Born on the eve of the Mexican Revolution, in 1907, Frida Kahlo personified the spirit of the war through her rebellious nature. Afflicted with illness throughout her life, Kahlo found solace in many outlets – some even nontraditional. After polio left one of her legs weak, Kahlo’s father encouraged her to engage in the rough-and-tumble of boxing and soccer. In family portraits, Kahlo is often seen wearing suits, with her hair parted and slicked back. By 18, after a car crash left Kahlo bedridden for months, she found new comfort in painting.
Mastering the self-portrait before the ubiquity of digital cameras and smart phones spurred a culture of self-proclaimed photographers and an inundation of selfies, Kahlo portrayed herself stoic and divulged raw emotions with just the stroke of a sable brush.
To André Breton, a 20th-century leader of the surrealist movement, Kahlo’s paintings stretched beyond the limits of the real world and delved into the subconscious. In her paintings, Breton saw imagination, and he famously described her art as “a ribbon around a bomb.”
Kahlo, however, prided herself in the authenticity of her paintings, spurning labels as a surrealist artist.
“They thought I was a surrealist, but I wasn’t,” Kahlo once said in an interview with Time magazine in 1953. “I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”
The settings of her paintings varied – a rainforest as the backdrop to “Self Portrait with a Monkey” and a hospital bed against Detroit’s cityscape for “The Flying Bed” – but two elements remained consistent in her work: The fodder was always her life, and in 55 self-portraits – out of an estimated 135 paintings total – Kahlo always wore a reticent gaze.
Posthumously, Kahlo has reached critical acclaim for her self-portraits and paintings. Second-wave feminism contributed to a rediscovery of her work in the 70s, as women art scholars sought out the work of other women. A biography authored by Hayden Herrera in 1983 further propelled Kahlo into the mainstream. And as the popularity of neomexicanismo art grew, so too did Kahlo’s world renown, with her paintings beginning to circulate across Europe.
Kahlo’s likeness and art have also served as a muse for leading fashion designers like Jean Paul Gaultier, whose 1998 collection was unequivocally titled “Homage to Frida Kahlo.” A few years later, in 2001, Kahlo became the first Latina on a U.S. postage stamp. The U.S. Postal Service sold 34-cent first-class stamps featuring her self-portrait “Self Portrait with Necklace.” And her paintings have, in recent years, carried a hefty price tag. In 2006, Kahlo’s painting, “Roots” sold for $5.6 million – which then set a record as the highest paid for art piece by a Latin American artist.
In life, Kahlo was recognized for her art as well. The Louvre purchased her mixed-medium portrait, “The Frame,” in 1938. Constructed of aluminum and glass, the portrait was the first piece the museum featured by a 20th century Mexican artist. For Kahlo, though, painting was about more than just gaining prominence.
“Painting completed my life,” she expressed.
José Vasquez is an alumnus of the University of Maryland at College Park. He has worked with The Diamondback, the university’s independent daily, and La Voz Latina, the only Latino-interest publication on campus. His writing has been featured in Kesta Happening DC, the Public Asian and Patch.com. Follow him on Twitter@vasquezreports.