Painter, Revolutionary, Feminist Icon, Fashion Icon…
…Queer Icon, Drug user, Communist
This month our theme is I think for the very first time dedicated to one real life actual woman. Her name was Frida Kahlo. I first discovered her in a children’s/young person’s book about an aspiring painter it mentioned her lying on her back in intolerable pain and painting these vast vivid canvases.
The details of her life are widely known and have even been filmed with Salma Hayek did a good sensitive job in the biopic at the time I found the comments that she was too pretty to play Frida redundant. Frida was beautiful, on her terms not anyone else’s. In her vibrant clothes and her iconic monobrow she defied other people’s conventions of beauty, womanhood and everything else. If you want to know more about the facts of her life you can here.
Many of her portraits detail the damage done to her body by illness and in her accidents and subsequent operations, a pole is seen skewering her and other figures in various paintings. In another her spinal column becomes a classical ionic cracked column. In many there are incisions or wounds seeping blood and organs.
Painting her eternal self portraits gave her back her body. There was also a practical consideration, laying flat on her back she had a mirror rigged up above her bed she said “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.” There are many photos of this set up the bed with the huge mirror above and her painting her own face into her mythic subconscious riddled paintings. I have always felt like she painted exactly what was going on in her mind to show how us how it looked to her.
It is not hard to see why myths cloak her. Even the actual facts of her life seem unreal both gory and glitter including the details given here of the aftermath of her accident: ‘’ Somehow, in the impact, Frida’s clothes had also been yanked off, and she was left completely nude. Even more freakish, Gómez Arias recalled, “someone in the bus, probably a housepainter, had been carrying a packet of powdered gold. This package broke, and the gold fell all over the bleeding body of Frida.” The image of a speared woman, nude and speckled with gold is both tragic and astonishing.
Her spine was so damaged by her illnesses and accidents she spent much of her life in and out of plaster cast corsets which she bejewelled and painted. These plaster casts to me opitimise Frida’s constant efforts to recognise the damaged body she lived in, to adorn it and consider it a beautiful body.
“I suffered two grave accidents in my life…One in which a streetcar knocked me down and the other was Diego.” Is one of her most famous quotes there is no doubt about the influence her obsession with Diego Riviera had on her life. They lived in two houses connected by a bridge. One of her most famous paintings where she appears in a suit possibly belonging to Diego with all her hair cut off was because of an uncommon (for their relationship) betrayal, he had slept with her sister.
I am drawn to artists of any kind whose work says here are my fractured mind, body and relationships they are dark and beautiful. Every time these women like Kahlo, Plath and Emin make art in their own image like this I feel less alone. They give a sense of pain not being all for nought that while you can make art from it you can redeem something from any experience.
There is an article featuring a woman who nursed Frida and now tries to tell the truth about her she is certain of her icon status and the myths that have woven themselves about her ‘As with all icons,’ Tiból tells me, ‘all kinds of things have been heaped on to her: candles, flowers, perfumes and fictions.’
This quote for me sums up the idea that Frida Kahlo has become more than an artist to people an idol to be worshipped and mythologised. She is known in Mexico as the Heroine of Pain and worshipped there more than anywhere else. It is also argued that she fits into so many modern notions and schools of thought third wave feminism and queer theory among others. She defied expectations of what a woman could do and achieve and mostly from a bed.
There is much discussion about exactly why Frida Kahlo is beloved by so many people the answer is for the fact that so many people who feel like outsiders can relate to a part of her identity, art and experience. While considered a Mexican artist and adopting traditional dress and hair styles she was in fact mixed race and Kahlo is a modification of a Germanic name, she was a communist who had an affair with Trotsky she affected mannish dress at times and had some fairly famous bisexual affairs, she drank a bottle of brandy a day for years and was addicted to various pain medications, she was often bedridden and still made art that has remained a palpable influence on modern art, design and culture, she appeared on the cover of Vogue magazine monobrow and all.
She still inspires fashion today all those festival head bands with tumbling roses are pure Frida. Her brightly coloured and patterned full skirts could have walked down a recent catwalk. In fact this website includes photos from the mid 90’s onwards of catwalk collections that directly reference her look.
Frida’s look was affected for many reasons the mannish dress she sometimes wore perhaps a sign of a dislike of standard gender norms and roles and the full skirts worn to cover a thinner leg the result it is believed of polio childhood. The native dress and hair styles she became known for were it is considered she affected because that was what Diego preferred. In photos in her brightly coloured pattern clashing attention grabbing clothes with her floral crowns she most of all exudes confidence she dressed the way she felt she deserved to be dressed. She dressed as if each day was an occasion and painted in her elaborate outfits collections of her clothes note the paint marks. Her traditional dress choices of huipils (traditional shirts donned by indigenous women) and wide bordered skirts she often wore were also part of her ongoing resistance to Americanisation. As ever her beauty was a political statement. Like Andy Warhol and his ‘’Andy Suit’’ her costume is integral to her identity as a person and artist.
It is not possible to mention Frida Kahlo without Diego Riviera in their life time she was the relative unknown he the large (in all senses of the word he is said to have resembled a frog) figure on the art scene in Mexico and abroad. She was till the end in thrall to him it could be said. However now you will find while Frida Kahlo is well known or at the very least her imagery and style has suffused modern art, fashion and culture even when people do not know the artist herself hardly anyone would give Diego a second thought.. Which is not to say his art was without merit it seems simply that after her death Kahlo was given a second life through art and legend she was far beyond her time.
Links used for this blog post: