One of Frida’s earliest paintings, a self-portrait titled ‘Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress’ (1927), indicated a style that drew inspiration from Mexican folk art as well as realism, which has since become synonymous with the artist. However, her work received little to no recognition as it was initially intended as a sorrowful gift to her ex-boyfriend, who found her political views too ‘liberal’. Alejandro Gómez Arias was, himself, an artist who was a part of the Mexican avant-garde movement.
Around the same time, Kahlo joined the Mexican Communist Party where she met her future husband, artist Diego Rivera. Rivera was a very prominent artist in Mexico and it became clear that the talent and accomplishment of Kahlo’s work was eclipsed by his own success and is part of the larger discourse on feminism in South America.
The Mexican Revolution in 1910 saw a rise in feminist ideology as women were given the opportunity to go into the workforce taking jobs that had traditionally been for men, including working as spies during this time. Women in Mexico were also granted the right to divorce, further strengthening their position in society and perhaps serving as an impetus for female artists to begin exploring their medium with much more zeal.
Post-war Mexico saw the minimising of women’s issues as the Mexican people were left reeling from the atrocities they had been through. It is this sense of oppression and abject denigration towards women that served as inspiration behind Frida Kahlo’s own work. By using her own likeness as the subject in all her portraits, Kahlo is thus freeing the pain and grief she personally experienced and giving a universal voice to the female experience.
This became evident in her self-portraits that began to use elements of surrealism to convey the pain and anguish she endured throughout her life. ‘Without Hope’ (1945) is an apt example of this, where she depicts herself eating animal carcasses and skulls in bed, signifying her time in hospital where she was force fed through a funnel.
Another portrait titled ‘Diego and I’ (1949) shows Frida once again as the subject, this time with the small head of husband Diego brandishing three eyes. This directly refers to the affair Rivera had with a close friend of Kahlo, and despite their apparently open relationship, it was an affair that deeply affected the artist. It is also her last known self-portrait of a bust, and perhaps perfectly sums up their tumultuous life together.
One of the most notoriously known aspects of Kahlo’s personal life was her involvement (rumoured and otherwise) with other women. Her open display of romantic affection towards these women through the means of sending letters and portraits also denotes the defiance of traditional heterosexual roles and the empowerment of female sexuality. Despite this, she would still mourn each time Rivera would take a new partner, which he did even when her health was in decline.
Frida Kahlo died in 1954, after many years of surgeries, amputations, and ill health. She was 47 years old, and left behind a legacy that was still relatively unknown at the time. It wasn’t until the 1970s that her work suddenly catapulted into fame. This could coincide with the second-wave feminist movement which focused on equal rights in society as well as the rejection of sexism in popular art and culture.
The reclamation of Kahlo’s work continued to live on through the third-wave feminist movement as it was this era that lauded diversity and sexual liberation as its principal values. Frida serves as a modern icon for the LGBTQIA+ community as well as women of colour. Her maternal mestizo roots, a term used for people of mixed European and Indigenous roots, could have also played a role in her artistic choices and her increasing curiosity around the idea of ‘self’ and cultural ideology.
Today she remains one of the most intriguing artists of the 20th century. Her rejection of traditional female roles, the pain and suffering she experienced throughout her life, her emotional turbulence and unfettered love for Diego, and her interest in politics and communism all served to portray a woman who could never be defined by their identity or by society’s expectations.