Art History 101: Frida

By Austin Bowes

via Vintage Marketplace

Frida Kahlo was born in the summer of 1907 in Mexico City, a short three years before the Mexican Revolution began in 1910. When she was older, she would tell people she was born in 1910 so that her birth coincided with a revolution that resulted in the beginnings of modern Mexico. I feel as though this is a very descriptive trait of Frida, who early on had very forward ideas of the world. She lived a life with many challenges and pains. Her paintings have inspired the world.

Frida was born with spina bifida, which affects spinal and leg developments. At the age of six, she contracted polio, which made her right leg very thin (reportedly the reason why she wore long skirts later in life). If these problems weren’t enough, in 1925, Frida was riding a bus that collided with a trolley car, which resulted in a broken spinal column, among multiple other injuries. She was bedridden for months in a full body cast. Although she regained the ability to walk, she suffered from pain most of her life and was unable to have children.

While she was in bed, she became bored. She started to draw and to paint, an endeavor promoted by her parents, especially by her father, an artist himself. She painted constantly, including frequent self-portraits, aided by the mirror she would hang above her bed. She said, “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.”

Once she had regained the ability to walk, she wanted to pursue art as a career, but needed to know for sure because she did not want to waste time and money on something that could not help her or her family. So, she went to an artist who was working on a mural in town — Diego Rivera.

Diego Rivera was a well-known. Mexican painter. After Frida had him look at her work, he believed her to be very talented and they became close friends. Soon enough, that friendship became love and they got married. While they were both very inspiring to each other, their marriage was not exactly perfect. Diego was a frequent cheater — even sleeping with Frida’s sister –which caused a lot of tension between friends and family, but he was still at her side on her death bed. Further than inspiration for painting, Diego also shared similar political views as Frida. The two were active Communists and partook in political demonstrations fairly often. Much of Diego’s and some of Frida’s work is politically-charged. Diego once had a commission for a mural inside Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, but he was let go and his worked destroyed when he refused to cover the image of Vladimir Lenin in his work. Frida and Diego housed Leon Trotsky and his wife for many years during his exile from Russia. During this time, Frida and Trotsky reportedly had an affair.

This article is mostly about Frida’s life because I became so interested in her as a person once I started to research her (…and once I watched the 200 biopic on Netflix). But what of her paintings? As I have said, much of her work is self-portraiture, which isn’t as simple as one would think.

In one painting, there are two versions of Frida connected by the heart. In another, she is depicted with her head atop a deer who has been shot with arrows. In another, she is sitting in a chair with her chopped hair strewn about the floor. In another she is in a full body brace, her spine represented as a Greek Ionic column breaking into pieces while tears roll down her face. Her self-portraits alone make her an amazing artist with an amazing representation of human emotion and pain.

Her work was often considered surrealist, even though that she completely disagreed with that assumption. She said, “I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”

Frida Kahlo’s works are oftentimes reflections of her own life — or as some would say, the human spirit. She truly was a woman of modern Mexico. More importantly, she was her own woman. Frida has been hailed as an essentially feminist artist because she presented the world with an uncompromised version of the female experience and body. She is also remembered as a traditional and national figure of Mexican painting, something she would be proud of today.

Frida is a new inspiration for me, and I hope you as well.

“I was born a bitch. I was born a painter.” – Frida Kahlo

Austin Bowes is a contributing writer. Email him at


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