She Who Struggles: Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo: “a ribbon around a bomb.”*

From beneath the bold expanse of a raven-black unibrow, a strikingly beautiful Chicana wrote, “I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.” Self-discovery is an obvious aspect of all Kahlo’s artwork. Each painting reveals feelings and emotions that most would be ashamed of because they whisper, “vulnerability.” However, within the piercing gaze that marks each self-portrait and the gracefully brutal depictions of loss, love, and loneliness, strength emerges and sets Frida Kahlo apart from all other painters. She recreated herself in each portrait as life’s experiences killed and rebuilt various parts of her being. She painted with the blood she shed and pulled inspiration from the alienation she felt.

Frida Kahlo was born Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón on July 6, 1907, according to her birth certificate. According to Frida, her birth date was July 7, 1910, which also happened to be the year of the Mexican Revolution. Throughout her life, Frida remained active and supportive of the revolution because of her identification with la raza (“the race” or “the people”). Perhaps this is why she chose 1910 as the year of her birth. As the third daughter, she was her father Guillermo’s favorite, so when she was stricken with polio at the age of 7, he was devastated. Despite her illness, Frida attended the National Preparatory School and remained active. She became an avid reader, which added to her skill as a writer and poet also.

Later in life (1949), Frida poetically conveyed her understanding of her marriage to Diego Rivera in these words:

Diego. beginning/Diego. constructor/Diego. my baby/Diego. my boyfriend/Diego. painter/Diego. my lover/Diego. “my husband”/Diego. my friend/Diego. my mother/Diego. me/Diego, universe/Diversity in unity/Why do I call him My Diego? He never was nor ever will be mine. He belongs to himself.

While at this school, Frida was first introduced to Rivera and his work while he was commissioned to paint a mural in the school’s auditorium. She was impressed and curious, but more so in love with Alejandro Gómez Arias. September 1925: their school bus collided with a trolley and left eighteen year old Frida with a metal rod entering the right side of her abdomen and exiting her vagina. Frida’s spinal column was broken in three spots, her pelvic bone was fractured, her collarbone, two ribs, right leg, and foot were all broken, and her left shoulder was dislocated. This life-changing accident not only imposed a feeling of brokenness on her life and spirit, but also became the factor that led Alejandro to leave the country with his uncle and to abandon Frida in a time where she felt that fate had already served her a great injustice. With excruciating pain and emotional devastation over her condition and her first love, Frida began painting on her body casts and recovering--she was determined to walk again.

Her career began when she began producing reflections of herself and her life on canvass. She finally took one of her pictures to Rivera for his opinion. He was impressed with her artwork and, as was his nature, captivated by the beautiful young artist that had produced the art. By this time, Frida was walking fairly well and the pain had subsided. Yet, she would struggle with her physical health for a lifetime: a pain and discomfort that would lead to 30 operations (during the course of her life), and escapism into smoking, drug use, and drinking. Her health issues were not her only struggles; drugs were not her only addiction. As Frida would soon discover, Diego Rivera would add his name to both her lists of struggles and addictions. On August 21, 1929, Frida was head-over-heals in love with a man that promised his life and fidelity to her. She returned the vow to an obese, Mexican painter that towered over her. As she would soon discover, her bodily pain could not compare to that of loving Diego Rivera. She later referred to him as her “other accident.”

Although the two led wonderful painting careers, traveled extensively, and supported one another in the Mexican Revolution and other political activism, Rivera could not remain faithful. Each time he slept with another woman, he tore pieces of Frida apart. Yet, a fragmented and distraught woman with physical illness clung onto her love for Rivera with everything that she had. She hit an all-time low when Rivera and her sister, Christina, had an affair while Christina was staying in their home. Chain-smoking. Painting. Crying. Painting. Drinking. Painting. Cheating on Diego with other men and women, some of the same women Diego had previously slept with. Other heart-wrenching experiences were the numerous miscarriages that Frida endured. They traumatized her and haunted her writings and paintings. These paintings bore all: the pain of being cheated on, her curiosity, discovery, and expression of her sexuality, her own loneliness, and the illness that she felt ever-present in her body. In 1940, Diego divorced Frida and her health simultaneously took a turn for the worse. She was once again alone, rebuilding through art what life destroyed through experience. Her heart. Her sanity. Her health. Her power as a woman with the heart of a lion.

A year later, Diego returned and they remarried. In 1953, she had her first and only art exhibition in Mexico, but she also had her right leg amputated due to gangrene. Her health had nearly driven her over the edge and she attempted suicide several times. Finally, her bout with life ended on July 13, 1954. She wrote, “I hope the leaving is joyful and I hope never to return." A writer, painter, poet, revolutionary, and woman that was not afraid to sacrifice her pride for truth has lived. She was hurt and disadvantaged but she still possessed spunk, light, power, and strength that commanded the attention of everyone she was around and made her the life of any party. She held on to her goal of loving… Diego, herself, her circumstances. She said, “I paint because I need to.”

She leaves us with the question: how do you depict and love something or someone that you don’t fully know or understand? You expel the fragments that you do know and you show them boldly in all their imperfection. Then, you’re truly loving the self you’re discovering.

(*Quote by surrealist poet and essayist André Breton.)

{ exclusive feature}
by Asha Taylor {The Liberator Magazine 3.4 #8, 2004}

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