Our woman hero of July is Frida Kahlo! She was a Mexican painter known for her many portraits, self-portraits, and works inspired by the nature and artifacts of Mexico. Inspired by the country’s popular culture, she employed a naïve folk art style to explore questions of identity, postcolonialism, gender, class, and race in Mexican society. Her paintings often had strong autobiographical elements and mixed realism with fantasy. In addition to belonging to the post-revolutionary Mexicayotl movement, which sought to define a Mexican identity, Kahlo has been described as a surrealist or magical realist.
Frida Kahlo was born on 6 July 1907 in Coyoacán, a village on the outskirts of Mexico City. Born to a German father and a mestiza mother, Kahlo spent most of her childhood and adult life at La Casa Azul (The Blue House) , her family home in Coyoacán, now publicly accessible as the Frida Kahlo Museum. Although she was disabled by polio as a child, Kahlo had been a promising student headed for medical school until a bus accident at age eighteen, which caused her lifelong pain and medical problems. During her recovery, she returned to her childhood hobby of art with the idea of becoming an artist.
Kahlo’s interests in politics and art led to her joining the Mexican Communist Party in 1927, through which she met fellow Mexican artist Diego Rivera. The couple married in 1928, and spent the late 1920s and early 1930s travelling in Mexico and the United States together. During this time, she developed her artistic style, drew her main inspiration from Mexican folk culture, and painted mostly small self-portraits which mixed elements from pre-Columbian and Catholic beliefs. Her paintings raised the interest of Surrealist artist André Breton, who arranged for Kahlo’s first solo exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in 1938.
The exhibition was a success and was followed by another in Paris in 1939. While the French exhibition was less successful, the Louvre purchased a painting from Kahlo, The Frame, making her the first Mexican artist to be featured in their collection. Throughout the 1940s, Kahlo participated in exhibitions in Mexico and the United States, and also worked as an art teacher. She taught at the Escuela Nacional de Pintura, Escultura y Grabado “La Esmeralda” and was a founding member of the Seminario de Cultura Mexicana. Kahlo’s always fragile health began to decline in the same decade. She had her first solo exhibition in Mexico in 1953, shortly before her death in 1954 at the age of 47.
Kahlo’s reputation as an artist developed late in her life and grew even further posthumously, as during her lifetime she was primarily known as the wife of Diego Rivera and as an eccentric personality among the international cultural elite. She gradually gained more recognition in the late 1970s when feminist scholars began to question the exclusion of female and non-Western artists from the art historical canon and the Chicano Movement lifted her as one of their icons.
Two events were instrumental in raising interest in her life and art for the general public outside Mexico. The first was a joint retrospective of her paintings and Tina Modotti’s photographs at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, which was curated and organized by Peter Wollen and Laura Mulvey. It opened in May 1982, and later traveled to Sweden, Germany, the United States, and Mexico. The second was the publication of art historian Hayden Herrera’s international bestseller Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo in 1983.
By 1984, Kahlo’s reputation as an artist had grown to such extent that Mexico declared her works national cultural heritage, prohibiting their export from the country. Kahlo has attracted popular interest to the extent that the term “Fridamania” has been coined to describe the phenomenon. She is considered “one of the most instantly recognizable artists”, whose face has been “used with the same regularity, and often with a shared symbolism, as images of Che Guevara or Bob Marley”. A Hollywood biopic, Julie Taymor’s Frida, was released in 2002. Based on Herrera’s biography and starring Salma Hayek (who co-produced the film) as Kahlo, it grossed US$56 million worldwide and earned six Academy Award nominations, winning for Best Makeup and Best Original Score. The 2017 Disney-Pixar animation Coco also features Kahlo in a supporting role, voiced by Natalia Cordova-Buckley.
Frida Kahlo inspires us that even though she struggled with pain and an ailing health through her entire life, she still managed to pursue her lifelong dream as an artist. Frida Kahlo also stayed true to her Mexican ancestry. She used her paintings to raise questions about Mexican society and the construction of identity within it, particularly gender, race, and social class. Kahlo’s artistic ambition was to paint for the Mexican people, and she stated that she wished “to be worthy, with my paintings, of the people to whom I belong and to the ideas which strengthen me.”
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