Magdalena Carmen FRIDA KAHLO y Calderón was a Mexican painter who died on this date (b: 1907); Kahlo known for her many portraits, self-portraits, and works inspired by the nature and artifacts of Mexico. Inspired by the country’s popular culture, she employed a naïve folk art style to explore questions of identity, postcolonialism, gender, class, and race in Mexican society. Her paintings often had strong autobiographical elements and mixed realism with fantasy. In addition to belonging to the post-revolutionary Mexicayotl movement, which sought to define a Mexican identity, Kahlo has been described as a surrealist or magical realist. She is known for painting about her experience of chronic pain.
Born to a German father and a mestiza mother, Kahlo spent most of her childhood and adult life at La Casa Azul, her family home in Coyoacán – now publicly accessible as the Frida Kahlo Museum. Although she was disabled by polio as a child, Kahlo had been a promising student headed for medical school until she suffered a bus accident at the age of 18, which caused her lifelong pain and medical problems. During her recovery, she returned to her childhood interest in art with the idea of becoming an artist.
Kahlo’s interests in politics and art led her to join the Mexican Communist Party in 1927, through which she met fellow Mexican artist Diego Rivera. The couple married in 1929, and spent the late 1920s and early 1930s travelling in Mexico and the United States together. During this time, she developed her artistic style, drawing her main inspiration from Mexican folk culture, and painted mostly small self-portraits which mixed elements from pre-Columbian and Catholic beliefs. Her paintings raised the interest of Surrealist artist André Breton, who arranged for Kahlo’s first solo exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in 1938; the exhibition was a success, and was followed by another in Paris in 1939. While the French exhibition was less successful, the Louvre purchased a painting from Kahlo, The Frame, making her the first Mexican artist to be featured in their collection. Throughout the 1940s, Kahlo participated in exhibitions in Mexico and the United States and worked as an art teacher. She taught at the Escuela Nacional de Pintura, Escultura y Grabado (“La Esmeralda“) and was a founding member of the Seminario de Cultura Mexicana. Kahlo’s always-fragile health began to decline in the same decade. She had her first solo exhibition in Mexico in 1953, shortly before her death in 1954 at the age of 47.
Kahlo’s work as an artist remained relatively unknown until the late 1970s, when her work was rediscovered by art historians and political activists. By the early 1990s, she had become not only a recognized figure in art history, but also regarded as an icon for Chicanos, the feminism movement and the LGBTQ+ movement. Kahlo’s work has been celebrated internationally as emblematic of Mexican national and indigenous traditions and by feminists for what is seen as its uncompromising depiction of the female experience and form.
She was experiencing health problems – undergoing an appendectomy, two abortions, and the amputation of gangrenous toes – and her marriage to Rivera had become strained. He was not happy to be back in Mexico and blamed Kahlo for their return. While he had been unfaithful to her before, he now embarked on an affair with her younger sister Cristina, which deeply hurt Kahlo’s feelings. After discovering it in early 1935, she moved to an apartment in central Mexico City and considered divorcing him. She also had an affair of her own with American artist Isamu Noguchi.
Kahlo reconciled with Rivera and Cristina later in 1935 and moved back to San Ángel. She became a loving aunt to Cristina’s children, Isolda and Antonio. Despite the reconciliation, both Rivera and Kahlo continued their infidelities. She also resumed her political activities in 1936, joining the Fourth International and becoming a founding member of a solidarity committee to provide aid to the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. She and Rivera successfully petitioned the Mexican government to grant asylum to former Soviet leader Leon Trotsky and offered La Casa Azul for him and his wife Natalia Sedova as a residence. The couple lived there from January 1937 until April 1939, with Kahlo and Trotsky not only becoming good friends but also having a brief affair.
On August 21, 1940, Leon Trotsky was assassinated in Coyoacán, where he had continued to live after leaving La Casa Azul. Kahlo was briefly suspected of being involved, as she knew the murderer, and was arrested and held for two days with her sister Cristina. The following month, Kahlo traveled to San Francisco for medical treatment for back pain and a fungal infection on her hand. Her continuously fragile health had increasingly declined since her divorce and was exacerbated by her heavy consumption of alcohol.
Rivera was also in San Francisco after he fled Mexico City following Trotsky’s murder and accepted a commission. Although Kahlo had a relationship with art dealer Heinz Berggruen during her visit to San Francisco, she and Rivera reconciled. They remarried in a simple civil ceremony on December 8, 1940. Kahlo and Rivera returned to Mexico soon after their wedding. The union was less turbulent than before for its first five years. Both were more independent, and while La Casa Azul was their primary residence, Rivera retained the San Ángel house for use as his studio and second apartment. Both continued having extramarital affairs; Kahlo, being a bisexual, had affairs with both men and women.
Kahlo’s right leg was amputated at the knee due to gangrene in August 1953. She became severely depressed and anxious, and her dependency on painkillers escalated. When Rivera began yet another affair, she attempted suicide by overdose. She wrote in her diary in February 1954, “They amputated my leg six months ago, they have given me centuries of torture and at moments I almost lost my reason. I keep on wanting to kill myself. Diego is what keeps me from it, through my vain idea that he would miss me. … But never in my life have I suffered more. I will wait a while…”
The demonstration worsened her illness, and on the night of July 12, 1954, Kahlo had a high fever and was in extreme pain. At approximately 6 a.m. on July 13, 1954, her nurse found her dead in her bed. Kahlo was 47 years old. The official cause of death was pulmonary embolism, although no autopsy was performed. Herrera has argued that Kahlo, in fact, committed suicide. The nurse, who counted Kahlo’s painkillers to monitor her drug use, stated that Kahlo had taken an overdose the night she died. She had been prescribed a maximum dose of seven pills but had taken eleven. She had also given Rivera a wedding anniversary present that evening, over a month in advance.
Kahlo’s body was taken to the Palacio de Bellas Artes, where it lay in a state under a Communist flag. The following day, it was carried to the Panteón Civil de Dolores, where friends and family attended an informal funeral ceremony. Hundreds of admirers stood outside. In accordance with her wishes, Kahlo was cremated. Rivera, who stated that her death was “the most tragic day of my life”, died three years later, in 1957. Kahlo’s ashes are displayed in a pre-Columbian urn at La Casa Azul, which opened as a museum in 1958.