Frida Kahlo: a full life, fully expressed
Behind Kahlo's carefully cultivated facade was a person for whom art was a lifeline.
Before there was the Frida Kahlo phenomenon – the major motion picture, full-length biography, and museum-shop commercialization – there was simply Frida Kahlo, autodidactic Surrealist artist, strong woman defiant of injuries and physical challenges, and symbol of an emerging Mexico that was emphatically in touch with its indigenous roots.Skip to next paragraph
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To be sure, Kahlo (1907-54) knew how to attract phenomenal attention during her lifetime and intuitively anticipated the age of the celebrity artist by consciously turning herself into a work of art and her public appearances into near performances.
However, since her death, Kahlo has been appropriated as the feminist heroine par excellence. This complex figure is often pigeonholed as little more than the embodiment of female assertiveness, an image derived from her self-portraits, where she gained instant recognition as the possessor of perhaps the most famous eyebrows in the history of art.
But the totality of Frida Kahlo's life and work is more than that. Behind Kahlo's carefully cultivated, sometimes outrageous, public facade was a person for whom art was a lifeline, a way of actuating emotional and physical self-preservation during a sometimes bleak existence with frequent health challenges resulting from an accident in her youth.
Although Kahlo broke boundaries for women, perhaps her primary concerns were her native Mexico and her own survival. The affirmation of the roots of indigenous Mexican identity was one of the main purposes of her art. The overcoming of injury is a significant component in the inspiration her life provides for others.
"Frida Kahlo," a major exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, explores Kahlo's artistic journey of self-discovery through 42 paintings, approximately half of which are self-portraits. Many of the canvases are not pretty pictures in the conventional sense, but raw, questing statements of self-examination and unburdening of fears – a visual autobiography of vicissitudes and triumphs.
Kahlo's artistic career might never have happened without the catalyst of injuries sustained in a Mexico City bus accident in 1925, and her refusal to be thwarted by the ensuing physical difficulties.
During her long recuperation, Kahlo began to paint on an easel that was especially designed and constructed by her parents to allow her to paint while lying down. Using a mirror to see her own image, she painted her first self-portrait in 1926, a picture not of an invalid, but of a strong, well woman with what became those immediately identifiable eyebrows.