Frida Kahlo was born on 6 July 1907. Her mother was a Mexican Roman Catholic of mixed Indian Spanish descent, and her father was a German-Jewish photographer.
Frida's life was dominated by illness. At six she contracted polio; at 18 she was involved in a near fatal bus crash, was impaled on a steel handrail and suffered multiple fractures to her spine, collarbone, pelvis and right leg. In the years that followed, Frida was to undergo 32 operations, most of them on her spine and right foot, until she died at only 47 on 13 July 1954, 11 months after her leg had been amputated.
Frida's injuries made her unable to bear children (she had several miscarriages and at least three therapeutic abortions), and this acute fragility and sense of emptiness combines with her strong, theatrical personality to give a fiercely compressed energy to her paintings. Frida started painting seriously during her convalescence, and since a large proportion of her work is self-portraits, it was as if she had found a refuge for her suffering. Mature works like 'Henry Ford Hospital', 'My Birth', 'My Nurse and I', 'Me and My Doll', 'The Two Fridas' and 'The Broken Column' became powerful expressions of her suffering because she uses techniques to distance the viewer from her torment. Abrupt changes in scale, gory and literal imagery, black humour and deliberately primitive designs show Frida's fondness for popular Mexican votive paintings or retablos, even to the extent of painting on sheet metal and making frames of tin, shells, mirrors, velvet and plaster.
The sombre shadows over Frida's life should not distract from her great sociability and sense of fun. She had many lovers of both sexes throughout her life, but at 13 she had already set her sights on the painter Diego Rivera. Following the Mexican revolution of 1910, Rivera helped to propagate revolutionary ideals in vast murals, both at home and abroad. After their marriage on 21 August 1929, Frida became deeply involved in Diego's artistic and political activities. She spent more time in travelling and socialising than painting, and she gradually resigned herself to his many love affairs. Her painting 'Frida and Diego Rivera' of 1931 shows the great contrast between the immense and fleshy Diego and his tiny, much younger wife, decked in traditional Mexican costume and jewels. It also hints at their uneasy but compulsive interdependence which led to divorce in 1939 and remarriage in 1940.
One of the greatest blows had come in 1934, when Diego began an affair with Frida's younger sister, Cristina. The gory painting, 'A Few Small Nips' of 1935, its frame spattered with red paint, was linked with this experience. It is based on a newspaper story about a drunken man who stabbed his girl friend 20 times and then protested to the law 'But I only gave her a few small nips ..'. It is characteristic of Frida that she could identify herself so intensely with the image (which possibly also recalls a recent therapeutic abortion) and still find space for sardonically humorous details like the swirl of ribbon held by two doves that bears the title 'Unos cuantos piquetitos!'.
During the late 1930s Frida devoted more time to painting. Between 1937 and 1938, she produced more paintings than she had in all her previous eight years of marriage. This new sense of discipline may be linked with Frida's affair with Trotsky. She wrote to a friend that Trotsky's coming to Mexico was the best thing that ever happened in her life. It was through affairs such as these that Frida was able to protect herself against the infidelities of Diego. Significantly enough, when they remarried Frida stipulated that she would provide for herself financially from the proceeds of her own work. Considering her high medical bills, this was to be no easy task.
Frida was lionised by the Surrealists. On a visit to Mexico in 1938, Andre Breton hailed her work, but the admiration was not mutual. She had no sympathy for the dilettante devices of the Surrealists. When the Bretons, the Riveras and the Trotskys went on holiday together to Patzcuaro, their intention was to converse about art and politics in the evenings and to publish the talks under the title 'Conversations in Patzcuaro'. Frida did not participate in these discussions, and preferred to play Surrealist games like 'exquisite corpses' with Jacqueline Breton. The trouble with El Senor Breton', said Frida, 'is that he takes himself so seriously'.
After an exhibition in New York, Frida was encouraged by Breton to exhibit her work in Paris. She arrived there in 1939 but, with the exception of Marcel Duchamp ('a real guy'), she was unimpressed by the decadent intelligenstia: 'I rather sit on the floor in the market of Toluca and sell tortillas than to have any thing to do with those "artistic" bitches of Paris'. When Breton finally found a gallery to show Frida's work, the owners rejected all but two of the paintings as too 'shocking' for the public. A similar point is made by the art historian Mackinley Helm, who says that her painting 'My Birth' of 1932 was for many years considered unsuitable for reproduction.
Her fluent style makes it a compelling story. Some of her descriptions of the paintings might sound too didactic, but here at last Frida's work has been firmly established in the context of Mexican popular culture. Subjects like the Mexican revolution and the career of Diego Rivera are examined in depth, and there is interesting information on the international art scene of the 1920s and 1930s. Very little has been written in English on Frida Kahlo. The most accessible document is the 1982 Whitechapel exhibition catalogue 'Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti'. Most of the other information on Frida comes from books about Rivera and is inevitably coloured by its source. In 1943, Rivera described Frida as 'the only example in the history of art of an artist who tore open her chest and heart to reveal the biological truth of her feelings'.