Frida Kahlo was a contemporary artist, even by today’s standards. Her multidisciplinary art practice was a predecessor to today’s public relations creation of celebrity. Kahlo introduced feminism to a field sorely unequal in its treatment of women artists, and let the world know that a physical disability and pain could propel art, not limit it. Her art stood for feminism, recognition of the ability of the disabled, her politics and ethnic and cultural heritage, making her an example and heroine for women, and all people, everywhere.
Her art was entirely autobiographical. The paintings told the story of her life, loves and losses. She was proud to paint her mestizo heritage — inherited from her mother — and the artificial leg she wore, making it a fashion accessory. “Appearances Can Be Deceiving” at the Brooklyn Museum and “Frida Kahlo and Arte Popular” at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) both currently on display, address Kahlo’s making of her image, exhibiting the paintings alongside the makeup and clothes found in La Casa Azul, the Blue House in Mexico City where she lived and worked. They follow the highly successful “Making Her Self Up” exhibition held at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), London, in 2018.
Kahlo was hospitalized at the age of six with polio, resulting in a stunted right leg and foot. Later, as a passenger in a bus involved in an accident, she suffered severe damage to her pelvis, spine and right leg, which led to several operations, the inability to bear a child and constant pain. In the hospital, her mother gave her an easel and paints to occupy her. This began a lifelong series of paintings of bodies in hospital beds, broken bodies held together with arterial threads and spines exposed to resemble Greek columns, mirroring her suffering and remaking of her body and identity.
In 1922, she briefly met Diego Rivera, while he painted the “Creation” mural in the amphitheater of the National Preparatory School in Mexico City. In 1928, she was formally introduced to him at a party, and the next year, Rivera and Kahlo were married. Although Kahlo seriously explored Mexican iconography and folktales by this time, access to Rivera’s collection of pre-Hispanic sculpture and artifacts led Kahlo to embrace and paint her Mexican identity.
Kahlo’s life and work, important in the annals of feminist art history, teaches women that we can make our own identity, that bodily image need not conform to prescribed norms and that visual art need not reflect the idealized woman often portrayed by western male artists. Her appropriation of Aztec and other indigenous Mexican symbols formed her identity and produced a guide for people of to be proud of their heritage and to pursue their own identification. From the time she married Rivera, she used those symbols to augment her self and family portraiture and to illustrate her philosophical and sociological ideals. In the three exhibitions recently dedicated to her, the paintings that serve as her autobiography take center stage. It is the clothing, the makeup and perfumes that augmented her appearance that serve as background material for these shows.