Frida KAHLO — the artist that never painted dreams, just the reality
Disclaimer: The information provided in this episode comes from multiple sources and are not my scientific studies or discoveries. Bear with me as I am editing all the texts and crediting the authors. Thank you!
Welcome to HerArt podcast, a project for art lovers, especially art created by women. In our seventh episode, we will talk about Frida KAHLO — the artist that never painted dreams, just the reality. My name is Nata Andreev and I am going to tell you seven curious facts that you didn’t know about one of the most iconic artists of the 20th century with a biography that has sparked innumerable books and an Oscar-winning film. Kahlo’s paintings themselves are deeply personal, replete with symbolism that narrates the story of her life.
Curious Fact #1
At age six, Frida contracted polio. Not only did this cause her right leg to be shorter and thinner than her left — something long skirts helped her disguise — but it kept her out of school for quite some time. After joining the elite National Preparatory School in 1922, she became immersed in indigenismo, a new sense of Mexican cultural pride. Thus, to show her commitment to Mexican culture — and disguise the fact that she was older — she shaved three years off her age. For the rest of her life, she declared that she was born on July 7, 1910 — the year the Mexican Revolution started.
Curious Fact #2
As a child, Kahlo dreamed of being a doctor, with art being a side hobby nurtured by her father, who was a photographer. That dreamed ended at age 18 when Kahlo and her boyfriend at the time were involved in a horrific accident. The wooden bus they were traveling on collided with a streetcar, which caused an iron handrail to impale Kahlo through the pelvis. The near-fatal injuries kept Kahlo hospitalized for months. It was during this time that Kahlo’s father created a special easel that allowed her to paint in bed. The accident would cause Kahlo to live her life in chronic pain and she would frequently need surgery to help with her spinal injuries.
Curious Fact #3
Kahlo folded in symbols from her Mexican culture and allusions to her personal life. Of these, she famously declared, “I paint myself because I am so often alone because I am the subject I know best.” 55 of her 143 paintings are self-portraits, which is perhaps understandable when thinking about how much time she spent on her own while recovering from a variety of health issue. Her introspective work is made all the more impactful by her use of the self-portrait to express her internal struggles and psychical and mental suffering. On May 11, 2016, at the first auction to put a major Frida work up for sale, her 1939 painting Two Nudes in the Forest (The Earth Itself) sold for over $8 million — the highest auction price then paid for any work by a Latino artist.
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Curious Fact #4
When Kahlo met Rivera, she was a student and he was already a father of four and on his way to his second divorce. Despite a 20-year age difference, the pair quickly fell for each other, spurring Rivera to leave his second wife and wed Kahlo in 1929. From there, they were each other’s greatest fans and supporters when it came to their art. But their 10-year marriage was wrought with fits of temper and infidelities on both sides. They divorced in 1939, only to remarry a year later. Paintings like Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, The Two Fridas, and The Love Embrace of the Universe boldly illustrated their relationship from Kahlo’s perspective.
Curious Fact #5
Kahlo’s place in popular culture began to rise in the 1970s when scholars began questioning the exclusion of female, non-Western artists from the history books. Her openness with her sexuality — she was bisexual — and her gender-bending dress has made her an iconic figure in the LGBT community. Her fierce pride in her Mexican roots and promotion looking away from Mexico’s colonial roots have also made her a source of pride for Chicanos. The term “Fridamania” has been used to describe the phenomenon, with the 21st-century romanticism of Kahlo’s life almost overshadowing her true history. “The twenty-first-century Frida is both a star — a commercial property complete with fan clubs and merchandising — and an embodiment of the hopes and aspirations of a near-religious group of followers,” states art historian Oriana Baddeley in her essay for the Tate Modern Frida Kahlo catalog. “This wild, hybrid Frida, a mixture of tragic bohemian, Virgin of Guadalupe, revolutionary heroine and Salma Hayek, has taken such great hold on the public imagination that it tends to obscure the historically retrievable Kahlo.”
Curious Fact #6
Thanks to the National Sound Library of Mexico, we may now know for sure what did her voice sound like. The library has unearthed what they believe could be the first known voice recording of Kahlo, taken from a pilot episode of a radio show, which aired after her death. The episode featured a profile of Kahlo’s artist husband Diego Rivera. In it, she reads from her essay Portrait of Diego, celebrating 50 years of Rivera’s work. “He is a gigantic, immense child, with a friendly face and a sad gaze,” she says, as translated by Agence France-Presse. ”His high, dark, extremely intelligent and big eyes rarely hold still. They almost come out of their sockets because of their swollen and protuberant eyelids — like a toad’s. They allow his gaze to take in a much wider visual field as if they were built especially for a painter of large spaces and crowds.” Now, let’s hear it in Spanish.
Curious Fact #7
Have you ever heard this quote “I am own muse. The subject I know best. The subject I want to know better.”? You may think it belongs to Frida because you saw it on UN Women page, or Victoria and Albert Museum profile. In actuality, it belongs to Oroma Elewa a visual performance artist who creatively tells stories through photography, performance, and art. It is unknown where, how, or why this started. But the takeaway is that it happened at all. Sadly, we live in a world where you have to know and trust your sources of information, and still take it with a grain of salt. Beyond Elewa having to fight for her legacy, no matter how trivial the issue, perhaps the real tragedy is that things like this happen far too often. Elewa has a little over 50K Instagram followers, and her story is still low on the radar — so imagine being an artist with less than 1K followers and how easy it could be for someone to steal your work and pass it off as their own.
Thank you so much for listening to the sixth episode of HerArt podcast — a project for art lovers, especially art created by women. If you want to follow more of what we do, find us on Facebook and Instagram. Tune in next month, when I am going to tell you about Amy SHERALD — the first black woman to paint an official portrait of the First Lady. See you later!