I was scrolling through Twitter a few weeks back and I came across the photo above. Salvador Dalí and Frida Kahlo. What kind of intellectual, surreal conversations filled that studio? Was it a regular occurrence, their meeting up? Was Frida Kahlo even considered a surrealist? Then it occurred to me, apart from being a Mexican feminist icon with a monobrow, I had no idea who Frida Kahlo was. I knew I wasn’t a fan of her artwork, but was that a fair judgment if I knew so little about her?
I began my research and was not at all prepared for what I was about to learn.
I always felt Kahlo’s art was disturbing, unpleasant and, dare I say, grotesque. Now, I understand that she was only painting her truth. She painted from the heart. Her life experiences. The twists. The turns. The traumas. Loves. Losses. Laughs. How much the human spirit can actually endure and survive.
During her early school years, Kahlo contracted Polio, leaving one of her legs shorter and thinner than the other. This led to an immense amount of bullying. In later years, she was to lose her leg from the knee down due to a gangrene infection in her toes.
Later, she was in a horrific traffic accident that should have killed her but, instead, left her body broken. A body that needed multiple surgeries, casts and specially designed corsets to support her fragile spine.
The fragility of her body meant she was unable to bear children and the one time she became pregnant, she miscarried.
Her relationship with artist and twice-husband, Diego Rivera, was a tumultuous and passionate love affair fueled by art, sex and politics. They were the best of friends but when he broke the age-old rule and committed adultery with Kahlo’s sister, it tore them apart. In turn, this led Kahlo to a time of debauchery and a string of her own affairs with men and women alike.
Painting was her freedom. She began painting herself from a mirror her father placed above her bed. I guess you could say she was the pioneer for the modern-day selfie, though uncomplicated and without pretty filters. She didn’t feel the need to hide her true self at any stage of her life. She embraced every part – her body, her scars. She fought for herself, pushing boundaries and not letting her misfortunes debilitate her or force her into living an ‘ordinary’ life. Despite her troubles, she remained vivacious and fearless, and not once did she lose sight of Frida Kahlo.
Kahlo was much loved by the people whose lives she touched all over the world. Leon Trotsky and Pablo Picasso to name but a few. She never did meet Salvador Dalí as the photo suggests. Aah the wonders of Photoshop! Neither did she consider herself as a Surrealist, therefore, never officially joining the Surrealist movement:
“They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”
Her life began and ended in the confines of her bed with only herself and the silence surrounding her for company, her uniqueness, her identity and rich cultural heritage was celebrated on the cover of French Vogue back in 1938, and is still celebrated today.
Her resilience in the face of adversity is admirable and uplifting. My view of her paintings has changed. I still find them difficult to look at, but now I see the beauty amongst the realism. I see them as pieces of honesty, now. Hope amidst the turmoil. The use of strong bold colours yet another acknowledgement of her personality. Even though an untrained artist, Kahlo’s composition is meticulous. All elements are purposefully placed so that everything has its place as it does in life. She knew what she was doing and she knew what she wanted.
Her dream was to have her own one-person exhibition in her home city, Mexico. Although she fell ill, she fulfilled her dream, and when she was told by the doctors it was unwise of her to attend, she arranged to arrive on her bed instead. There was no stopping her.
A visionary. An artist. A force to be reckoned with.
Her work, as Diego Rivera had said, is ‘agonised poetry’ encapsulating all emotions of the human psyche and the desire to live a full life. I feel ashamed of myself for judging the art before knowing the artist. But I see it now.
I see Frida.