July 6th in (Feminist) History

9c4f7cf8146139a8e2baa02d373dee62On this day in 1907 was the birth of Frida Kahlo, a Mexican self-portrait artist and feminist icon. She was born Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderón, in Coyocoán, Mexico City, Mexico, to a family that included two older sisters and one younger sister. Around the age of six, she caught polio, a disease which not only had her bedridden for a long time, but lead to her father encouraging her in “unusual” activities like soccer, wrestling, and swimming, to help her heal faster. It wasn’t the first tie she was injured; in 1925 she was on a bus with her boyfriend when there was a crash with a streetcar and Frida was impaled through the hip by a steel handrail. She survived, though she sustained several injuries.

It was during her recovery that she began to pain for the first time. Her first self-portrait was finished the following year, and as she began to recover, she also got more involved in the political landscape by joining both the Mexican Communist Party and the Young Communist League. After re-connecting with Diego Rivera in 1928 (she had first met the artist as a student), they began a relationship and eventually married. During this time, Frido traveled along with her husband to follow his commissions, but she also painted as well. One of her paintings, Friedo and Diego Rivera was shown at the Sixth Annual Exhibition of the San Francisco Society of Women Artists in 1931. The following year she took on a more surrealist tone in her work, as can be seen in her painting titled Henry Ford Hospitalthe painting, which features a snail, a flower, a fetus, a pelvis, and other objects all connected to Frida in a bed at the center, is the story of her second miscarriage.

Frida’s marriage with Diego was fraught and complex. He was frequently unfaithful, including once with her sister, to which Frida caught off most of her long hair in response. She and her husband were often apart but came back together as well, including in 1937 when they worked together to assist Leon Trotsky (an exiled Soviet communist) and his wife, who had received asylum in Mexico.

In 1938 she was in New York, where she had a major gallery exhibition and sold numerous paintings. She also received several commissions, including one by Clare Boothe Luce, a magazine editor who asked for a portrait of Dorothy Hale, the actress (and friend to both women) who had committed suicide that year by jumping from a building. Frida’s finished work, The Suicide of Dorothy Hale, was not the portrait Luce had asked for, though it was heralded by critics. Following her time in New York she moved to Pris, where she divorced her husband, Diego Rivera (though they would later remarry). It was here that she painted The Two Fridas, one of her most well known works, which is symbolic of her “loved” and “unloved” selves. Many of Frida’s self portraits were revealing of her inner life and thoughts and emotions, including The Broken Column, painted in 1944, which represents her issues with her body and the troubles she had with her physical health issues and chronic pain.

Though Diego and Frida remarried, they continued to live apart at times and had numerous affairs. Frida herself was openly bisexual, her affairs included not just men like Leon Trotsky and Isamu Noguchi, but women like Josephine Baker. She’s also been linked to a number of women like movie stars Dolores del Rio, Paulette Goddard and Maria Felix, and artist Georgia O’Keefe. Her painting, Two Nudes in a Forest is an ode to her love of women and was a gift to Dolores del Rio.

Eventually however, Frida’s health issues began to take over. Though she continued to paint, her chronic pain worsened and she was hospitalized several times and eventually had part of her leg amputated. Despite her repeated hospitalizations, her health did not break her spirit. Her last appearance was a demonstration against the overthrow of President Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala, on July 2, 1954. A week after her 47th birthday that same year, she died at her home. Her legacy lives on, however, especially revived by the feminist movement of the 1970s, where her work became emblematic not just as a sign of female creativity, but of an artist who painted women as they truly were, inside and out.

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