In 1925, Frida Kahlo was on her way home from school in Mexico City when the bus she was riding collided with a streetcar. She suffered near-fatal injuries to her spine, pelvis and hips, and was bedridden for months afterward.
During her recovery, she had a special easel attached to her bed so she could practice painting techniques. When she set to work, she began to paint the world according to her own singular vision. Over the course of her life, she would establish herself as the creator and muse behind extraordinary art.
Though you may have met Kahlo's gaze before, her work provides an opportunity to see the world through her eyes. She painted friends and family, still lives and spiritual scenes; but it was her mesmerizing self-portraits which first caught the world’s attention.
In an early work, "Self Portrait with Velvet Dress," the focus is on her strong brows, facial hair, long neck and formidable stare. Such features remained, but Kahlo soon began to present herself in more unusual ways. For example, "The Broken Column" uses symbolism, religious imagery and a ruptured landscape to reveal her physical and mental state.
In 1928, Kahlo started dating fellow painter Diego Rivera. They became lifelong partners and cultivated an eccentric celebrity. Together, they traveled the world and dedicated themselves to art, Communist politics and Mexican nationalism.
Kahlo and Rivera shared a deep affinity with Mexicanidad, a movement which celebrated indigenous culture after the Revolution. In her daily life, Kahlo wore traditional Tehuana dress and immersed herself in native spirituality. And in her work, she constantly referenced Mexican folk painting, incorporating its bright colors and references to death, religion and nature.
With her imagery of giant floating flowers, undulating landscapes, transplanted body parts and billowing clouds of demons, Kahlo has often been associated with Surrealism. But while surrealists used dreamlike images to explore the unconscious mind, Kahlo used them to represent her physical body and life experiences.
Two of her most-explored experiences were her physical disabilities and her marriage. As a result of the bus accident, she experienced life-long health complications and endured many hospitalizations. She often contemplated the physical and psychological effects of disability in her work; painting herself in agony, recuperating from operations, or including objects such as her back brace and wheelchair.
Meanwhile, her relationship with Rivera was tempestuous, marked by infidelity on both sides. At one point they even divorced, then remarried a year later. During this period, she painted the double self-portrait "The Two Fridas," which speaks to the anguish of loss and a splintered sense of self.
The Frida to the left has a broken heart, which drips blood onto her old-fashioned Victorian dress. She symbolizes a version of the artist who is wounded by the past– but is also connected by an artery to a second self. This Frida is dressed in Tehuana attire– and although she remembers Diego with the tiny portrait in her hand, her heart remains intact. Together, the two suggest a position caught between past and present, individuality and dependency.
Kahlo died in 1954 at the age of 47. In the years after her death, she experienced a surge in popularity that has lasted to this day. And although her image has proliferated, Kahlo’s body of work reminds us that there are no simple truths about the life, work and legacy of the woman behind the icon. Rather, she put multiple versions of her reality on display– and provided us with a few entry-ways into the contents of her soul.