Frida Kahlo’s Artistic Growth: From Divorce to Fame

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Mexico, 1933 (Photograph by Martin Mukacsi) | Courtesy of Brian Pickings

Me pinto a mi misma porque soy a quien major conozco” (“I paint myself because I’m the one that knows me best”)—Frida Kahlo

 

Frida Kahlo is one of Mexico’s most influential female painters. Her elaborate and detailed self-portraits exhibit painful imagery and naturalistic symbolism.1 She expressed originality by using surrealism rather than the reflections of dreams or fantasies. Each and every one of her paintings was a real representation of her own life, emotions, and personal experiences. Frida Kahlo was born in Coyoacán, Mexico in 1907. She was the daughter of a German-Jewish photographer and his Indian-Spanish mother. Despite her European background, Kahlo related to her Mexican heritage, embracing the style of indigenous women, which later became Kahlo’s iconic look.2

Traditionally, women are expected to find a husband, get married, and have children. A woman who marries her dream husband would expect to be content with her life. In the case of Frida Kahlo, she fell madly in love with muralist Diego Rivera, and she married him on August 21, 1929.3 Diego was Frida’s dream come true. She first met Rivera in 1922 at the age of fifteen when she enrolled at the National Preparatory School in Mexico City. However, Kahlo was up for a rude awakening. Her dream marriage turned out to be a life full of pain and disappointment after she discovered Rivera’s infidelity.

“Frieda y Diego Rivera” | Frida Kahlo | 1931 | Courtesy of www.FridaKahlo.org

In the early stages of her marriage to Diego, Kahlo was swept with an abundance of feelings of happiness and love. We might call this the honeymoon stage of Khalo’s marriage and artistic career. Her paintings during this period of her life displayed just such a happy mood. She was proud to be Diego’s wife, and Kahlo was content and ready to show the world their wonderful love. In an early 1931 painting of hers, Frieda y Diego Rivera, her canvas features Diego Rivera and Kahlo holding hands. By holding hands, the artist is expressing her feelings of possession of Diego. It is well-known that Rivera was unfaithful to Frida throughout their marriage, and Kahlo was aware of his many affairs. By painting this picture, she makes a bold statement that demonstrates Diego as her husband.4 The painting reveals Diego as the extraordinary master, as he is holding a wooden palette and paint brushes. The painting is a reflection of the couple’s marriage at the time, expressing the theme of an adoring wife who loves her husband despite his flaws. This is ironic because, due to Rivera’s flaws and their future, troubling divorce, Frida’s career grew more and more independent from Rivera’s artistic shadow.

On September 17, 1925, at the age of seventeen, while she was attending the National Preparatory School, Kahlo’ was involved in a terrible bus accident where she was impaled by an iron handrail. As a consequence, Kahlo experienced a broken spine, pelvis, collarbone, and rib injuries. These injuries presented her with difficulties during a number of her pregnancies, the first of them occurring in 1932 while in Detroit. This miscarriage influenced her relationship with Diego. She had the normal motherly desire to have a child, but it became a major dispute between her and Diego.3 The sequel of hurtful events permanently damaged her fantasy marriage. The artist reached the reality stage of the marriage as she began to acknowledge Diego’s infidelity and betrayal.

Despite the disappointment of the miscarriage and her awareness of Diego’s various infidelities, the worst was yet to come for Kahlo. Her most painful marriage experience was in discovering Rivera’s affair with her own sister Christina. Although this was one of the many affairs Rivera had, it was the most painful one for her.3 After Rivera’s betrayal, the relationship declined quickly and led to the couple’s separation on November 6, 1939.7 The sorrow and regret Kahlo experienced while married had been expressed in her artistic productions. The emotional roller-coaster of her marriage and her final break with Rivera and her divorce drove Kahlo to a crisis and the forming of two identities. The way she resolved her crisis was by painting two of her most famous portraits. Unlike her husband’s elaborate murals, Kahlo’s paintings reflect the shocking lifelong emotional and physical pain she has experienced.3

“Dos Frida’s”
(Two Frida’s)
|Courtesy of Commons Flickr

Frida was heartbroken after the divorce; the perfect life she had hoped for when she exchanged vows with Diego had become a lie. Frida Kahlo’s first thematic painting, of 1939,  relates to her now ex-husband Diego Rivera. The painting was known as Las Dos Fridas (The Two Fridas). Kahlo painted a canvas full of sorrow and painful imagery. The piece shows two identical Frida’s, in which Kahlo explored her two different identities. Each Frida has different clothes and accessories, indicative of their different personalities. One of the Fridas is labeled as the Mexican Frida, representing the Frida that Diego Rivera fell in love with, symbolized by the style of her traditional Mexican dress. The other Frida is representing the European Frida, as she is revealing her new, emerging identity. Here she depicts herself as a broken-hearted woman wearing traditional Victorian attire. The color of the white dress is an archetype for purity. This Frida is an independent artist. In the painting, both Fridas’ hearts are exposed, and there is a vein connecting them both. In the left traditional European Frida, Frida is holding surgical scissors that have cut the vein reflected in her lap. The vein leads to the Mexican Frida, where she is holding a small portrait of Rivera.9 The details of the painting echo Kahlo’s identity struggles after her divorce, illustrating the pain she was experiencing at the time.

“Autorretrato con Collar de Espinas”
| Courtesy of www.FridaKahlo.org

The second painting of this period of her sorrow was a self-portrait, called Autorretrato con Collar de Espinas (Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace). Today, this painting is still considered one of the most meaningful and widely recognized self-portraits of an artist, due to its emotion and symbolic context. Frida painted the portrait during the same time of grieving in her marriage. The disappointment Frida experienced from Rivera’s betrayal was captured in this gloomy painting. The canvas was completed in 1940, the year after her disturbing divorce from Diego Rivera came to an end. The portrait displays a series of meaningful elements; for example, the thorns sinking into her neck are a symbol of the pain she experienced when her relationship with Diego ended. The thorn necklace is a well-known symbol of the painful Crown of Thorns that Jesus was forced to wear on the day of his death. In the painting, Kahlo is wearing her signature Mexican dress, which formed a part of her unique style. Other symbols include a black dead hummingbird with outstretched wings, a black cat, and a monkey.10 Each animal has its own significance; for instance, the hummingbird symbolizes the end of the couple’s marriage, the black cat on Kahlo’s shoulders is a symbol of bad luck, and finally, the monkey represents a gift from Diego. It indicates how her husband’s treatment made her feel.

The thematic context presented in her paintings have captured the attention of numerous artists. As she was able to use symbolic connections rather than physical ones to expose her repetitive cycle of earthly sorrow, Kahlo also incorporated various traditional Mexican elements representing her Hispanic heritage.7 Her divorce was a significant period for career growth, as she was able to gain independence from her husband’s artistic shadow.7 Throughout her life she was able to express her happiness, sorrows, and tragedies to mourn the difficulties of her life. Her inspiration evolved out of rough and traumatic events, such as her husband’s infidelity, their divorce, her miscarriage, and even her earlier bus accident. The dissatisfaction and misery Kahlo experienced when her marriage failed left her with a sense of emptiness because her dream was to live a joyful life with Rivera. Frida’s work was inspired by traumatic physical and psychological events. The three paintings examined here show different stages of Kahlo’s artistic evolution that parallel her personal tragedies and experiences. Her unique painting style developed from her ability to interpret and convey her own reality. Kahlo’s innovative incorporation of her suffering and personal experiences earned her admiration of people from the 20th century.9 Kahlo envisioned a life full of happiness. She wanted loyalty, love, children, and a giving husband, and instead, she lived a life full of pain and treachery. Her dream marriage turned out to be a dreadful experience that greatly influenced her artwork.

  1. Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia, 2002, s.v. “Frida Kahlo (1907-1954),” by Diane Moody.
  2.  Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2006, s.v. “Frida Kahlo.”
  3. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, January 2017, s.v. “Frida Kahlo,” by Tate Teresa Neva.
  4. Holly Barnet-Sanchez, “Frida Kahlo: Her Life and Art Revisited,” Latin American Research Review 32, no. 3 (1997): 247-248.
  5. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, January 2017, s.v. “Frida Kahlo,” by Tate Teresa Neva.
  6. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, January 2017, s.v. “Frida Kahlo,” by Tate Teresa Neva.
  7. Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2006, s.v. “Frida Kahlo.”
  8. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, January 2017, s.v. “Frida Kahlo,” by Tate Teresa Neva.
  9. Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia., 2002, s.v. “Frida Kahlo (1907-1954),” by Diane Moody.
  10. Holly Barnet-Sanchez, “Frida Kahlo: Her Life and Art Revisited,” Latin American Research Review 32, no. 3 (1997): 248-250.
  11. Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2006, s.v. “Frida Kahlo.”
  12. Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2006, s.v. “Frida Kahlo.”
  13. Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia., 2002, s.v. “Frida Kahlo (1907-1954),” by Diane Moody.
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79 Comments

  • This artist is not only such a great influence on many, but respected. Frida Kahlo’s art showed her emotions or a message to society, I personally didn’t know about her being so broken by her husband, and what she went through in life. I have so much respect for her so much gratitude and influence. Kahlo is a woman of influence and dedication, although she went through so much instead of breaking down and not doing what she loves she made it into a way to show her emotions. I hope that women see that a woman doesn’t need a man in her life but rather they can be independent.

  • I loved this article! Frida Kahlo was a remarkable Mexican woman. As the years have gone by, she has become a symbol of feminism. Her paintings and all that she did in her lifetime are inspirational to women around the world. During her time, not many women were able to be recognized as artists the way she did. Reading this article made me have more appreciation towards her.

  • Frida as a person and a woman deserved better than what life gave her, yes she was an outstanding artist but she was emotionally hurt. I’m glad she was able to leave her horrible husband and live out the rest of her life making her art career better. In the end she was recognized as an amazing artist rather than someone’s wife.

  • Frida Kahlo is an icon for Mexican artist, nowadays she is becoming more popular as she is the many faces of feminism! she was not only an amazing and talented painter, but her writings are so unique as well. I had the pleasure of watching her gallery when I was a teenager in Mexico, one thing that stood with me was the painting she called “the two Frida’s”. I like how this article describes her paintings and gives more background on her life, also the quote at the beginning was my favorite!

  • As a Mexican when I was younger I remember watching the movie on Frida Kahlo at two in the morning. Reading this article brings me back to this memory and now I understand what actually happened in that movie. Frida when from a dream to a nightmare but without that nightmare of Diego Rivera being unfaithful we would not have the amazing symbolic paintings we have now. Her paintings were based on many things but the biggest thing was her identity and without the scandal that happened in her life I believe she would not have the independent woman identity she has now and the independent woman identity she gives to other women and Mexican women especially.

  • I’ve always known about Frida Kahlo but I never knew about the story of her life until reading this article. It was very enlightening. What I found most interesting about this article was that she had gone through so much heartbreak and pain yet she continued to do what she love. Most importantly she was able to express her emotions rather than keeping them to herself, thus resulting in beautiful art.

  • I, of course, knew who Frida Khalo was before reading this, however, I did not know how tragic her marriage and divorce to Diego Rivera was. She must have endured so much emotional pain during their marriage, with all his affairs, that she was hurting all the time. I can’t imagine how heartbroken and angry she must have felt when she found out about Diego Rivera’s affair with her own sister. This event must have been what pushed her emotions over the top and when she finally decided to file for a divorce. I also cannot imagine the pain she must have endured during and after the terrible bus accident, she went through when she was 17. She is such a strong and influential woman, it is crazy how after all this physical and mainly emotional pain, she was able to focus on her artwork and make such great pieces.

  • This article really was amazing how Kahlo’s painting used different methods to express what she was going through is memorizing. Her talent as an artist is one of a kind and very beautiful in its own way because there are a lot of woman out in the world who are or have gone through one of the same marriages that Kahlo’s went through. I’m impressed how she took all her emotions that was going on and put it onto a canvas that turn out so breath taking.

  • Frida Kahlo is one of the women who I have respect for. I haven’t seen her artwork in real life, but it is one of my goals to achieve in my life. She is what female power is and the way she used art as a way out of the harsh reality is inspiring to me. She fell in love and became the happiest she could be and despite Rivera’s infidelity, she loved him with all she had. Frida’s artwork inspires me, an art education major and enthusiast, to paint what I really feel and to not let the negativity hinder me and my passion.

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