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  • Laura Battisti

Women in the Arts: Frida Kahlo

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

In this series, we're taking a look at women who have made waves in the arts - from painters and performers, to journalists and activists - chosen by ANE writers.

For our first edition, Laura delves into the life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

Who is Frida Kahlo?

Frida Kahlo – the woman with the unibrow and colourful dresses. For a lot of people these are the first things that come to mind when hearing her name. However, Frida Kahlo is so much more. She is an artist, a feminist, a LGBTQ+ icon, a political activist and also an idol for many disabled people.

She was born in Coyoacán, Mexico on 6th July 1907. Her father was a German photographer who not only inspired her passion for the arts but also for defying norms. Her mother, on the other hand, was a highly religious Mexican woman with rather traditional views on womanhood.

"Kahlo's brilliance was transforming her 'weaknesses' into her trademarks"

As if being a mixed-race child in the early 20th century was not hard enough, Kahlo’s childhood was also marked by pain and suffering. She contracted polio at the delicate age of five, leading to her right leg becoming thinner and longer than her left, severely limiting her ability to move and making her disabled. In fact, this disability is the reason for Kahlo’s dress style. In an effort to conceal her legs, she started wearing long, colourful skirts. This perfectly illuminates Kahlo’s brilliance and poise of her transforming her ‘weaknesses’ into her trademarks.

However, polio was not the only health struggle she had to deal with. When she was 18, she got in a tragic bus accident which caused her to be pierced by a pole from the stomach all the way to her pelvis. This injury resulted in her undergoing 32 (!) surgical operations and a rather long recovery process. If it wasn’t for Kahlo’s long recovery process, though, the world would probably never have got to enjoy her genius. During her recovery she started painting, documenting her personal experiences through art. This is something Kahlo continued to do until her early death in 1954, at the young age of 47.

The suffering feminist

Frida Kahlo’s style of painting is very distinct. Her use of bright colours, immediately catching your attention, is what she is known for. She usually chose to portray herself, since, as Kahlo said: ‘I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.’ This statement perfectly sums up the power of her works.

Her showcasing of her own pain and challenging gender norms in her paintings is what makes Kahlo so amazing. It was a true inspiration for many women around the world, who in the early 20th century lived in a society full of oppressive standards.

Until 1938, Kahlo was mainly known as the wife of famous painter, Diego Riviera. In 1938, however, she had her first successful solo show. Following that show, Kahlo gained in popularity. One of her most famous paintings is The Broken Column, which depicts her naked body, split into two. The name of the work stems from her spine looking like a broken column, which aims to illuminate the constant pain she was in. Another important yet controversial work at the time was Two Nudes in a Forest. In this painting, Frida Kahlo openly declared her bisexuality. In 1939 this was quite the statement.

"she showed women around the world that the only person who has to think you are beautiful is yourself"

What also needs to be mentioned when speaking about Kahlo’s success is her effort to defy traditional notions of feminine beauty. She proudly embraced her unibrow, her moustache, her deformities and even cut off her long hair at one point. She showed and still shows women all around the world that the only person who has to think you are beautiful, is yourself.

However, feminism is not the only thing she was an advocate for. In fact, she also showed many people within the disabled community that a life with a disability is still worth living. After her accident, which left her disabled, Kahlo did not give up but kept believing in herself. Even if it was not easy to persevere, she demonstrated that disabled bodies are beautiful and able to produce impactful work. This just goes to show how forward Kahlo was. She talked and educated about disability way before others did. Indeed, Kahlo’s effort to de-stigmatise disability is something which is still regarded as rather ‘progressive’ in today’s day and age, just further highlighting how incredible this woman was (and still is!).

Frida Kahlo, Women in the Arts

An idol now and then

Frida Kahlo was a pioneer of many things. She educated about disability. She showed that womanhood goes beyond the traditional standards of beauty. She had a successful career at a time where women were not supposed to work. She was openly bisexual.

While Kahlo’s fame only reached its peak in 1970, 16 years after her death, during the first wave of feminism, her legacy is astonishing. Kahlo is still an idol for many women and men alike, and rightfully so. Her achievements are plenty and all of them impressive.

Want to write your own addition to our Women in the Arts series? Send us a pitch here.

Edited by Olena Strzelbicka

Researched by Larisa Cuturean

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