Behind Cultural Icon Frida Kahlo: as a Self-taught Artist, as a Bisexual, as a Proud Mexican Woman
“You deserve the best, the very best, because you are one of the few people in this lousy world who are honest to themselves, and that is the only thing that really counts.” Frida Kahlo
Perhaps one of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century, Frida Kahlo endures as a symbol of Mexican pride, feminist expression, and a respected LGBTQ icon. Her art, mostly self-portraits, are easily recognizable: the surrealism, the anatomical themes, and her own distinct features. But her art does not stand alone, it was deeply personal to Kahlo and reflects the pain and turmoil in her own life.
Afflicted with polio at the age of 6 and involved in a serious bus accident when 18, Kahlo suffered many physical ailments throughout her life. With the bus accident and resulting injuries curtailing her dreams of going to medical school, she found solace in paintings, especially self-portraits. Because so much of her life was spent confined to hospital beds, Kahlo had a special easel and mirror set up which would allow her to paint while in the hospital. In total, Kahlo went through 30 surgeries during her lifetime.
Another source of her pain was her relationship to celebrated muralist, Diego Rivera. Kahlo first met the painter in her student days when he was commissioned to paint a mural at her school. They met again later at a party and, despite the 20 year age difference and Rivera's well-known womanizing, the two were married one year later. Neither partner showed fidelity in the marriage and neither felt comfortable with the other's extramarital affairs. The turmoil in the marriage made itself evident in Kahlo's paintings, most notably "Self Portrait with Cropped Hair" and "Memory, the Heart." The former depicts Kahlo after she cut off her hair to spite Rivera and the latter was a heart-wrenching reaction to Rivera having an affair with Kahlo's younger sister.
While Rivera similarly detested his wife's affairs with the opposite sex, he would openly brag about Kahlo's female lovers. Kahlo's first experience with women was when she was 13 with her gym and anatomy teacher, Sara Zenil. Kahlo was an open bisexual and, throughout her life, Kahlo would take many famous lovers, both male and female. A dedicated communist, her brief affair with the former Soviet leader Leon Trotsky infuriated her husband. Rivera was so angry that when Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico in 1940, the muralist was a suspect. Fellow artist Georgia O'Keefe was also romantically involved with Kahlo and the two wrote devoted letters to each other while ill. Other notable lovers of Kahlo's were dancer Josephine Baker, Mexican actress Dolores del Rio, American actress Paulette Goddard (who also had an affair with Rivera), and painter Jacqueline Lamba. Her openness with her sexuality was legendary and her personal motto was "Make love, take a bath, make love again."
Her stormy marriage to Rivera ended in 1939 but the two were remarried the next year. Towards the end of her life, Kahlo became a teacher at the Mexican national art school La Esmeralda. Greatly loved by her students who called themselves "Los Fridos" in her honor, she continued to teach even as her health declined. The end of her life was marked by more pain: her leg had to be amputated, leaving her depressed and addicted to painkillers. Compounded with Rivera's continuing infidelity, Kahlo attempted suicide. She was found dead in 1954, at the age of 47.
Frida Kahlo, unwavering in her identities, has become a cultural icon: as a self-taught artist, as a bisexual, and as a proud Mexican woman.