, Candelario Medrano, and Herón Martínez, who were all sculptural geniuses in their own right. Their work should be recognized as holding the same aesthetic significance as any piece by Frida or Diego.

Museo Frida Kahlo, Mexico City
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