Frida Kahlo - The Tragic Backstory

An inspiring woman with a tormented past

Thinking of Frida Kahlo would make exotic images of monobrows and tropical animals come to my mind. But after seeing the wonderful display of her belongings at the V&A and learning about her personal life, her paintings make a lot more sense; Kahlo was famous for the reflection of her thoughts in her work.

At the age of 18, Kahlo was in a devastating trolley accident that nearly crippled her. She was bedridden for months and forced to drop out of college. This is when painting turned from a  hobby into a passion - Kahlo had a mirror fixed into her bed so she could paint herself, and she decorated the casts that she was forced to wear. She refused to let the accident become detrimental to her joie de vivre; she was "happy to be alive as long as [she could paint]". Her health is one of her main artistic themes; paintings such as ‘The Broken Column’ and ‘The Accident’ depict the tram crash and its effects and she even referred to her horrific miscarriage in her art. She was on medication for the majority of her life and became addicted to drugs such as Demerol.

Frida also had affairs with men and women but it is generally believed that the celebrated painter Diego Rivera was the love of her life. The couple’s first marriage occurred when she was 22 and he was 42, and they were described by Frida’s parents as the "elephant and dove". Rivera introduced Kahlo to his artistic set (whose members included Tina Modotti) and she became more well-known. However, she was never as celebrated in her lifetime as today - she became known posthumously as a symbol of feminism and resilience and was catapulted into superstardom. The couple got divorced in 1939, only to remarry a year later. 

The V&A exhibition was mainly focused on how important appearances were to Kahlo. She loved dressing up, even when no one was there, and her house had lots of mirrors everywhere. This was not purely due to vanity - clothes, jewellery and makeup were forms of expression for Kahlo. She loved clothes with symbolic embroideries such as the ‘huipil’ - a traditional Mexican shirt. As a teenager, Frida loved controversial (often androgynous) clothes but after the Mexican Revolution ended she reverted to the typical Tehuana costume to display that she was proud of what her country had become. Even when abroad, she didn’t abandon these outfits and often attracted lots of attention. She loved to define her famous monobrow and her favourite lipstick was Revlon’s bold red shade: ‘Everything's Rosy’. 

Politics was also very important to Kahlo. She was one of Mexico’s most prominent communists and housed Leon Trotsky - the famous Russian revolutionary - when he was exiled by Stalin. In fact, it is believed that Kahlo had an affair with Trotsky, who was nearly 30 years her senior. Throughout her career, she tried to serve the Communist party with her art (much as Rivera had done when he caused controversy by depicting Lenin in a mural commissioned by the Rockefeller family), but while she often displayed her political tendencies in art, she was much more influential in her actions than in her paintings. 

Kahlo broke many boundaries in her lifetime: she defied gender stereotypes (she won drinking competitions against men, refused to remove her monobrow or moustache and often wore unisex outfits), flaunted her bisexuality and painted things as they were, no matter how raw the subject matter.

Connie V