Frida Kahlo spent most of her 47 years sick and confined to her bed, but that didn’t stop her from having torrid erotic affairs with both men and women. She was an intense, passionate, fiercely intelligent woman with a formidable unibrow. She wanted to be a doctor but fate intervened, and she became an artist, literally by accident.
Frida was a mixed-heritage Mexican girl with a Hungarian and Jewish father, and Mexican Spanish mother. Frida was a smart, independent child whose strangely mannish beauty was evident early on. And she survived the Mexican Revolution, growing up with gunfire and riots and mayhem, but sadly, at age six she became very sick with polio. She may have also had a congenital disorder called spina bifida, which damages the spine and legs. Either way, one leg was much thinner than the other, and so she was disabled from early youth.
This was the reason she wanted to study medicine, to unlock the mysteries of the body, but fate was cruel again and Frida was decimated by a bus/trolley collision when she was 18. An iron rail went straight through her uterus; her foot was crushed and dislocated, and her spinal column, collarbone, ribs and pelvis were all broken. Alive, but trapped and crippled, she was given a special easel and some paints to entertain herself during the long and painful convalescence. And so Frida became an artist.
It’s inconceivable to us that in her lifetime, Frida’s recognition and fame were minimal. Today, she is one of the most celebrated artists in history, and she is revered as a free spirit, fiery Hispanic, and feminist icon. Hard to believe, but she was best known at the time as “Diego’s wife.” A newspaper in 1931 mentioned that her work had merit “only because it was painted by the wife of Diego Rivera.” Umm, Diego who?
Well, Diego Rivera, or Diego María de la Concepción Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodríguez for short, was indeed a brilliant, passionate man. Though he was tall, corpulent and quite ugly, he had a way with the ladies. The brightest minds and most exquisite beauties flocked to his studio and begged for his love, or at least a tryst. Diego was a left wing radical and a star muralist. Within his work, stories unfolded, in the Aztec tradition.
Though he rolled in the sack with a staggering number of women, it took someone as fierce and passionate as Frida to sustain his interest. The pair had an intense relationship that weathered shy of three decades. They attempted to avoid the encumbrance of jealousy and their relationship had an open door policy. Both parties freely indulged in bisexual extracurricular excursions.
Diego didn’t mind if Frida had lesbian flings or relationships, but he couldn’t contain his jealousy when she slept with other men. As for Frida, she dealt with Diego’s affairs with his nude models, but when he had an affair with her younger sister, it nearly led to divorce.
Frida and Diego did indeed divorce, in 1939, after years of tumult and arguing. But they were remarried the year after. This time, though, Frida said she would only marry him if they did not have sex, and if she could be financially self-sufficient. Naysayers had accused her the first time around of marrying a much older ‘elephant’ only for nepotism, to advance her art career. Her father approved of the marriage for just that practical reason- Frida would always be ill, and the medical expenses were astronomical.
The pair embarked on their second marriage to one another, in 1940, hardly a year after their split. Frida spent much of it in the hospital, or drunk, but their strange union was strong and stormy.
Frida once said, “I cannot speak of Diego as my husband because that term, when applied to him, is an absurdity. He never has been, nor will he ever be, anybody’s husband.”
But Diego begged that upon his death, his ashes be mingled with hers. It was a wish that was not granted, but he did tell the world that the greatest part of his life had been his love for Frida Kahlo.
Frida insisted on cremation for herself because she had spent most of her life lying in bed, and didn’t want to spend eternity horizontal. She died in 1954. After a lifetime of illness, pain, torture, immobility, and disfiguration, and at least 35 painful surgeries, a life defined by suffering, Frida died of a pulmonary embolism. It is speculated that she committed suicide, however, and in keeping with the secrecy of the times, it is entirely possible. For the artist had had her leg amputated preceding her final deterioration, and she wrote in her journal a few days before a possible and possibly intentional overdose of medicine, “I hope the exit is joyful. And I hope never to return.”
Not surprisingly, suffering is the prominent theme of Frida’s artwork, and more than a third of her 150 important paintings are self-portraits. She used bright colours and strong strokes, folk art and Mexican iconography, and heavy symbolism. Without Hope shows her in a bed with a cloud of demons or nightmares above her. Many works depicted her in a wheelchair, or with her bodily organs strewn to show her lack of wholeness. Her pelvis lies on the floor, or a fetus floats above her. (The trolley accident rendered her unable to bear children, but she did become pregnant. They were forced to perform a surgical abortion to save her life, and the child would not have made it to term.) The Broken Column shows her cracked open down the middle. One painting shows a woman lying naked, spread-eagled on a bed with her face shrouded. A child’s head has burst through the woman’s vagina. It is a painting that is still shocking today, and fittingly, it is Madonna who owns it. She has said, “If someone doesn’t like this painting, then I know they can’t be my friend.”
Frida said she had to paint what she knew, and she spent most of her time sick, alone. But the introspection of suffering transcended the limitations she faced, and has been interpreted in terms of a woman’s worth and value. Traditionally, motherhood has defined the female, and certainly art, lesbian explorations, an open marriage, and speaking about suffering have all been off limits to a woman. Indeed, women have been put to death for these things. Frida’s helplessness was especially infuriating to a woman who was unconventional and independent, traits she was never able to realize to their fullest. That having a child was impossible was both painful to Frida personally, and devaluing of her femininity in the roles and mores of Mexico, then and now.
It is these themes, enmeshed with the humbling erotic undertow of suffering, that resonate most deeply in her work. Why should a disabled woman be sexless? And what is womanly, anyways? Instead of shunning her masculine features, she mixed severity with traditional Mexican frocks and frills. She created a type of Latin drag king that is forever imprinted in the cultural imagination. Indeed, Toronto’s hottest drag queen, Donnarama, impersonates Frida in her acts. Kahlo is a Hispanic Marlene Dietrich, a retro k.d. lang. Some photos exist of her in full male attire, and portraits show her in a suit with shorn hair, the emblem of femininity scattered across the floor in clumps. Her paintings emphasized her facial hair, making her unibrow much larger and thicker than it was, and she accentuated her moustache as well. Though Frida’s masculine-tinged brand of beauty was exotic and stunning, she drew her face quite sharply throughout her work.
The imposed sadomasochist undercurrents of Frida’s identity are unavoidable. Frida was not born without natural human desires, and perhaps had more than many, and she could not avoid the confinements and torments of sickness. There was, for her, no life, no pleasure, no love, no nothing, without pain. Freudian Laura Mulvey sees Frida as “mourning the wounded, castrated female body, signifying strength and independence.” She calls the masculinity and bravado in Frida’s image- her masquerade- “carapace.” This word refers to hard shells covering a soft core- an exoskeleton. This is an interesting reference, as much of Frida’s work depicts her bones shattered, askew, showing, cracked, or laying outside of herself. Her husband Diego said of her work, “Through her paintings, she breaks all the taboos of the woman’s body and of female sexuality.”
Tamsin Wilton wrote on glbtq.com, “Kahlo’s queer significance is greater than her few lesbian liaisons suggest or even her representations of women, some of which are homoerotic. She was a masterly and magical exponent of cross-dressing, deliberately using male ‘drag’ to project power and independence. A family photograph from 1926 shows her in full male attire, confronting the camera with a gaze best described as cocksure. So soon after her accident, this cockiness must have concealed unimaginable pain.”
Frida said herself that “I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality.” There were only three things that relieved or distracted her from her pain. Of booze, she said, with trademark camp, “I drink to drown my pains, but the bastards learned how to swim.” Of love, she said, “There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst.” And through it all was her work. She stated simply, “Painting completed my life.”
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Lorette C. Luzajic is a Toronto writer and artist, the girl behind thegirlcanwrite.net. A journalism grad, she has published hundreds of poems, and her reviews, profiles, columns, and features have appeared everywhere from Adbusters to Dog Fancy. Her favourite thing in the world is getting to know interesting people, so she started a project called Fascinating People: gossip for smart people at www.fascinatingpeople.wordpress.com. She writes Fascinating Writers for Bookslut.com. She is also The Spice Girl at Gremolata.com, a foodie’s paradise. Lorette’s first book was The Astronaut’s Wife: Poems of Eros and Thanatos. Her second, Weird Monologues for a Rainy Life, is also available, and her third, Dendrite Pandemonium will be released later this year. Lorette lives in her library with her cats.