Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo Film

The film lasts for 16.37 minutes and is suitable for showing to older children in the UK. Other jurisdictions may have different attitudes relating to what can be shown to children, so please view the video first.


Early Life

Magdalena, Carmen, Frida, Kahlo, Calderon was born on the 6th of July 1907, in Coyoacan, a suburb of Mexico City. She was the third daughter of Matilda and Wilhelm Kahlo, who was a German immigrant. Frida’s mother was kind and intelligent, but Frida Kahlo also described her as calculating, cruel and fanatically religious. In contrast, in her diary, she described her father, who was an amateur artist, as warm and affectionate.

In 1913 Frida Kahlo contracted polio, which left her with a slightly crooked right foot. As a result, school children called her ‘Peg Leg Frida’. It was not surprising that she took to wearing trousers and very long skirts. At the age of 15 Frida was one of 35 girls to join the first intake of girls at the 2000 strong National Preparatory School in Mexico City. Frida specialised in natural sciences because she wanted to be a doctor. She was an avid reader and a strong supporter of social justice. She became seriously committed to Mexican culture and politics. It was at the National Preparatory School she first saw the artist Diego Rivera, who she often teased. He painted the fresco ‘The Creation’ in the Simon Bolívar Amphitheatre within the school.

The Accident

On the 17th of September 1925 Frida Kahlo was seriously injured in a collision between a tram and the bus. She spent a month in the Red Cross Hospital and during the months of convalescence she began to paint.
A canopy was attached to Frida’s bed with a mirror covering its underside. She became her own model. This was the start of the many self-portraits that dominate Frida Kahlo’s work. As an artist, she was virtually self-taught. Although, she did have drawing lessons from the commercial printmaker Fernando Fernandez. He had a studio happened to be close to her school.

To express her very individual ideas and feelings Frida Kahlo developed her own pictorial language. She used symbols which when decoded, offer insights into her paintings and the circumstances surrounding their creation. Her imagery was heavily influenced by Mexican popular art and pre-Columbian culture. This can be seen in ‘Self-portrait with thorn necklace and hummingbird.’

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera

Frida Kahlo met Diego Rivera again around 1927. He was overwhelmed by her determination and passion and impressed by her work. He encouraged her to pursue a career as an artist and became a frequent visitor to Frida Kahlo’s home. They fell in love and. In his mural, ‘The Ballad of the Revolution’, he painted Frida. She was wearing a red blouse with a star on the breast, distributing weapons for the revolutionary struggle. Frida had joined the Young Communist League in 1927 and became a member of the Mexican Communist Party in 1928.

On the 21st of August 1929, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera were married. He was 42 and she was 22. Her parents were against the marriage often referring to the couple as the ‘Elephant and the Dove’. Before her marriage Frida had often worn men’s clothes as a means of establishing her independence. But with Diego, she took to wearing the richly decorative dress of the women from Teheuantepec region. This became her preferred clothing, partly because the floor length skirts hid her somewhat shorter right leg. Frida left the Communist Party in 1929 because Diego had been expelled from it.

Frida’s Health Issues

In 1930 Diego was offered a commission to paint a mural in the United States. The United States was a powerful magnet for Mexican mural painters because under the Presidency of Plutarco Elias Calles, the funding for murals had virtually dried up. Later that year Frida Kahlo’s first pregnancy was terminated because of problems with her pelvis, a consequence of the traffic accident. The pain and the deformity of her right leg became more problematic leading to the meeting with Dr Leo Eloesser. He who would become her most trusted medical adviser.

Frida and Diego moved to Detroit in 1932, but July Frida’s second pregnancy ended in miscarriage. She recorded the traumatic event in the painting ‘Henry Ford Hospital’. Later, the couple moved to New York, where Diego began a mural at the Rockefeller Centre, but problems arose. Frida had had enough of America wanted to return to Mexico. Diego was fascinated by the country and wanted to stay. In reaction to the conflict, Frida began work on ‘My Dress Hangs There’, She completed it later in Mexico. Ironically, Diego’s contract in New York was cancelled early, because he’d painted a worker’s leader in the mural with the face of Lenin.

Unfortunately, Frida’s third pregnancy was terminated in 1934. Her right foot was operated on and several toes are removed. Early the following year Frida left home after discovering Diego’s affair with her younger sister, Christina. For several months Frida lived in an apartment in the centre of Mexico City. She had a short-lived affair with the American sculptor, Isamu Noguchi. After a reconciliation with Diego in 1936, Frida moved back into the family home. She had another operation on her foot.

Meeting with Leo Trotsky

Mexico granted political asylum in 1937 to Leon Trotsky. He was the Russian revolutionary who was radically opposed to Stalin. When Leon Trotsky and his family arrived in Mexico, Frida met them. She placed the Blue House in Coyoacan, the Kahlo family home, at their disposal. There followed a brief affair between Frida and Leon.

1938 saw Frida Kahlo’s first exhibition, held in Julian Levy’s Gallery in New York. It was a great success. Frida’s work was so personal she found it difficult to understand others could appreciate her work. Yet the American, actor Edward G Robinson purchased four of her paintings for $200 each.

Frida’s Divorce

In 1939, Frida Kahlo and Diego Riveria were divorced. Subsequently, Frida suffered long periods of loneliness. She threw herself into her work because she wanted no financial support from Diego. She cut her hair very short. Destroying, she believed, the symbol of feminine beauty and sensuality Diego so admired. She also gave up wearing long skirts and instead wore men’s suits. Some were so big, they may well have come from Diego Rivera’s own wardrobe. Frida travelled to San Francisco in 1940 for treatment from Dr. Eloesser for severe back pain.

In December Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera were married for a second time. However, she insisted on paying half the household bills. From the sale of her paintings, she also supported herself financially.

Frida’s Reputation Grows

Frida and Diego moved into the Blue House in Coyoacan in 1941 after Frida’s father, Wilhelm died. Diego still used a house in San Angel as his studio. Following the International Exhibition of Surrealism 1940, held in Mexico City, Frida’s reputation as an artist grew. In 1943, she accepted a professorship at La Esmeralda School of Art in Mexico City. But instead of working from plaster models and copying European ideas, she sent her students out into the streets. She wanted them to take their inspiration from reality of Mexican life. Unfortunately, Frida’s health was failing and after a few months she was forced to hold her classes at home.

Frida received a national prize from the Ministry of Public Education for her complex painting ‘Moses’ in 1945. By 1946 her paintings were appearing in the majority of group exhibitions held in Mexico. Later that year, she went to New York for an operation to strengthen her spine. After the operation she completed a self-portrait for her patron, the engineer, Eduardo Safa.

More Medical Issues

Frida re-joined the Mexican Communist Party in 1948. But in 1950, she had a total of 7 operations on her spine. She spent 9 months in the ABC hospital in Mexico City. It would not be until November 1950 that she started paint again for around 3 hours a day. She used a special easel mounted on her bed. Although she was still intimate with Diego, her closest relationships from then on seem to have been with women.

After her discharge from hospital in 1951, she was mostly confined to a wheelchair. She was in severe pain and took pain killers regularly. Up to this point her paintings had been executed with extreme technical precision. But the increasingly strong medication began to affect the steadiness of her hand. Her brushwork became much looser, cruder and almost careless.

In 1953 Lola Bravo organized Frida Kahlo’s first solo exhibition in Mexico. Frida was in very poor health but insisted on attending the opening night. She had her bed sent to the gallery and she arrived in an ambulance. Later that year, to relieve severe pain, Frida’s right leg was amputated below the knee. She lapsed into a deep depression. However, it did not stop her painting. Her work became blatantly propagandist, revealing an almost religious faith in Communism.

Frida’s Demise

Frida Kahlo’s end was approaching and early in 1954, she caught pneumonia. Whilst convalescing she took part in the demonstration against the overthrow by the CIA of the government of Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz. The very last entry in her diary reads. “I hope the exit is joyful. And I hope never to come back.”

Frida Kahlo was in extreme pain on night of the 12th of July 1954 and died the following morning. Her nurse stated that Frida was prescribed a maximum of 7 pain killers, but had taken 11. No autopsy was performed and that afternoon her coffin was placed in the entrance hall of the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City. It was attended by a guard of honour. But like so many of her public appearances this very last one also caused a stir. With Diego Rivera’s permission, some of her political friends covered her coffin with a red flag emblazoned with a hammer and sickle and framed by a white star. This provoked a public outcry. The guard of honour was maintained for a day and a night and by the afternoon of the 14th of July more than 600 people had paid their respects.

Frida Kahlo’s body was carried through the town to the crematorium. After several speeches, she was cremated. Her ashes were placed in a pre-Columbian vase which now resides in the Blue House. Four year later, in accordance with the wishes of Diego Rivera who died in 1957, Frida Kahlo’s home, the Blue House, was bequeathed to the Mexican nation and opened as a museum.

Frida’s Legacy

Frida Kahlo was a most remarkable woman whose lust for life was focused on the idea of being very honest with and about herself. Her artistic achievement is perhaps best summed by the words of Diego Rivera.
“She’s the first woman in the history of art to treat, with absolute uncompromising honesty, one might even say with impassive cruelty, those general and specific themes, which exclusively affect women.”

Paul Priestley Artist in School