Viva la Vida (1954) by Frida Kahlo
So much has been written about this iconic Mexican woman and painter, and we have no doubt all absorbed small pieces of information about her life. Last year’s Frida Kahlo exhibition at the V&A has resulted in a proliferation of writings and media attention and, personally, I feel the need to understand her more. My own impression has always been of a driven woman, driven by negatives like crippling pain, driven by her often thwarted love for a man, for her desperate need to have a child, for her burning need to paint.
I realised I want to know more about the wonder of her, what she loved, her indomitable spirit, what she took joy in from the simple to the vast. The other half of her, the enquiring mind, the insatiable questioning of life, the need for self-expression on her own behalf, on behalf of womankind and the downtrodden. To fill in the gaps and work out the whole person, the whole Frida Kahlo. There is so much warmth, passion, depth and vivid colour in her art, there has to have been the same in her personality.
In honour of Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo passionately believed in the rights of women. No doubt influenced by her very forward looking father who encouraged her to play football, swim and take up wrestling to help her regain her physical health from childhood polio. She was one of the few girls at her school and was known for her love of life, extrovert personality and her absorption with traditional Mexican clothing and jewelry.
She became fascinated with intellectual thought and with politics, becoming politically active. She joined the Communist Party and became a lifelong member. Frida had expected to study medicine and her art only came to the fore after ill health prevented her from studying.
Due to poor health from childhood polio and through injuries received from a devastating accident as a bus passenger, she frequently spent time alone. This led to her examining herself intellectually, physically, emotionally, detailing her physical pain and mental anguish and fueled an intense interest in identity. Becoming almost obsessive about self-portraiture, she created many such paintings, showing her trademark eyebrows joined over her brow, not how she looked in reality but symbolic. "I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone... because I am the subject I know best."
Frida Kahlo Chiffon Scarf
Frida was fascinated by Mexicanidad, a romantic nationalism which came about after the Mexican revolution. The movement was a response to the “mindset of cultural inferiority” which had been created by colonialism, where Mexican folk culture was disparaged and European favoured. Mexicanidad placed special importance on indigenous cultures and nature and the influence in Frida’s art is obvious. She was drawn to its “fantasy, naivety, and fascination with violence and death”.
The umbilical symbolism which is often depicted as ribbons shows how Kahlo felt connected to everything which surrounded her including her own experiences. It shows she is a 'mother' without children.
She exhibited for the first time in New York in 1938 and sold half of the paintings being shown. This was followed by a slightly less successful exhibition in Paris, however she did meet and become friends with the likes of Marcel Duchamp and Pablo Picasso.
In 1953, for her first solo exhibition, organised by her friend and photographer, she had been thought to be too ill to attend. But with typical Frida determination and passion, she hired an ambulance to transport her to the gallery, where she took part whilst lying in her own four poster bed!
I feel as if I understand her a little better now, found some of the jigsaw pieces to build the picture. Frida Kahlo would not have considered herself to be was a great human being, but I have found her to be so … enquiring, emotional, stoical. And faced with so much pain, she made use of it - she was true and brave and strong.