Frida Kahlo was born July 6, 1907, in Coyoacán, Mexico, a village on the outskirts of Mexico City. She began painting 18 years later, when a nearly fatal bus accident left her unable to walk for three months. Her health, always fragile, led to her death in 1954 at age 47. She stood all of 5-feet-3, but more than half a century later, she still stands tall in the world of art and beyond.
This weekend and next, The Atlanta Opera — as part of its Discoveries series — will stage Frida, a 1991 piece composed by Robert Xavier Rodriguez. It follows the Mexican artist’s tumultuous life and marriage to muralist Diego Rivera. The opera uses mariachi instrumentation (accordion, violin, guitar and trumpet), ragtime and 1930s jazz as well as the composer’s late romantic, highly dissonant style. Fiery Colombian soprano Catalina Cuervo sings Frida, with bass-baritone Ricardo Herrera as Diego Rivera. (Performances are on October 5, 9, 11 and 13. Read our REVIEW HERE.)
Kahlo, as a painter, was known for her many portraits, self-portraits, and works inspired by the nature and artifacts of Mexico. She employed a naïve folk-art style to explore questions of identity, post-colonialism, gender, class and race in Mexican society. Her paintings often had a strong autobiographical element. Though her love life lends itself perfectly to dramatization onstage, arguably the most impactful relationship on Frida Kahlo’s art was the one she had with her body.
Perhaps best illustrated in her painting Roots (1943), Kahlo expresses that through death, life can grow. The self-portrait features Kahlo resting on a jagged terrain made of rock and dirt. She reclines on a small white pillow, her head propped up and her thick dark hair falling around her. From a wide gap in her torso grow thick, leafy vines that spread across the ground carrying steady streams of Kahlo’s blood. She’s feeding the earth, with the dutiful expression of a mother nursing her child. Kahlo offered her body as a map to confront, understand and heal from pain.
Physical and emotional pain were a constant in her life. Childhood polio left her disabled, and the bus accident in her adolescence left her body permanently damaged. The crash fractured her spine and ribs and shattered her pelvis. Many of her paintings make it clear that she lived a large portion of her life in a body cast and supportive braces. She endured more than 30 surgeries and suffered from several lifelong complications, including the inability to have children. Kahlo was no stranger to pain or death.
In her 1944 self-portrait, The Broken Column, Kahlo again places herself in the middle of an uneven and nearly barren landscape. She’s nude from the waist up and appears strapped into a supportive brace meant to keep her body whole. A great chasm rises vertically up her torso. Inside it is a broken column that acts as her spine. Painted after a corrective spinal surgery, Kahlo makes both literal and metaphorical allusions to pain. Her bare body is covered in thin nails while fat tears fall from her wide eyes. Her resolute gaze emits both vulnerability and strength.
Of her approximately 200 known paintings, sketches and drawings, more than 55 are self-portraits. Many of her works blend the magical and psychological with reality in a genre known as magical surrealism. Several of her paintings are dreamlike, floating between fantasy and autobiography. A proud Mexican woman and a supporter of the 1910–20 Mexican Revolution, she incorporated elements of Mexicanidad, a movement of visual nationalism that honored indigenous cultures. You often see depictions of monkeys, skeletons, skulls, blood and hearts in her work. These refer to the indigenous myths of the Aztec deities Coatlicue, Quetzalcoatl and Xolotl. Her paintings often explored post-colonialism, gender, class and race in Mexican society.
Kahlo’s legacy seems to becomes stronger year by year. Las Margaritas restaurant on Cheshire Bridge Road, interestingly, fills its walls with Kahlo murals from a dozen artists. The Brooklyn Museum recently closed a major exhibition titled Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving, which featured her work in conversation with her clothing and belongings.
Kahlo’s deeply personal and guttural form of self-portraiture is one of the precursors to the radical self-portraiture we see coming from contemporary artists of color. The politically charged depictions of self reflect how artists contend with the political climate of their time. For Kahlo, it was the shaping of Mexico as a new nation. For contemporary American artists, it’s the shaping of the 21st-century United States.
The story of Frida Kahlo is one of a brown, queer, disabled revolutionary. Despite great adversity, she made a profound impact on the world by standing firm in who she was. She reminds us that there is strength in vulnerability, and that there is spirit beyond our physical bodies.