Frida Kahlo: The woman behind the legend - Iseult Gillespie
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Such work is groundbreaking because it turned self-portraiture inward - especially at a time when women often inhabited art only as men saw them. Kahlo insisted her personal experience mattered, and boldly documented the circumstances of her body, beliefs and every day life. These are often conveyed through symbols, which can be as sensuous as they are gruesome: from giant floating flowers and undulating landscapes, to transplanted body parts, skulls and billowing clouds of demons. Click here for an online archive of her art, then listen to this radio documentary about her life and work. You can also access Kahlo’s life in her own words, through her published diary and journal sketches.
A closer look at her reality reveals the stuff of dreams brought to life. Kahlo split her time between her deep blue childhood home, La Casa Azul (which you can now visit as a museum dedicated to her life and work) and her modern studio in Mexico City, which was connected by a bridge to her husband’s quarters, the painter Diego Rivera. Today, their connected studios is also a museum, and known as an architectural wonder. At home, Kahlo was often accompanied by her numerous wild pets including deers, birds and monkeys – all of which played a role in her art.
Along with her artistic commitments, she held uncompromising political beliefs. She had a deep affinity with Mexicanidad, a movement which celebrated indigenous culture after the Revolution. Click here to view a short documentary about the relationship of political revolution to the development of Mexican art at this time.
Kahlo also expressed her nationalism in her daily life. She frequently wore traditional Tehuana dress, and dedicated herself to the study of Mexican traditions and spirituality. .She was also was a devotee of Karl Marx, who appears in several of her paintings, and a fierce member of the Mexican Communist party.
It was at a Communist gathering that she met Rivera. Their tempestuous relationship was marked by infidelity on both sides – Kahlo was openly bisexual - and the two divorced in 1939…only to remarry a year later. Rivera features prominently in Kahlo’s work, appearing in person in more realistic portraits as well in the wild forms like a giant baby, or as Kahlo’s third eye. Read extracts of her beautiful tribute to Rivera here.
Over the past few years, fans have flocked to her colorful biography, style and legacy.. The trend for Kahlo merchandise and fascination with her life has been termed “Frida-mania”, and has sometimes been criticized for simplifying her life and appropriating her unique and complex vision. This article argues for the value of looking at her identity and work in all its complexity – from her experience as a woman with disabilities, to her relationship with her country’s history and heritage and her radical political views.
In Kahlo's work, there are no simple answers or singular truths about a woman who became an icon Rather she explores a blazing desire to survive on her own terms alongside some of the rawest visual depictions of despair. By mining her reality for multiple meanings, she provided us with an extraordinary body of work - and an insight into the contents of her soul.
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