As a young woman, becoming a painter was not a part of Frida's career goals. Her goal in life was to become a doctor but a tragic accident at age 18 left her mentally and physically scared for life. It changed the course of her life forever.
It was during her months of convalescence that Frida began to take painting seriously "to combat the boredom and pain" she said. "I felt I still had enough energy to do something other than studying to become a doctor. Without giving it any particular thought, I started painting." It was the beginning of a life-long career for Frida.
Aside from a few art classes in high school and browsing through art books from her father's collection, Frida had no formal training in the arts. As Frida developed her artistic skills, her paintings evolved into her own unique style, heavily influenced by other people, artists, cultures and life itself. She experimented with different styles and motifs and shocked the art world with her "surrealist" style works and paintings with sexual references.
Wilhelm (Guillermo) Kahlo, Her Father:
Frida's father, a professional photographer by trade, was also an amateur painter. It was he who first sparked Frida's interest in art. Frida would often accompany her father on his painting excursions into the nearby country side. He also taught her how to use the camera and how to retouch and color photographs. While Frida was recovering from the bus accident, Guillermo gave Frida his box of paints and brushes and encouraged her to paint.
Fernando Fernandez, a friend of Frida's father, was a well known and respected commercial printmaker. He hired Frida to work with him after school and taught her how to draw and copy prints by the Swedish Impressionist Anders Zorn. Fernández was surprised at her talent.
19th Century Mexican Portrait Painters:
Early on in her newly found artistic career, Frida had no style of her own and her early paintings reflected the motifs and styles of other artists that she admired. Frida's first self-portrait was "Self-Portrait in a Velvet Dress" in 1926. It was painted in the style of the 19th Century Mexican portrait painters who were greatly influenced by the European Renaissance masters. This self-portrait was Frida's interpretation of Botticelli's "Venus". Frida used this style in other portraits that followed: "Portrait of Alicia Galant" (1927) and a portrait of her older sister; "Portrait of Adriana" (1927).
Another characteristic that Frida borrowed from the 19th Century Mexican Portraits is the inscribed banderole across the top or bottom of a painting. These inscriptions served to identify the sitter for the portrait or to describe the purpose or meaning of the painting. One example where this element was used is "Portrait of Eva Frederick" (1931) where she identifies the portrait sitter and then herself as the artist. In another 1931 double portrait, "Frieda and Diego Rivera", she uses the banderole to proclaim that the portrait was painted " for our friend Mr. Albert Bender". In the unfinished painting "Portrait of a Woman in White" (1930), the banderole was included but not inscribed...leaving the sitter or inspiration for this portrait unknown to this day.
Also borrowed from the 19th Century Mexican Portrait painters was the use of a background of tied back drapes. Frida used this motif in several of her paintings, first in "Self-Portrait - Time Files" (1929), and later in "Portrait of a Woman in White" (1930), "Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky" (1937) and others as well.
Diego Rivera was a well known muralist in Mexico. While Frida was attending classes at the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria school, Diego was painting his mural "Creation" at the school's Amphitheatre. Frida would often go there to watch him paint and admire his work.
After recovering from the bus accident, Frida learned that Diego was painting another mural at the Ministry of Education in Mexico City. Although she did not know him personally, she admired him and his work enormously so much that she wanted his opinion of her own work. She bundled up four of her paintings, boarded a bus and set out for the Ministry building. When Frida arrived she recalls: "I was bold enough to call him so that he would come down from the scaffolding to see my paintings and to tell me sincerely whether or not they were worth anything". One of the paintings she brought to show was her first self-portrait "Self-Portrait in a Velvet Dress". After viewing the paintings, Rivera remarked that he was most interested in the self-portrait " . because it is the most original" he said. The other three he said, " seem to be influenced by what you have seen". He told her to go home and paint another painting and he would come by and see it. After seeing the new painting Rivera told Frida: "You have talent " and encouraged her to continue painting. If Rivera had not responded to her paintings with a positive attitude, it may well have been the end of Frida's career as a painter.
In 1928, Frida painted
a portrait of her younger sister, "Portrait
of Christina, My Sister". The style and motif of this painting
is in sharp contrast with the dark gloomy Renaissance portraits of the
previous year. In this portrait, the background colors are light and airy
and the dark heavy Renaissance gowns have given way to white sleeveless
attire. The elongated features of the previous portraits are now true
to form. Subtle signs of influence by Diego Rivera are evident in her
choice of color and background and the stylized tree and larger branches
in the foreground.
While Diego painted murals that were measured in several square feet, in 1945 Frida painted her own mural on canvas that was measured in just inches, 24" x 30" (61 x 75cm). She called it "Moses" or "Nucleus of Creation". The inspiration for the theme of the painting came from a Sigmund Freud book that she had just finished reading: "Moses the Man and Monotheistic Religion". The mural style of the painting was inspired by Diego.
Her Mexican Roots:
Frida was involved in a circle of Mexican artists and intellectuals who were devoted to the beliefs of the artist Adolfo Best Maugard. In a 1923 book, Maugard wrote about returning Mexican art to its native roots. Paintings he said, should reflect the elements and form of the 19th Century Mexican painters. The group would call this "folkloric" style of painting "Mexicanism" and it would be reinstated back into the world of "fine art". The Americans labeled this movement the "Mexican Renaissance".
In her second self-portrait, "Time Flies", Frida employs the "Mexicanism" style. In this portrait the motif has taken on a very "folkloric" style with vivid and varied colors. Simple cotton peasant clothes replace the sophisticated Renaissance velvet dresses that adorned the subjects of her previous paintings. The jewelry she is wearing is a testament of pre-Columbian and colonial cultural influences. One can only observe from this painting that Frida acknowledges her deep roots in the Mexican culture. To further support her national identity, the dominant color used in this portrait are red, white and green .the colors of the Mexican flag. This self-portrait greatly influenced Frida's search for her own unique style of painting.
To please Diego,
Frida would often wear the style of dress typically worn by the native
women of the Tehuana region of Mexico. These long floor length richly
decorative costumes were not only strikingly beautiful but also enabled
her to hide the physical deformity of her right leg. When traveling abroad
Frida attracted a lot of attention and even inspired a clothing line in
Frida and Diego were both very politically motivated and active in Mexico. They were both members of the Communist Party of Mexico (PCM) in 1928 but both left the party because they did not agree with the party's alignment with Stalinism. In the beginning of her painting career, politics had little influence on her art. But, in 1948, Frida again joined the PCM and that inspired her interest in proclaiming her political allegiance on canvas.
In 1951, Frida's health had diminished to the point where some days she was not able to paint at all. In her diary she wrote: "I feel uneasy about my painting. Above all I want to transform it into something useful for the Communist revolutionary movement, since until now I have only painted the earnest portrayal of my own self, but I'm very far from work that could serve the Party. I must struggle with all my strength to contribute the few positive things my health allows to the Revolution, the only real reason to live.".
During her last years, Frida painted mostly still life but would politicize them by adding a flag, a peace dove, or inscriptions. One of her last self-portraits in 1954 entitled "Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick" was a strong political statement in support of the PCM. Following that painting she immortalized Stalin in "Self-Portrait with Stalin", another painting with an obvious Communist theme. When Frida died in July of 1954, she left an unfinished portrait of Stalin on the easel in her studio a testament to the fact that, when she was able, she wanted to paint to " serve the party " and " benefit the Revolution ".
Pre-Columbian Culture and Mythology:
Artifacts from the Pre-Columbian period had a profound influence on Frida's paintings. They were to be found everywhere in the Kahlo/Rivera residence. Diego collected sculptures and idols of various sizes and Frida collected jewelry of the period. She would sometimes appear in her self-portraits wearing pieces from her collection: "Self-Portrait - Time Flies" (1926), "Self-Portrait with Monkey" (1938), "Self-Portrait with Braid" (1941) and others. Frida said that she included these artifacts in her paintings because they reminded her of Diego.
Pieces from Diego's collection would also appear in many of her paintings or serve as models or inspiration for a painting. Her 1932 painting "My Birth" in which she paints " how I imagined I was born", a statue of the Aztec Goddess Tlazolteolt may have been the model. In "My Nurse and I" from 1937, the "Nurse" is wearing a Teotihuacán mask and the "Madonna and Child" pose may have been modeled after a pre-Columbian statue. Pre-Columbian artifacts can be found in other paintings as well: "The Four Inhabitants of Mexico City" (1938), "Girl with Death Mask" (1938), and "Self-Portrait with Small Monkey" (1945).
In a 1949 painting entitled "The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Myself, Diego and Señor Xólotl" , Frida uses ancient Mexican mythology as the theme. The mythical earth goddess Cihuacoatl, from which all life springs, gently cradles Frida in a "Madonna and Child" pose.
Ex-Voto & Retablo Paintings:
"Ex-Voto" and "Retablo" paintings are Catholic religious painting that became very popular in the Mexican religious culture in the 19th Century. They are usually small scale, 8" x 10", and painted mostly on wood or metal but occasionally on canvas for patrons who could afford a better quality painting. The "Retablo" is a painting of a particular patron saint or other images of devotion. Hand painted Retablos for the most part have been replaced by the abundance and availability of lithographs. The "Ex-Voto" is a votive painting that gives thanks to a particular saint for intervening on someone's behalf to save them from grave danger or a serious illness or injury. They are inexpensive and usually crudly painted by an anonymous armature artist. Because the subject matter is unique for each Ex-Voto, they are still being painted by hand. Although the terms "Ex-Voto" and "Retablo" are often used interchangeably, they are in fact two different styles or art.
We can see the influence of the "Ex-Voto" style of painting in some of Frida's works. "Ex-Voto" paintings include three common elements:1) a scene depicting a tragedy or someone with a grave illness or injury, 2) a Saint or martyr that intervened to "save the day" and 3) an inscription describing the event. These paintings are commissioned by the person depicted in the Ex-Voto or by friends or close members of the family who were grateful for the divine intervention. The Rivera's had a collection of more than 200 Ex-Votos and Retablos. Frida would often take elements from these votive paintings to create her own style of Ex-Voto. A typical "Frida style" Ex-Voto may include some or all of the three elements. Her 1940 painting, appropriately titled "Retablo", is probably her best example of an original style votive painting. Although she titled it "Retablo", it's actually in the style of an "Ex-Voto". However, Frida did not paint "Retablo". She bought the painting and altered it to resemble her own tragic bus accident of 1925. Her paintings "My Birth", "Henry Ford Hospital" and "The Suicide of Dorothy Hale" are typical examples of a "Frida style" Ex-Voto.
Kahlo's paintings are rich in bright vibrant colors. In her diary, Frida attempts to explain the meaning of the colors used in her works:
Green - good warm light
Magenta - Aztec. Old TLAPALI blood of prickly pear, the brightest and oldest
Brown - color of mole, leaves becoming earth
Yellow - madness, sickness, fear. Part of the sun and of joy
Cobalt Blue - electricity and purity love
Black - nothing is black - really nothing
Leaf Green - leaves, sadness, science, the whole of Germany is this color
Greenish Yellow - more madness and mystery all the ghosts wear clothes of this color, or at least their underclothes
Dark Green - color of bad advertisements and good business
Navy Blue - distance .also tenderness can also be this blue
Red - blood?....well, who knows!
(The United States)
Events in Frida's Life:
Probably the one thing that influenced the theme of Frida's paintings most of all was her own life. Based on real life events, she painted the biography of her life. An art critic once wrote: "It is impossible to separate the life and work of this extraordinary person. Her paintings are her biography".
Many of Frida's paintings, especially the self-portraits, capture her own personal emotions and feelings about an event or crisis in her life: her physical condition, her inability to have children, her philosophy of nature and life and most of all her turbulent relationship with Diego. Unfortunately most of those "life events" were tragic and unpleasant events and many of them related to Diego's "womanizing" and infidelity.
Often when Frida was upset with Diego, she would paint a self-portrait to express her emotions at the time. To the untrained eye, most of Frida's self-portraits look like just another self-portrait. But, within her paintings are clues that reveal her inner emotions and thoughts at the time the painting was executed. The facial expressions in her self-portraits are, for the most part, without emotion and don't reveal her true mood it's everything else in the painting that are the clues; the backgrounds, the colors, the theme, and the style. All of her self-portraits have a story to tell.
In the 1930s while Frida was in the United States with Diego, she became bored and restless. To calm her emotions, Diego suggested that she paint a series of paintings related to important events in her life. Her first painting in the series was "My Birth". The painting captured two significant events in her life: her own birth and the death of her mother. Although the painting was executed in a Retablo style, the unfurled scroll at the bottom was never inscribed to reveal the significance of the event portrayed.
in the "life events" series was her 1937 painting "My
Nurse and I". The event captured in this painting is that she,
as a baby, had to be breast fed by a wet-nurse because her own mother
was not able to do so. An important event because it probably prevented
Frida and her mother from forming a mother/child bond
a broken bond
that lasted a lifetime.
Frida's 1937 painting "Memory" captures an event that devastated her marriage. In this painting she expresses her anguish over Diego's affair with her younger sister Christina. The size of the broken heart at her feet symbolizes the intensity of her emotional pain.
A 1941 self-portrait entitled "Self-Portrait with Bonito", is another example of a self-portrait that appears to be just that a self-portrait. But hidden within the brush strokes of this painting are her true emotions of sadness over the death of her father. Dressed in black, she mourns his passing. On her shoulder is her beloved parrot Bonito who has also recently died. The background is alive with plants and insects. The painting is a dichotomy of life and death .a common theme in other Kahlo painting.
Sex and Infertility:
After Frida and Diego separated in the summer of 1939, they each lead separate lives. While Diego continued his sexual escapades, Frida engaged in some of her own .sometimes with other women. Sexual overtones eventually found their way into a number of Frida's still life paintings. The fruits were shaped or cut open in such a way as to symbolize male or female sex organs, seeds became sperm cells and flowers became wombs. Sometimes the sexual references were subtle, for example in her 1938 painting "Fruits of the Earth", and sometimes more obvious as in "Still Life (Tondo)" from 1942. As you view her earlier still life paintings, you will observe the sexual influence in a number of them to some degree. After 1950, sexual overtones gave way to political statements.
Frida's obsession with not being able to bear children also produced some paintings that were all about sex and fertility. Two obvious paintings are: "Flower of Life" (1943), and "Sun and Life" (1947). In other paintings the fertility element appears but is not the dominate theme. For example in the two family portraits that she painted, she also included an unborn fetus. In "My Grandparents, My Parents and I" (1936), the fetus is Frida, but in the 1950 family portrait "Portrait of Frida's Family", the unborn fetus is the child that she never had. In "Moses" (1945), the fetus is Diego.
considered herself to be a "Surrealist" and, in fact, rejected
that label. "They thought I was a Surrealist," she said,
but I wasn't. I never painted dreams
I painted my
own reality". Kahlo's
own Surrealistic style was derived from her obsession with death and her
Later, in 1952, Kahlo wrote: "I detest Surrealism, to me it seems a decadent manifestation of bourgeois art". But, by that time Surrealism was no longer fashionable.
In 1951, after some 30 operations, Frida was left broken mentally and in severe physical pain. She was only able to endure by taking painkillers and even then some days was not able to paint at all. As time passed, the pain increased and so did the dosage of painkillers sometimes taken with alcohol. As a result, the heavy use of drugs greatly influenced the quality of her paintings. The once precise execution of detail in her paintings had now turned to looser, hastier, almost careless brushwork, thicker application of paint and a lack of detail. In 1954, just before her death, a friend remarked that Frida tried to paint a small painting for him but it never got further than a few dabs of paint.
There are two 1954 paintings that bear witness to the devastating affect the drugs had on her paintings: "Self Portrait with a Portrait of Diego on the Breast and Maria Between the Eyebrows", and "Self Portrait with Stalin". It is difficult to look at these blurred smeared blotches of paint on canvas knowing that she was once a master of detail. One look at these paintings and it was obvious that Frida was being robbed of her talent. One can only imagine the emotional pain and frustration Frida must have felt when she too looked at these paintings. It was not uncommon for Frida to destroy a painting that she didn't like. She may have wanted to destroy these two crudely executed paintings but they were both probably spared because they were "politically motivated".
Vida a Nuestra Frida"
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