“I paint flowers so they will not die.” – Frida Kahlo
Screeching tires. Shattering glass. The unmistakable sound of metal twisting and bending in ways never intended.
On September 17, 1925 a bus in Coyoacán, Mexico collided with a trolley car, a severe accident that left many of the bus passengers critically injured. Among those injured was 18 year-old Frida Kahlo.
A metal guardrail from the bus had pierced Kahlo through the abdomen and uterus. She also suffered a broken spinal column, ribs and collarbone, 11 fractures in her right leg, a crushed right foot and a dislocated shoulder.
She wasn’t expected to live, but live she did. As she lay in her hospital bed recovering from her extensive injuries, her mother brought her a lap easel to pass the time. And once Frida picked up that paint brush she never put it back down, going on to become one of the most influential and well-known painters of the 20th century and an undeniable icon of Mexican culture.
Frida was born on July 6, 1907 (though she would later say she was born in 1910 to coincide with the beginning of the Mexican revolution) to Guillermo Kahlo, a German photographer, and Matilde Calderón y González.
Frida Kahlo, June 15, 1919 photograph taken by Guillermo Kahlo
Even before the train accident, Frida was no stranger to tragedy. At the age of six Frida contracted polio, which kept her isolated for long periods of time and left her right leg underdeveloped. She would walk with a limp for the rest of her life and a hide her leg under long, full skirts.
Shortly after recovering enough from the bus accident to begin socializing again, Frida was introduced to Diego Rivera. At the time Diego was one of the most successful artists in Mexico, mostly known for his expansive murals depicting important moments in Mexican history. Despite the large age discrepancy (He was 43, She was 22) and Diego’s reputation as a philanderer, he and Frida soon began a relationship. On August 21, 1929 they married.
Their relationship was tumultuous with multiple affairs on both sides and a divorce in 1939, only to be remarried again in 1940. Some of Frida’s most well known works were born out of the emotional toll the relationship took on her. Frida once commented, “There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst.”
After their divorce in 1939, Frida moved back into her childhood home, La Casa Azul (The Blue House). Once Frida and Diego has reconciled and remarried, Diego also moved into the house and together they created a space that spoke to their personal tastes. The house was filled with Mexican folk art and pre-Hispanic art, a favorite of Diego’s. He even had a pyramid constructed in the garden to display his collection.
The garden at La Casa Azul provides a glimpse into one of the consistent inspirations of Frida’s artwork: native plant life. The most iconic images of Frida, whether they are photographs or her self-portraits, feature her in embroidered dresses with flowers in her hair. Her style was a nod to Mexico’s past, but also to her present; the flowers were usually picked from her own garden.
Because her garden was so important to her life, pieces of it are often featured in her work. According to Jessica Murphy, writing for Biography.com, “She frequently incorporated plants like “elephant-ear” leaves from the aroid (Araceae) family and white-haired “old-man cactus” (viejo), or other cacti and an assortment of flowers. By combining her own likeness and these additional details, she stressed the close links between humans, animals, and the natural landscape.”
Her studio at La Casa Azul featured a wall of windows that looked down on her garden and throughout her career there is a common thread of plants, flowers and fruit in her paintings. Her garden was so important to her work that in 2015 The New York Botanical Gardens re-created the garden for an exhibit entitled “Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life” with the intention of providing insight into Frida’s inspirations.
Though they don’t receive as much attention as some of her other works, Frida painted many still lifes and for Frida, the differences between still lifes of flowers and fruits were non-existent. Kahlo said, “Fruits are like flowers: they speak to us in provocative language and teach us things that are hidden.”
While traditional still lifes are meant to portray everyday items in a realistic way, when Frida painted them she imbued them with her own form of realism. Like all of Frida’s paintings there is a surrealistic quality to them, though she never considered herself part of that movement. She explained, “They thought I was a surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”
An example of this realistic/surreal style can be found in Still Life: Pitahayas (1938). On the surface the painting is of five pitahayas (a desert fruit that tastes like melon), but next to the fruit is a skeleton holding a scythe; a reference to the grim reaper. As explained by the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, which houses the painting, “Kahlo's still life is a meditation on death. Because of its watery freshness that can provide sustenance in the most barren of terrains, the pitahaya is known as the ‘fruit of the shipwrecked man.’ But even this most life-giving of fruits is given to decay. If realistic in certain details, this still life is magical.”
In the still life Magnolias (1945), Frida proves that a picture doesn’t need to be a self-portrait to be intensely personal. The magnolia blossoms she painted are only buds, not yet bloomed, and in the center of the arrangement is a pear cactus flower. The pear cactus flower is very delicate and only lives a few hours once it has bloomed. It looks like the magnolias are protecting the pear cactus flower, yet the pear cactus flower will still die long before the magnolias; another instance of symbolic life and death. Mixed in with the magnolias is a single calla lily, likely placed in the arrangement to symbolize Diego, who used the flower in many of his own works.
But it is Frida’s actual self-portraits that make up the bulk of her output. During her lifetime Frida completed around 140 paintings and 55 of those are self-portraits. In Roots (1943), Frida imagines herself as a tree of life. Vines come out of her torso and grow into the dry earth, nourishing it. The painting speaks to Frida’s frustrations at being unable to bear children (due to her injuries from the accident) and also her belief that all life is connected, whether it be plants, animals or humans.
One of Frida’s most famous self-portraits is Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940), painted during her separation from Diego. Like many of her self-portraits Frida surrounds herself with lush greenery, tying herself to indigenous Mexican culture and also representing fertility and life juxtaposed against the death imagery in the foreground. The panther behind her is a symbol of bad luck while the monkey on her shoulder is a symbol of evil. It’s also likely that the monkey represents Diego, who gave Frida a spider monkey as a gift.
Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird by Frida Kahlo
The monkey is pulling on the necklace of thorns, causing Frida to bleed, inflicting pain, which she endures.
During her lifetime Frida Kahlo was beloved and revered by fellow artists, but most people still only knew her as Diego Rivera’s wife. However, her personal story of pain and suffering has connected to many people over the years. In the 70s she became a symbol of the feminist movement and subsequent documentaries and feature films have elevated her to cult figure status.
Her face and her artwork are reprinted on everything from coffee mugs to clocks and in 1984 Mexico declared her works national cultural heritage. In an interview for The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo scholar Victor Zamudio Taylor stated, “Frida Kahlo has become a cultural icon. A figure that is a sponge, that absorbs different desires, different ideas, different impulses and impulses of the time. Now she is an icon that has crossed the borders of Mexico.”
Image License for Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird by Frida Kahlo: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)