Frida Kahlo: Honoring Mother's Day with Female Icons

Frida Kahlo is a pop culture icon, and it's pretty evident why.

Frida Kahlo is a pop culture icon, and it's pretty evident why. About a third of her paintings are self-portraits, and her distinctive style, piercing gaze, and unibrow that, as noted by my elementary school self, puts Anthony Davis's to shame, captivate viewers and have propagated throughout our culture. Though she had some renown in her time, the feminist movement of the 1970s propelled her into global posthumous fame. She's now an idol for feminism, for Mexico, and for Western style. While she was a talented painter, her successful legacy as an icon, however, overshadows her legacy as an artist, which deserves just as much recognition. In spirit of the recent Mother's Day, celebrating not only parenthood, but also female empowerment and representation, we bring the transformative art of Kahlo into the spotlight. By creating many paintings surrounding the female experience, often highlighting what it was like to be a woman in a patriarchal world, she brought novelty to the industry like never before.

To delve into Kahlo's unique world of art, we must also understand her tumultuous life—the two are deeply intertwined. She experienced illness, heartbreak, revolution, and accident, which she expressed in her work. Contracting polio as a child, her right leg was shorter than her left, and she walked with a limp. At the age of 18, a bus crash pushed a handrail through her back and crushed her foot, crippling her further. Despite these unfortunate mishaps, it was during her recovery when she learned to paint, crafting still lifes using traditional Mexican art forms and self-portraits using a mirror her mother gave her.

For the rest of her life, her wounds often caused her to experience intense pain, but she never shied away from painting her body in spite of its blemishes. In fact, it seems as if she painted every inch of her body besides her teeth—she never smiled in portraits. The Broken Column, illustrating a surgery after her accident, depicts her topless torso, split in the middle to reveal her spine. Her comfort with her own imperfect body in a patriarchal and time period before the body positivity movement led to groundbreaking pieces. She propelled a sense of feminism in Mexico that led to reforms such as the 1991 legalisation of abortion and equal marriage.

Her confidence captivated muralist Diego Rivera, whom she later married in 1929. Together, they shared interests in art and politics, and Kahlo even ventured into creating pieces about Mexican identity in post-revolution Mexico. Oftentimes, Rivera painted murals portraying the indigenous people of Mexico while Kahlo wore and painted herself wearing their clothes; both supported and adopted the techniques of traditional Mexican art. Though they claimed to be the loves of each other's lives, their relationship was turbulent and filled with adultery and cycles of conflict and reconciliation. Kahlo captured the turmoil of their relationship through her art.

Her works addressed a myriad of subjects like divorce, disability, miscarriage, death, and fractured identity. Stylistically, she drew influences from diverse painting styles, which included Mannerist portraits, especially those of Italian painter Bronzino; Catholic iconography from her religious upbringing; and Mexican folk art. She incorporated techniques from this wide array of influences to portray herself in a variety of settings. Her palette incorporated the dynamic colors of traditional Mexican art while using the surrealist technique of doubling, or painting two versions of herself, to show changes in her character.

However, she never saw herself as a surrealist, despite many, including the movement's leader André Breton, championing her as such. Surrealists tap the subconscious to free themselves from the restraints of consciousness to depict the landscapes of the unconscious mind. However, Kahlo felt she did not draw from her subconscious, and instead simply painted her feelings through the turbulence of her life.

"I never painted dreams, I paint my own reality," she said.

And though her work is inarguably a product of her unique life, the issues in her work speak to us all, especially resonating with women and the sense of female empowerment. With brutal honesty, her work records her experiences of pain—of both the body and the psyche—of love and heartbreak, of nationality and revolution, of loneliness, and of angst. Her gaze holds even as the scenes and symbolism surrounding her shift, somehow simultaneously fragile and strong.


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