Frida Kahlo Unisex T-Shirt
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Who Was Frida Kahlo?
Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón (Spanish pronunciation: [ˈfɾiða ˈkalo]; 6 July 1907 – 13 July 1954) was a Mexican painter known for her many portraits, self-portraits, and works inspired by the nature and artifacts of Mexico. Inspired by the country’s popular culture, she employed a naïve folk art style to explore questions of identity, postcolonialism, gender, class, and race in Mexican society. Her paintings often had strong autobiographical elements and mixed realism with fantasy. In addition to belonging to the post-revolutionary Mexicayotl movement, which sought to define a Mexican identity, Kahlo has been described as a surrealist or magical realist. She is known for painting about her experience of chronic pain.
Born to a German father and a mestiza mother, Kahlo spent most of her childhood and adult life at La Casa Azul, her family home in Coyoacán – now publicly accessible as the Frida Kahlo Museum. Although she was disabled by polio as a child, Kahlo had been a promising student headed for medical school until she suffered a bus accident at the age of eighteen, which caused her lifelong pain and medical problems. During her recovery she returned to her childhood interest in art with the idea of becoming an artist.
Kahlo’s interests in politics and art led her to join the Mexican Communist Party in 1927, through which she met fellow Mexican artist Diego Rivera. The couple married in 1929, and spent the late 1920s and early 1930s travelling in Mexico and the United States together. During this time, she developed her artistic style, drawing her main inspiration from Mexican folk culture, and painted mostly small self-portraits which mixed elements from pre-Columbian and Catholic beliefs. Her paintings raised the interest of Surrealist artist André Breton, who arranged for Kahlo’s first solo exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in 1938; the exhibition was a success, and was followed by another in Paris in 1939. While the French exhibition was less successful, the Louvre purchased a painting from Kahlo, The Frame, making her the first Mexican artist to be featured in their collection. Throughout the 1940s, Kahlo participated in exhibitions in Mexico and the United States and worked as an art teacher. She taught at the Escuela Nacional de Pintura, Escultura y Grabado (“La Esmeralda”) and was a founding member of the Seminario de Cultura Mexicana. Kahlo’s always-fragile health began to decline in the same decade. She had her first solo exhibition in Mexico in 1953, shortly before her death in 1954 at the age of 47.
Kahlo’s work as an artist remained relatively unknown until the late 1970s, when her work was rediscovered by art historians and political activists. By the early 1990s, she had become not only a recognized figure in art history, but also regarded as an icon for Chicanos, the feminism movement and the LGBTQ+ movement. Kahlo’s work has been celebrated internationally as emblematic of Mexican national and indigenous traditions and by feminists for what is seen as its uncompromising depiction of the female experience and form.
The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo | PBS America
Kahlo enjoyed art from an early age, receiving drawing instruction from printmaker Fernando Fernández (who was her father’s friend) and filling notebooks with sketches. In 1925, she began to work outside of school to help her family. After briefly working as a stenographer, she became a paid engraving apprentice for Fernández. He was impressed by her talent, although she did not consider art as a career at this time.
A severe bus accident in 1925 left Kahlo in lifelong pain. Confined to bed for three months following the accident, Kahlo began to paint. She started to consider a career as a medical illustrator, as well, which would combine her interests in science and art. Her mother provided her with a specially-made easel, which enabled her to paint in bed, and her father lent her some of his oil paints. She had a mirror placed above the easel, so that she could see herself. Painting became a way for Kahlo to explore questions of identity and existence. She explained, “I paint myself because I am often alone and I am the subject I know best.” She later stated that the accident and the isolating recovery period made her desire “to begin again, painting things just as [she] saw them with [her] own eyes and nothing more.”
Most of the paintings Kahlo made during this time were portraits of herself, her sisters, and her schoolfriends. Her early paintings and correspondence show that she drew inspiration especially from European artists, in particular Renaissance masters such as Sandro Botticelli and Bronzino and from avant-garde movements such as Neue Sachlichkeit and Cubism.
On moving to Morelos in 1929 with her husband Rivera, Kahlo was inspired by the city of Cuernavaca where they lived. She changed her artistic style and increasingly drew inspiration from Mexican folk art. Art historian Andrea Kettenmann states that she may have been influenced by Adolfo Best Maugard‘s treatise on the subject, for she incorporated many of the characteristics that he outlined – for example, the lack of perspective and the combining of elements from pre-Columbian and colonial periods of Mexican art. Her identification with La Raza, the people of Mexico, and her profound interest in its culture remained important facets of her art throughout the rest of her life.
Work in the United States
When Kahlo and Rivera moved to San Francisco in 1930, Kahlo was introduced to American artists such as Edward Weston, Ralph Stackpole, Timothy L. Pflueger, and Nickolas Muray. The six months spent in San Francisco were a productive period for Kahlo, who further developed the folk art style she had adopted in Cuernavaca. In addition to painting portraits of several new acquaintances, she made Frieda and Diego Rivera (1931), a double portrait based on their wedding photograph, and The Portrait of Luther Burbank (1931), which depicted the eponymous horticulturist as a hybrid between a human and a plant. Although she still publicly presented herself as simply Rivera’s spouse rather than as an artist, she participated for the first time in an exhibition, when Frieda and Diego Rivera was included in the Sixth Annual Exhibition of the San Francisco Society of Women Artists in the Palace of the Legion of Honor.
On moving to Detroit with Rivera, Kahlo experienced numerous health problems related to a failed pregnancy. Despite these health problems, as well as her dislike for the capitalist culture of the United States, Kahlo’s time in the city was beneficial for her artistic expression. She experimented with different techniques, such as etching and frescos, and her paintings began to show a stronger narrative style. She also began placing emphasis on the themes of “terror, suffering, wounds, and pain”. Despite the popularity of the mural in Mexican art at the time, she adopted a diametrically opposed medium, votive images or retablos, religious paintings made on small metal sheets by amateur artists to thank saints for their blessings during a calamity. Amongst the works she made in the retablo manner in Detroit are Henry Ford Hospital (1932), My Birth (1932), and Self-Portrait on the Border of Mexico and the United States (1932). While none of Kahlo’s works were featured in exhibitions in Detroit, she gave an interview to the Detroit News on her art; the article was condescendingly titled “Wife of the Master Mural Painter Gleefully Dabbles in Works of Art”.
Return to Mexico City and international recognition
Upon returning to Mexico City in 1934 Kahlo made no new paintings, and only two in the following year, due to health complications. In 1937 and 1938, however, Kahlo’s artistic career was extremely productive, following her divorce and then reconciliation with Rivera. She painted more “than she had done in all her eight previous years of marriage”, creating such works as My Nurse and I (1937), Memory, the Heart (1937), Four Inhabitants of Mexico (1938), and What the Water Gave Me (1938). Although she was still unsure about her work, the National Autonomous University of Mexico exhibited some of her paintings in early 1938. She made her first significant sale in the summer of 1938 when film star and art collector Edward G. Robinson purchased four paintings at $200 each. Even greater recognition followed when French Surrealist André Breton visited Rivera in April 1938. He was impressed by Kahlo, immediately claiming her as a surrealist and describing her work as “a ribbon around a bomb”. He not only promised to arrange for her paintings to be exhibited in Paris but also wrote to his friend and art dealer, Julien Levy, who invited her to hold her first solo exhibition at his gallery on the East 57th Street in Manhattan.
Rivera, Kahlo and Anson Goodyear
In October, Kahlo traveled alone to New York, where her colorful Mexican dress “caused a sensation” and made her seen as “the height of exotica”. The exhibition opening in November was attended by famous figures such as Georgia O’Keeffe and Clare Boothe Luce and received much positive attention in the press, although many critics adopted a condescending tone in their reviews. For example, Time wrote that “Little Frida’s pictures … had the daintiness of miniatures, the vivid reds, and yellows of Mexican tradition and the playfully bloody fancy of an unsentimental child”. Despite the Great Depression, Kahlo sold half of the twenty-five paintings presented in the exhibition. She also received commissions from A. Conger Goodyear, then the president of the MoMA, and Clare Boothe Luce, for whom she painted a portrait of Luce’s friend, socialite Dorothy Hale, who had committed suicide by jumping from her apartment building. During the three months she spent in New York, Kahlo painted very little, instead focusing on enjoying the city to the extent that her fragile health allowed. She also had several affairs, continuing the one with Nickolas Muray and engaging in ones with Levy and Edgar Kaufmann, Jr.
In January 1939, Kahlo sailed to Paris to follow up on André Breton’s invitation to stage an exhibition of her work. When she arrived, she found that he had not cleared her paintings from the customs and no longer even owned a gallery. With the aid of Marcel Duchamp, she was able to arrange for an exhibition at the Renou et Colle Gallery. Further problems arose when the gallery refused to show all but two of Kahlo’s paintings, considering them too shocking for audiences, and Breton insisted that they be shown alongside photographs by Manuel Alvarez Bravo, pre-Columbian sculptures, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Mexican portraits, and what she considered “junk”: sugar skulls, toys, and other items he had bought from Mexican markets.
The exhibition opened in March, but received much less attention than she had received in the United States, partly due to the looming Second World War, and made a loss financially, which led Kahlo to cancel a planned exhibition in London. Regardless, the Louvre purchased The Frame, making her the first Mexican artist to be featured in their collection. She was also warmly received by other Parisian artists, such as Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró, as well as the fashion world, with designer Elsa Schiaparelli designing a dress inspired by her and Vogue Paris featuring her on its pages. However, her overall opinion of Paris and the Surrealists remained negative; in a letter to Muray, she called them “this bunch of coocoo lunatics and very stupid surrealists” who “are so crazy ‘intellectual’ and rotten that I can’t even stand them anymore.”
In the United States, Kahlo’s paintings continued to raise interest. In 1941, her works were featured at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, and in the following year she participated in two high-profile exhibitions in New York, the Twentieth-Century Portraits exhibition at the MoMA and the Surrealists’ First Papers of Surrealism exhibition. In 1943, she was included in the Mexican Art Today exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Women Artists at Peggy Guggenheim‘s The Art of This Century gallery in New York.
Kahlo gained more appreciation for her art in Mexico as well. She became a founding member of the Seminario de Cultura Mexicana, a group of twenty-five artists commissioned by the Ministry of Public Education in 1942 to spread public knowledge of Mexican culture. As a member, she took part in planning exhibitions and attended a conference on art. In Mexico City, her paintings were featured in two exhibitions on Mexican art that were staged at the English-language Benjamin Franklin Library in 1943 and 1944. She was invited to participate in “Salon de la Flor”, an exhibition presented at the annual flower exposition. An article by Rivera on Kahlo’s art was also published in the journal published by the Seminario de Cultura Mexicana.
In 1943, Kahlo accepted a teaching position at the recently reformed, nationalistic Escuela Nacional de Pintura, Escultura y Grabado “La Esmeralda.” She encouraged her students to treat her in an informal and non-hierarchical way and taught them to appreciate Mexican popular culture and folk art and to derive their subjects from the street. When her health problems made it difficult for her to commute to the school in Mexico City, she began to hold her lessons at La Casa Azul. Four of her students – Fanny Rabel, Arturo García Bustos, Guillermo Monroy, and Arturo Estrada – became devotees, and were referred to as “Los Fridos” for their enthusiasm. Kahlo secured three mural commissions for herself and her students. In 1944, they painted La Rosita, a pulqueria in Coyoacán. In 1945, the government commissioned them to paint murals for a Coyoacán launderette as part of a national scheme to help poor women who made their living as laundresses. The same year, the group created murals for Posada del Sol, a hotel in Mexico City. However, it was destroyed soon after completion as the hotel’s owner did not like it.
Kahlo struggled to make a living from her art until the mid to late 1940s, as she refused to adapt her style to suit her clients’ wishes. She received two commissions from the Mexican government in the early 1940s. She did not complete the first one, possibly due to her dislike of the subject, and the second commission was rejected by the commissioning body. Nevertheless, she had regular private clients, such as engineer Eduardo Morillo Safa, who ordered more than thirty portraits of family members over the decade. Her financial situation improved when she received a 5000-peso national prize for her painting Moses (1945) in 1946 and when The Two Fridas was purchased by the Museo de Arte Moderno in 1947. According to art historian Andrea Kettenmann, by the mid-1940s, her paintings were “featured in the majority of group exhibitions in Mexico.” Further, Martha Zamora wrote that she could “sell whatever she was currently painting; sometimes incomplete pictures were purchased right off the easel.”
Even as Kahlo was gaining recognition in Mexico, her health was declining rapidly, and an attempted surgery to support her spine failed. Her paintings from this period include Broken Column (1944), Without Hope (1945), Tree of Hope, Stand Fast (1946), and The Wounded Deer (1946), reflecting her poor physical state. During her last years, Kahlo was mostly confined to the Casa Azul. She painted mostly still lifes, portraying fruit and flowers with political symbols such as flags or doves. She was concerned about being able to portray her political convictions, stating that “I have a great restlessness about my paintings. Mainly because I want to make it useful to the revolutionary communist movement… until now I have managed simply an honest expression of my own self … I must struggle with all my strength to ensure that the little positive my health allows me to do also benefits the Revolution, the only real reason to live.” She also altered her painting style: her brushstrokes, previously delicate and careful, were now hastier, her use of color more brash, and the overall style more intense and feverish.
Photographer Lola Alvarez Bravo understood that Kahlo did not have much longer to live, and thus staged her first solo exhibition in Mexico at the Galería Arte Contemporaneo in April 1953. Though Kahlo was initially not due to attend the opening, as her doctors had prescribed bed rest for her, she ordered her four-poster bed to be moved from her home to the gallery. To the surprise of the guests, she arrived in an ambulance and was carried on a stretcher to the bed, where she stayed for the duration of the party. The exhibition was a notable cultural event in Mexico and also received attention in mainstream press around the world. The same year, the Tate Gallery‘s exhibition on Mexican art in London featured five of her paintings.
In 1954, Kahlo was again hospitalized in April and May. That spring, she resumed painting after a one-year interval. Her last paintings include the political Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick (c. 1954) and Frida and Stalin (c. 1954) and the still-life Viva La Vida (1954).
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