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Frida Kahlo: The Iconic Unibrowed Mexican Artist


Moses, 1945 by Frida Kahlo

Born Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón on July 6, 1907 at 8:30am in Coyocoan, Mexico City to Guillermo Kahlo and Matilde Calderon, Frida Kahlo will forever be iconic with her unibrow and slight mustache. She became and remains an embodiment of Mexican culture. In reality, her father Guillermo, was born Carl Wilhelm Kahlo in Germany, either of Jewish and Hungarian ancestry, while her mother, Matilde, was of indigenous Mexican and Spanish descent. Frida was the third of four daughters born to Guillermo and Matilde; her sisters were Matilde, Adriana, Cristina... plus she had two half sisters, Maria Luisa and Margarita. Though her birth certificate says "Frida", she spelled her name with an "e" until the late 1930s at which point she dropped it in response to the rise of Nazism in Germany.

During her lifetime, she would produce about 200 paintings. Like many artists, she didn't sell most until after her death when her persona grew even more in popularity. I could ask, "Was her art not just as good while living?" She painted occasional portraits on commission, had one solo exhibition in Mexico a year before her death at the age of 47. In 1939, the Louvre bought Kahlo's The Frame, making it the first work by a 20th-century Mexican artist to be purchased by an internationally renowned museum. On top of that, in May 2006, her self-portrait, Roots, was sold for $5.62 million at a Sotheby's auction in New York, which set a record as the most expensive Latin American work ever purchased at auction, and also makes Frida Kahlo one of the highest-selling women in art.

"I paint myself because I am often alone and I am the subject I know best."

The largest exhibit ever of her paintings was held in 2007 for the 100th anniversary of her birth, and broke all attendance records at Mexico's Museum of the Fine Arts Palace (Palacio de Bellas Artes).

As a child, Frida was stricken with polio in her right leg at the age of six. Despite this "handicap," she played soccer, boxed, wrestled, and became a champion swimmer. She spoke and wrote English, loved to use foul language in Spanish, loved floor length native Mexican dresses, and similar to Anne Frank, she kept a diary, but written in the last decade of her life.

Growing up, she attended the renowned National Preparatory School in Mexico City which only had thirty-five female students enrolled. There she met her first boyfriend Alejandro Gomez Arias in 1922, and future husband/artist Diego Rivera. Amorous, in a letter to Alejandro dated January 1, 1925, she writes "Well since you already know that 'New Year means new life' this year your little woman is not going to be a 7 kilo flapper kid but rather the sweetest and best thing that you have ever known so that you eat her up with nothing but kisses," and signs her name "Friduchita."

On August 21, 1929 in Coyocoan's ancient city hall in a ceremony performed by the town's mayor, she and Diego were married, becoming his 3rd wife. There were three witnesses... a hairdresser, a homeopathic doctor, and Judge Mondragon of Coyoacan.

In their union, both were unfaithful with Frida having had affairs with both men and women, including the one with Leon Trotsky when he and wife Natalia stayed with them at the Blue House in 1937. In response to Diego's affair with her younger sister Cristina, Frida cut her hair to show her desperation to the betrayal. The two divorced in 1939 but remarried a year later and remained married until her death on July 3, 1954.

Frida seems to have always wanted to children. In early May 1932, while in Detroit with Diego, she became pregnant for the second time. Knowing there were risks, she chose to abort as she had with an earlier pregnancy. She was given medication and castor oil. When that failed, continued to grow her unborn child until July 4th when she miscarried. In a painting started five days later, she depicted her experience of the miscarriage at Henry Ford Hospital.

"I had such hope to have a little Dieguito who would cry a lot, but now that it has happened here is nothing to do but put up with it..."

Following the miscarriage, Diego said "Frida began work on a series of masterpieces which had no precedent in the history of art—paintings which exalted the feminine qualities of endurance of truth, reality, cruelty, and suffering. Never before had a woman put such agonize poetry on canvas as Frida did at this time in Detroit."

During their stay in depression-era Detroit, Diego worked for the Detroit Institute of Arts on a project commissioned by museum director Wilhelm Valentiner with support from Henry Ford’s son, Edsel Bryant Ford, "the great saga of the machine and of steel." Edsel wrote a $20,000 check to cover Diego’s fee – the equivalent of $320,000 today. The result was Detroit Industry: 27 panels. The work which he regards as his masterpiece: "the single most complete, powerful expression of his social and artistic ideals."

They stayed at the Wardell at 15 Kirby East and Woodward Avenue, across the street from the Detroit Institute of Arts. The hotel did not take in Jews. At Diego's objection, "But Frida and I have Jewish blood!" the hotel official relented. "Oh no! We don't mean it in that way!" and promised to comply and lowered the rent from $185/mo to $100/mo.

The Frida Kahlo that we identify with was probably in large part a result of the accident which took place on September 27, 1925 (the day after Mexico had celebrated the anniversary of its independence from Spain). Eighteen years old, sitting in the back with Alejandro, the bus they rode on was rammed by a streetcar in Mexico City. She was impaled on a metal bar in the wreckage, her spine was fractured, her pelvis crushed, and one foot broken.

"I paint my own reality. The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to, and I paint always whatever passes through my head, without any other consideration."

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