Frida Kahlo: identity in art

Role model for generations of artists, bisexual women and people with disabilities

Frida Kahlo
by
Marijke Everts (Europeana Foundation)

Renowned Mexican artist Frida Kahlo was a role model for generations of artists, bisexual women and people with disabilities. Her works were inspired by nature and explored gender, disability, class, post-colonialism and race in Mexican society.

Frida Kahlo was born on 6 July 1907 on the outskirts of Mexico city in Coyoacán.

Her father, who was a photographer, had migrated from Germany after an epilepsy-induced accident that ended his university studies. Her mother was of mixed European and Indigenous descent.

When Kahlo was six, she contracted polio which led to her right leg being shorter and thinner than her left leg. Due to her being isolated for months and bullied, she became reclusive. This also brought her closer to her father, as they both shared experiences of living with disability.

portrait of Frida Kahlo as a young girl by her father Guillermo Kahlo

She was motivated by her father to play sports to regain her strength despite the fact that physical activities were seen as mostly suitable for men. From her father, she learned about nature, literature, philosophy and photography - she would help him develop photographs.

In 1922, Kahlo was accepted to the National Preparatory School, an elite school which had only just began to admit women.

During her time there, she became deeply engaged in Mexican culture, social justice issues and political activism. The school promoted Indigenismo - taking pride in the country's indigenous heritage and seeking to overturn the colonial mindset that Europe was superior to Mexico.

Kahlo's self portrait on an exhibition poster titled Frida Kahlo. La Casa Azul.

On 17 September 1925, a bus accident left Kahlo with many injuries including serious damage to her spine and pelvis. She was confined to bed for three months. The accident led to her suffering from chronic pain for the rest of her life.

Though she had enjoyed art from an early age and had worked as a paid engraving apprentice to help her family, she had not yet considered a career as an artist and was focused on becoming a doctor. After the accident, she contemplated a career as a medical illustrator combining her love of science and art.

During her bed-ridden months, her parents provided her with equipment to paint in bed and a mirror so she could see herself. Painting became a way for her to explore questions around identity and existence. She painted herself, her sisters and school friends.

I paint myself because I am often alone and I am the subject I know best.

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Rivera
Enjoy this story? Then sign up for our monthly newsletter (opens in new window)

After her bedrest was over by late 1927, Kahlo started socialising again. She attended a party in 1928 where she met her future husband Diego Rivera, who was a well-known artist at the time.

After marrying Rivera, they moved to the Spanish-style city of Cuernavacas. Kahlo started wearing more traditional indigenous Mexican clothing to emphasise her mixed indigenous heritage. The clothes were a way for her to express her feminist and anti-colonial ideals.

Kahlo and Rivera moved to the US in 1930, where she continued to experience health problems throughout her time there and upon her return to Mexico.

Kahlo's self portrait The Broken Column

Kahlo painted The Broken Column (1944), after she had spinal surgery to correct ongoing problems she suffered since the accident. In the self portrait, her body is open down the middle revealing an Ionic column, a medical metal corset around her body and nails nailed into her skin, with tears dripping down her cheeks.

In Tree of Hope, Remain Strong (1946), Kahlo paints two versions of herself: the right, she is laying on a medical bed with an open gash down her back and across her pelvis. The left, she is in a red dress holding her medical corset and a sign that says ‘Tree of Hope, Remain Strong.’ Wounded Deer (1946) also reflects her physical state and deterioration of her physical health. She also represents herself as male and female which some scholars believe was a reflection of her bisexuality.

During Kahlo and Diego Rivera, they both had extra-marital affairs.

She had affairs with both men and women, including movie stars Dolores del Rio, Paulette Goddard, Maria Felix and movie star Georgia O'Keeffe amongst others. Her painting Two Nudes in a Forest (1939) is said to reflect her attraction towards women.

Painting Homage to Frida Kahlo by Greek artist Dimos Skoulakis, based on her photograph by Nickolas Muray.

Towards the end of her life, photographer Lola Alvarez Bravo staged Kahlo’s first solo exhibition in Mexico at Galeria Arte Contemporaneo in 1953. Kahlo ordered her bed to be moved to the gallery so she could attend the opening. She arrived in an ambulance and was carried on a stretcher to her bed where she stayed throughout the party. The exhibition received attention from press around the world and was a significant cultural event in Mexico.

A year later, on 13 July 1954, aged just 47, she died.

In 1984, Mexico declared her work as national cultural heritage, and she is considered to be one of the most instantly recognisable artists. She has become an icon for several minority groups and political movements, including feminists, LGBTQ community and Chicanos.

Explore more women's history on Europeana