Frida Kahlo: the proto-feminist and stoic sufferer

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72 years on from her death, the world is still fascinated by the enigmatic figure that was Magadelena Carmen Frida Kahlo. Bold, beautiful and heavily browed, the Mexican painter mastered the ‘selfie’ and ‘free the nipple’ long before Miley Cyrus had pink hairy armpits. For all her bohemianism and eccentricity, today she is remembered as a proto-feminist, a stoic sufferer and an icon of Mexican culture.

Her face is everywhere: her thick moustache and unkempt mono-brow can be found adorning the streets of most Latin American capitals, and her braided hair, chunky jewellery and floral headpieces are ever-present in the pages of Vogue. Kahlo understood the power of image; she was rarely captured smiling, and so her sharp and composed gaze has become synonymous with her legacy. Her unapologetic facial hair and fierce stance is emblematic of her protest: a rejection of conventional expectations of female beauty.

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However, her identity as an artist was initially overlooked owing to her position as Diego Rivera’s wife. He was an acclaimed artist and at the time he largely overshadowed Kahlo’s work. It was only during the 1970s that—with the influx of second wave feminism—Kahlo became recognised as a heavily influential figure. Rivera was much older than Kahlo when they met through their joint associations with the Mexican Communist Party. It was a volatile marriage, owing to a series of tempestuous affairs, one of which included her sister and another Leon Trotsky. This then led to a divorce, followed by a remarriage.

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As well as the disquiet caused by her unstable marriage, her life was riddled by pain and disability. Kahlo contracted polio at the age of six and was later involved in a horrific bus accident. Although she survived the crash, her life threatening injuries affected her entire life. She fractured her spine and a steel rod pierced her womb and pelvis; as a result of this, she tragically became infertile.

Yet, instead of wallowing in self-pity, Kahlo began to channel her pain as a source of creativity. As she was bed bound, she abandoned her dream of becoming a medic and decided to take her talent as an able artist seriously. Both an easel and a mirror were fitted to her bed so that she could paint self-portraits. It was this long period of recovery where she became her own muse.

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Her imaginative paintings are heavily influenced by Mexican culture and folklore. The bold colours, exotic animals and symbolism all point towards surrealism; however, she rejected this label and famously stated: ‘I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality’. Alongside her wealth of self-portraits, she used her naïve folk style to explore profound political issues, questions of identity and the limitations of women in a patriarchal society.

Kahlo had a fascination with the human form and she often depicted her own mutilated body writhing in pain. Her pieces are provocative, shocking and often grotesque; she rebelliously drew attention to taboo subjects such as female sexuality, miscarriage and her own infertility. In the distressing HenryFord Hospital, 1932 her body is heavily bleeding and she has a foetus dramatically protruding out of her:

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Women can relate to her paintings as her perception of the female body is uncompromising—the body is not censured; it is brutal and honest in its very form, as she was not afraid of showing the interiority of the feminine experience. Kahlo’s pain was largely the subject of her art and her misfortune worked as a catalyst. One disaster happened after another—but she didn’t give up. When she ended up having to wear a steel corset because of her sustained injuries in the bus accident, she then turned this tragedy into art.

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The Broken Column, 1944. 

The final blow for Kahlo was having her leg amputated after contracting gangrene. She became so ill in her final year of life that she was largely confined to her bed and spiralled into a deep depression. On July 13th 1945 she was found dead. The official cause of death was pulmonary embolism, but it is suspected that she committed suicide.

Her art and character were rebellious, sexual and honest; she was never without a cigarette, she drank straight tequila and had a reputation for telling crude jokes. She also had a tendency to sleep with both men and women (something that was rather scandalous at that time). Being described as ‘vulgar’ or ‘indecent’ did not matter for Kahlo. She had a feisty, defiant voice and fought on through her disabilities and challenged the oppression of women. Kahlo was so ahead of her time that it is no wonder that she remains a permanent fixture and source of inspiration in our contemporary culture.

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