Belfast Telegraph

Frida Kahlo, the revolutionary painter who declared 'what doesn't kill me, nourishes me'

Selfie specialist: Frida Kahlo
Selfie specialist: Frida Kahlo
Selfie specialist: Frida Kahlo

By Mary Kenny

Today, Frida Kahlo is probably the most famous female artist in the world. Although she died in 1954, aged 47, she is truly contemporary: she is the artist of the selfie, since most of her paintings are self-portraits. Even in her own lifetime, she had revolutionised the genre of the self-portrait, bringing not only a dazzling female sensibility and intensity to it, but a narrative of family, nativist culture, costume, obsession with fertility, Surrealism, revolution and religious iconography.

Even those who have taken scant interest in Kahlo's work will recognise her image, reproduced ubiquitously: for a Stalinist she has been merchandised very successfully through the wiles of capitalism.

Frida is so recognisably modern. She was outspoken, radical, passionate, sexually liberated - bisexual in some of her relationships - and boldly feminist in her presentation of her authentic self. Nothing is more emblematic of her self-affirmation and audacity than her renowned monobrow. Her eyebrows were strong and thick, but instead of plucking them into a more manageable line, she emphasised them by joining them together with a Revlon product called 'Ebony'.

She had a fine growth of dark hair on her upper lip: rather than waxing or threading it away, as many of us do so anxiously, she flaunted it - even emphasising her moustache in her paintings of herself.

Her narcissism was unapologetic. Quite logically, she said she painted herself frequently because that was the subject she knew best. "I'll paint myself because I am so often alone, because I am the subject I know best."

Frida Kahlo is bold, modern, and self-confident in her 'selfie' art, and yet she represents pain, sorrow, loss, disability, and the haunting presence of death. She mixed religious images with Communist revolutionary symbols and took upon herself a secularised crown of thorns.

In our world, which so emphasises comfort, convenience, choice and rights, Kahlo's work, even when lushly invoking the exquisite folk costumes of her native Mexico, carries that disconcerting message: life is suffering.

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She was born in Mexico City in 1907, the third of four daughters of a Mexican mother of mixed heritage, and a father who was a Jewish-Hungarian German speaker: thus her name, originally spelt 'Frieda', the German for 'Peace'. Her father, a 'cultured European', was an accomplished photographer and significantly, she was his favourite child. She probably also inherited her visual sense from Guillermo Kahlo.

She had a bout of polio aged six, from which she recovered: yet it was a preparation for a lifelong struggle with disability. At 18, she was seriously injured in a tram accident coming home from school: her spine, ribs and collarbone were broken, her shoulder dislocated and there were 11 fractures on her right leg and foot. Her pelvis was shattered, and the steel rail penetrated her abdomen and emerged through her vagina. Thus, she quipped afterwards, did she lose her virginity.

Her mother had a Mass said in thanks for her survival, but in the three months of treatment that followed painting became her religion. Again, she recovered but over the course of her life she was to have 37 operations, in an endless battle against "death and decay". Towards the end of her life, she had a leg amputated and had to wear constricting medical body corsets.

The pelvic and abdominal injuries would make pregnancy problematic, which heightened her intensity of fertility. Infants in the womb appear repeatedly in her work. Surreally, she also paints herself giving birth to herself, her head emerging through her own vagina.

When she first glimpsed Diego Rivera - then a celebrated muralist in the thick of Mexican politics - she said, according to her biographer Hayden Herrera: "My ambition is to have a child by Diego Rivera." She did marry him - as his third wife - but, to her grief, she never managed to have a child. There were several miscarriages, but also at least one, possibly, two therapeutic abortions, carried out for medical reasons.

In her letters she shows some ambivalence about her pregnancy history. One miscarriage happened spontaneously and she studied the outcome as to why the child "wasn't properly formed".

Another pregnancy then occurred and she was uncertain as to whether she should risk proceeding with it, although she is assured that a Caesarean birth can make it safer. Her language is what would now be called 'pro-choice': would the child be healthy? Would she be in a position to care for it? And Diego doesn't want a baby.

Finally, encouraged by a doctor, she decides she will continue the pregnancy. But fate intervenes and another miscarriage occurs.

All her life, Frida mourns her childlessness: she even kept a miscarried foetus preserved in formaldehyde in her studio. And yet this sorrow lends more intensity to her work. Her marriage to Diego Rivera was stormy, sometimes violent, often faithless - they both had affairs, though he cheated more frequently and flagrantly. He also had a double-standard about her relationships. He didn't object to lesbian involvements, but he was furious about her affairs with other men.

Among her lovers was Leon Trotsky, in flight from Stalin's henchmen. She and Diego provided hospitality for the Trotskys, but it's been hinted that when they had to move out of the Riveras' home - the iconic 'Blue House' in Coyoacan - because his wife was miserable about Frida, he became more vulnerable to his assassin.

Frida and Diego travelled to the United States - she called it 'Gringolandia' and despised Americans as 'boring' and 'lacking sensibility'. And yet America brought her artistic renown and success. She also disliked the pretentiousness of Parisian intellectual circles when she travelled there. The influential Surrealist Andre Breton promoted her, but she didn't care for what she called 'the bitches' of that art world. She was most at home in Mexico and she put Mexico on the artistic map. She frequently dressed in nativist Mexican costumes, which brought colour and flounce, and hid her injured - and then prosthetic - leg.

At the end of her life she said she only wanted three things: Diego (they divorced but remarried), her painting and the Communist Party.

As death approached she was painting a 'devotional' portrait of Stalin. Her attachment to Moscow-line Communism seems naive, to say the least: but it's obvious that, for Frida, this has become a replacement religion. Marx and Stalin are almost transcendental saints, delivering healing to the people.

Yet, Frida (whose elder sister was a nun) could serenely intermingle the Infant of Prague with the Hammer and Sickle in imagery.

Frida Kahlo is a great artist because of her unique vision, and what she brought to the work - as she said herself "pain, pleasure and death". Pain, she said, "can be converted into life". It was she who said that "What doesn't kill me, nourishes me." She aspired to be 'an original' - and she was.

An exhibition displaying portraits and many artefacts of her life, Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up - sponsored by Grosvenor Britain and Ireland - is at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London until November 4

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