gathered on July 13, 1954 to watch the cremation of the world's greatest and
most shocking painter. Soon to be an international icon, Frida Kahlo knew
how to give her fans one last frightening goodbye. As the cries of her
admirers filled the room, the sudden blast of heat from the open incinerator
doors blew her body bolt upright. Her hair, now on fire from the flames,
blazed around her head like a halo. Kahlo’s lips appeared to break into a
seductive grin just as the doors closed shut. Her last diary entry read
"I hope the leaving is joyful and I hope never to return". Though
Kahlo was only 47 on the day she died, she lives forever in her amazing, and
many times bloody self-portrait paintings and now in a hit movie, "Frida.."
Kahlo’s life began and ended in Mexico City, in her home known as Casa
Azul, the Blue House, in the district known as Coyocan. She gave her birth
date as July 7,1910, but her birth certificate shows July 6,1907. But Kahlo
constantly lied about her life.
At age 6, polio struck her, causing her right leg to appear thinner than
her left. Upon entering the National Preparatory School in Mexico City, she
became a tomboy full of mischief and the ringleader of a rebellious group of
mainly boys that continually caused trouble in school. They pulled many
pranks on professors. It was here that Kahlo first came in contact with her
future husband, the famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, who had been
commissioned to paint a mural in the school's auditorium
On September 17, 1925, at about age 18, a bus in which Kahlo was a passenger
collided with a streetcar, leaving her impaled on the streetcar’s
handrail. She suffered a broken spinal column, a broken collarbone, broken
ribs, a broken pelvis, 11 fractures in her right leg, a dislocated and
crushed right foot, and her shoulder out of joint. For a month, she lay flat
on her back, encased in a plaster cast and enclosed in a boxlike structure.
Kahlo’s enormous strength and will to live allowed her to survive and
make a remarkable recovery. She began painting shortly after the accident
because she was bored in bed. This became her lifelong profession.
But she had many relapses of tremendous pain and fatigue all throughout
her life, causing her to be hospitalized for long periods of time, bedridden
at times, and to undergo numerous operations. She once joked that she held
the record for the most operations–she underwent about 30 in her lifetime.
She also turned to alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes to ease the pain of her
physical suffering. "I drank to drown my pain, but the damned pain
learned how to swim, and now I am overwhelmed by this decent and good
behavior," she wrote in her diary.
Once she was out and about after her accident, a close friend introduced
Kahlo to the artistic crowd of Mexico, including Tina Modotti, a well known
photographer, actress, and communist, and Diego Rivera.
Diego Rivera eventually married Kahlo on August 21,1929. As famous as the
Mexico City murals made Rivera, his star-crossed romance with Frida Kahlo
drew him into a living tableau that for much of the world has symbolized the
20th-century Mexican art milieu seemingly for all eternity. Nearly overnight
they became a charismatic, celebrated couple on the art and society circuit
around Mexico, the United States, and Europe. Their marriage consisted of
love, affairs with other people, creative bonding, hate, and a divorce in
1940 that lasted only for one year. Their marriage has been called the union
between an elephant and a dove, because Diego was huge and very fat, and
Kahlo was petit and slender.
Their tumultuous relationship and Rivera's notorious infidelity–once
with Kahlo’s own sister–only seemed to propel their mythic status.
"I have suffered two accidents in my life," Kahlo is quoted as
saying in the Malka Drucker biography, Frida Kahlo: Torment and Triumph
in Her Life and Art. "One in which a streetcar ran over me. The
other is Diego."
Despite Diego's affairs with other women, he encouraged Kahlo by
suggesting she wear traditional, colorful Mexican dresses and exotic
jewelry. This, along with Kahlo’s thick, connecting eyebrows, became her
trademark. He loved her work and was her greatest admirer. Kahlo, in turn,
was Diego's most trusted critic, and the love of his life.
Kahlo let out all of her emotions on canvas. She painted her anger and
hurt over her stormy marriage, the painful miscarriages, and the physical
suffering she underwent because of the accident.
aftermath of the streetcar accident, which included 28 plaster corsets
designed to support her damaged spine, forms a recurring theme in Kahlo's
famous self portraits. But more than the sometimes tortuously clinical
details in these autoretralos, it's her iconic facial features-the
batwing eyebrows, the stern, rose-like mouth, and secretive, sidelong glance
fixed on the viewer-that one most remembers. A pronounced sexual ambiguity
is also often present. In one portrait she suggests androgyny by merging her
face with Diego's while another portrays Kahlo sporting shorn hair and a
man's suit and tie. In a now-famous family photo from 1926 her hair is
pulled back tightly, and she’s dressed like a man.
Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits compel the viewer to look into her soul.
While her physical features and elaborate costumes are striking, it’s her
interior life that seems to explode beyond the canvas. As the Surrealist
writer André Breton once remarked,
"The art of Frida Kahlo is a ribbon around a bomb." Combining the
familiar with the strange, marrying naturalistic depiction with bizarre
symbolism, Kahlo invented a singular surrealistic portrait style that cuts
straight to the heart of deeply felt passions and sorrows.
"I paint my own reality," she once said. "The only thing I
know is that I paint because I need to, and I paint whatever passes through
my head without any other consideration."
Kahlo, despite all of the hurt in her life, was an outgoing person whose
vocabulary resonated with four-letter words. She loved drinking tequila,
singing off-color songs, telling dirty jokes, and shocking the guests at her
crazy parties. She amazed people with her beauty and everywhere she went,
people stopped in their tracks to stare in wonder. Men were fascinated with
her, and because of this Kahlo had numerous, scandal-filled affairs.
One affair was with Communist leader Leon Trotsky. It began when he was a
guest at her home along with his wife soon after their arrival in Mexico.
Later arrested for his murder, she was let go. Several years after Trotsky's
death, Diego and Kahlo enjoyed telling people that they invited him to
Mexico just to get him killed, but no one knows if they were telling the
truth or not. They were fantastic story tellers.
Kahlo also had a bisexual side and had affairs with many women, including
painter Georgia O’Keefe and black singer Josephine Baker.
All over the world, people loved Frida Kahlo. When she went to France,
Picasso wined and dined her, and she appeared on the cover of the French
Vogue. In America, people loved her beauty and her work. In Mexico, her
homeland, she had many great admirers.
Look Into Frida's Life
Kahlo only had one exhibition in Mexico in the Spring of 1953. Her health
had deteriorated and her doctor told her not to attend. Minutes after guests
arrived at the gallery, sirens blared outside. The crowd went crazy as an
ambulance accompanied by a motorcycle escort pulled up in front of the
gallery. The attendants carried Kahlo into her exhibition on a hospital
stretcher and placed her in her bed in the middle of the gallery. The mob of
people went to greet her. Kahlo told jokes, entertained the crowd, sang, and
drank the whole evening. And the exhibition was a huge success. She told
reporters, "I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy as long as I can
During the same year as her exhibition, Kahlo had to have her right leg
amputated below the knee due to a gangrene infection. This caused her to
become deeply depressed and suicidal, thus her life ground down to its
Today, two notable museums in Mexico City offer a look into Kahlo’s
bizarre life. Her family’s traditional courtyard-style, adobe residence
and her birthplace, known as Casa Azul, located at Calle Londres #247,
became her home and studio, and after her death, a museum. For 25 years, she
shared it with Rivera.
The house, built by her father, Guillermo Kahlo, a German-Jewish
photographer, is an explosion of color, especially the cobalt blue and
red-trimmed exterior. The interior is preserved much as it appeared when
Kahlo lived there. A four-poster bed, in which she was born and died, stands
in the bedroom. Calaveras, or papier mache skeletons, and carved death masks
are reminders of the suffering she endured in her daily life and which
fueled her creativity.
About 50 of the self-taught artist’s works are on display, including
some surrealistic self-portraits reflecting an obsession with health
problems that plagued her most of her life. A large Mayan urn behind glass
contains her ashes.
Her spacious studio remains essentially as she left it. Her wheelchair,
paintbrushes and an easel on which rests an unfinished portrait of Joseph
Stalin, seem to await her return.
Displays of wooden spoons and ceramic jugs and bowls hang on the walls
and sit on the counters of the brightly tiled kitchen. Also displayed is an
arrangement of miniature retablos, small devotional paintings on tin,
a sampling of Rivera’s drawings and murals, photographs, love letters, an
address book and other personal effects, as well as a collection of
pre-Hispanic poetry and ceramic figures.
Kahlo and Rivera also built two separate houses with studios for each of
them in the San Angel district of Mexico City just after their marriage in
1929. Now known collectively as the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo
Studio-House Museum, it’s considered by many to be the first example of
avante-garde architecture in Mexico. (Located at Diego Rivera 2, San Angel).
Artist Juan O’Gorman, a long-time friend of Rivera’s, designed both
three-story houses in the Bauhaus style using the ideas expressed by
architect Le Courbusier. A second-story, outdoor walkway connects Kahlo’s
house, now painted cobalt blue, to Rivera's, creating separate spaces for
each artist, illustrating the independence the couple maintained throughout
their caring but unconventional union.
Kahlo and Rivera entertained the elite of art world, but one of their
more famous houseguests was film star Edward G. Robinson, who bought four of
Kahlo’s paintings for $200 each, at the time Kahlo's most substantial
Clearly Kahlo a woman who let nothing stand in her way. No matter
how painful things could become for her, she stood tall, facing all
obstacles with a sense of style and strength. She was an extremely sexy and
talented woman with a theatrical and electrifying personality, who had a
love for art and life.
On July 13, 1954, Frida Kahlo died. No official autopsy was done. Suicide
was rumored. Her last words in her diary read, "I hope the leaving is
joyful and I hope never to return." What she doesn’t know is that her
spirit has returned in one of the most remarkable movies about Mexico and
Mexicans ever produced.