13 April 2024

Famous people close to Frida Kahlo

Born in 1907, Magdalena Frida Kahlo grew up in Mexico City in a blue house/Casa Azul built by her father. Fath­er Guill­ermo Kah­lo was a Ger­m­an-Jewish photo­grapher and moth­er, Matil­de Cald­erón, indig­enous and Cat­holic Spanish. At 6 Kahlo contracted polio, rendering her right leg perm­an­ently smaller. More than a fashion statement emphasising Mexico, long skirts became Kahlo’s modest uniform. In any case, Frida’s father trained her in his photog­raphy studio

Frida Kahlo painting in bed.
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In high school Frida studied biology, anatomy and zoology at one of Mexico City’s best schools, one of only 35 girls. But then a troll­ley car collided with the bus she was taking home, forever derail­ing her health. Could she have made a good physician? Instead she became a painter of striking auto-biographical canvases. However some works did look medical eg The Broken Column, 1944.

This Mexican artist produced c200 paintings, mostly self-portraits, depictions of family and friends, and c30 still lifes. Fig­ur­ative and very personal, her paintings fused folklore and symbol­ism to illustrate her own experiences.

In 1922 Kahlo started studying at Mexico City’s Escuela Nacional Pre­paratoria with a focus on sciences and became part of a group of communist activist students. During her years there the big three Mexican artists, incl­ud­ing Diego Rivera, all worked on murals at her school. Kahlo met Rivera briefly when he was painting in the school amphitheatre.

In 1925, Kahlo and friend were on a bus that collided with a tram. Some passengers were killed; Kahlo suffered fract­ures of her spine, right leg, collarbone and pelvis. Hospitalised for ages, Ka­hlo was fitted with a plaster corset (to wear for the rest of her life). Alas she later had mult­iple miscarriages and underwent 30+ surgical procedures.

During her long recovery, Kahlo painted using a compact eas­el and mirror that her mother installed under her 4-poster bed. She began with the most readily available subject: herself, using self-portraits to ill­us­trate her inner world in distinct moments in her life.

After her recovery Kahlo again met Rivera through an Italian photographer friend, Tina Modotti. Riv­era was by then an established artist. 20 years older than Kahlo, they married in Aug 1929, forming an unst­able but lasting union. They each had affairs, sometimes with the same people. Kahlo’s li­aisons included Russian revolutionary Leon Trot­sky (who temporarily lived in the Casa Azul) and Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi.

Kahlo and Rivera spent their early married years in US, with a recent book Frida in America (2020) suggesting that Kahlo exp­er­ienced her creative awakening in New York, Detroit & San Francisco. Her marriage self-portrait, Frida and Diego Rivera (1931) showed her much smaller than Rivera!

Frida and Diego Rivera, 
100 cm × 79 cm, 1931
San Francisco Mus of Mod Art

She put forward distinct bohemian and left­ politics, the image that still makes her a pop culture icon now. A new document­ary will premiere at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Kahlo entranced many key C20th photographers, including Julien Levy and Dora Maar, who left images that still fascinate us.

Edward Weston was one of many artists Kahlo befriended while in the US. After arriving in San Francisco she met famous photographer Dor­othea Lange, who shared her studio and introduced Kahlo to Dr Leo Eloesser.  The doctor diagnosed her injuries and remained a trusted friend.

Rivera was the spouse sought out for mural comm­is­s­ions and other projects, because Kahlo was still emerging as an art­ist. Some thought she was the better painter, but she never got the credit. A 1933 article in a Detroit newspaper headlined Wife of the Mas­­ter Mural Painter Glee­fully Dabbles in Art, placing Kahlo firmly behind Rivera. Dabbles?

Kahlo’s career changed in 1938 as her work began to gain recog­nit­ion. She made her first sale that year when actor-collector Ed­ward G Robinson visited Rivera’s studio. Robinson saw Kah­lo’s paintings and bought 4 canvases for $200 each. Kahlo was thrilled.

Frida Kahlo, The Two Fridas, 1939
The traditional Frida in Tehuana costume has a broken heart, 
sitting next to an independent, modern dressed Frida.
Frida Kahlo.org

18 paintings travelled directly from New York to Paris when Kahlo participated in a 1939 group show of Mexican art at the Pierre Colle Gallery. The show was arranged by Andre Breton with help from Mar­cel Duchamp, whom Kahlo described honourably.

Some months later Kahlo had her 1st solo show, exhibiting 25 paintings at New York’s Jul­ien Levy Gallery. The Nov opening drew an A-list crowd inc­luding Alfred Stieglitz, curator Alfred H Barr, art historian Meyer Schap­iro and Georgia O’Keeffe (whom Kahlo befriended in N.Y trip). André Breton, who'd met Kahlo in Me­x­ico, wrote her catalogue essay. Time mag­­azine reviewed the show well!

One work in the exhibition was a self-portrait The Frame (1938), acquired by France and now in The Centre Pom­p­idou. Other Ka­hlo works got into star collections eg New York’s Mus­eum Modern Art, SFMOMA, Mexico City’s Museo de Arte Moderno and National Museum of Women in the Arts.

When Kahlo returned from France, she found Rivera with another woman. So she left their marital home to go back to the Casa Azul. By late 1939 they agreed to divorce, prompt­ing her large canvas The Two Fridas. When Kahlo’s health suffered post-divorce, Dr Eloesser advised the couple recon­cile. They rem­ar­ried in San Francisco, Dec 1940.

Frida Kahlo, The Broken Column, 1944
Frida Kahlo.org

In Mexico City, Kahlo’s work was shown in group exhibitions in the 1940s, includ­ing C20th Port­r­aits at the Museum of Modern Art in 1942 and Exhib­it­ion by 31 Women at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art Gall­ery in 1943. She soon started teaching at Mexico City’s School of Painting & Sculpture, moving classes to the Casa Az­ul when her health declined.

Her 2nd solo show was in summer 1953 in Mexico City at Lola Álvarez Bravo’s Gallery of Con­temporary Art. Now in very poor health, Kahlo was delivered to the opening night festiv­it­ies on a stretcher and then placed in her bed IN the gallery. So crit­ics tended to react host­ile­ly, as if they res­ent­ed the at­mosph­ere of awe. The same year, Kahlo’s right leg was amputated and even then, Kahlo remained a dedicated leftist. She did port­raits of Marx and Stalin, and attended demonstrat­ions. And she changed her birth to 1910, coinciding with her be­lov­ed Mexican Revolution.

Kahlo was addicted to alcohol and painkillers. So when she died at Casa Azul  (47) in 1954, was it pulmonary em­bol­ism or suicide? Her casket was installed in Palacio de Bellas Artes. Casa Azul became her house-museum post-death. Now a pilgrimage site, it includes her own folk art, bed and art material,  and an easel from Nelson Rockefeller.


Jo-Anne's Ramblings said...

Not someone have heard of, so found the post quite interesting what a remarkable woman

roentare said...

She draws repugnant paintings. So sad that she died such a young age. The story is inspiring that people with adversity overcome the hurdles for the survival

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Kahlo's paintings are mesmerizing, the subject matter, motifs, and technique endlessly fascinating. As you can imagine, I appreciate some of the weird or edgy elements that she so well portrays. Not long ago I was studying some of her work, as a friend gave me a large-format volume of her artwork. Also, I have read two books by Donald Gallup, a curator at Yale who knew everyone in that artistic crowd (and also their literary equivalents) and who did much to preserve their works, writing, and even friends' letters at Yale and other institutions.

Deb said...

Do we have any Kahlo paintings in Australia? Paintings on line are good, but Kahlo deserves close inspection

Margaret D said...

How interesting, the poor women with all those health issues.

River said...

All those injuries! What a hard life, I'm not at all surprised she became addicted to painkillers and alcohol. Her paintings are very good though.
Here in North Adelaide on Melbourne Street there is a place called Frida's, on the door it says Fridas sip n'paint, so apparently it is a place where you can book a session and sip something while you paint something. www.fridas.com.au

Hels said...


she was so brave, persistent and focused that, even if you don't like her paintings so much, we have to admire her career under horrible circumstances.

Hels said...


everyone requires support, especially if they are very ill or handicapped. Frida was fortunate with both of her parents and her teachers. But I don't think husband Diego Rivera was a good choice. He was much older, a much more experienced artist and more interested in his other women than staying home and supporting his "pathetic" wife.

Hels said...


Donald Gallup, a curator at Yale who knew everyone in that artistic crowd, was in a perfect position to write his two books. Frida had some wonderful friends and we should be very grateful that they helped preserve works, writing and letters. Bless all of them.

Hels said...


I don't know of any original Kahlo paintings in Australian galleries, but last year we got lucky. "The Frida & Diego: Love & Revolution Exhibition" was displayed in Adelaide between June and September 2023.

Hels said...


I don't think Frida was the only child to contract polio .. it was a tragic disease that came to many families. Even in Australia, we only started to vaccinate against polio as late as 1956.

But longggg hospitalisation after the violent bus accident, polio, desertion by husband, amputation of one leg, spinal injuries. Most of us could not cope at all.

jabblog said...

A sad life for a woman with so many talents.

Hels said...


Frida's Sip and Paint in Melbourne St Adelaide reminds us of how much her influence went into popular culture, even years after she died in 1954. I also found
Café Frida in York;
Café Frida on Vienna’s 16 district Yppenplatz;
Frida’s Coffee Bar in Johannesburg, with art and books; and
Café Frida Gallery, S A St, Santa Rosa Calif brings together food, coffee and the arts.
There were others that referred to Frida's life but didn't use Frida in the cafe's name.

Hels said...


Frida's parents ensured she received top class medical care for as long as she needed it, and a top class education was on offer. She didn't finish uni, but in 1943 she was appointed Prof of painting at La Esmeralda, the Education Ministry’s School of Fine Arts.

So apart from natural talent, she also had every skill to survive the tragedies. Yet she died in her mid 40s anyhow :(

Hels said...

I have added a double portrait of the couple, painted in 1931 and located in San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. After all, Diego was the most significant person in her life.

My name is Erika. said...

Freda was a very interesting woman. I read that book about Freda in America too. She was certainly quite talented, and maybe it was her talent that caused her marriage to finally end. Maybe, I'm no expert and neither Diego nor Freda were monogamous even during the marriage. Thanks for this post. It was a fun read. I'm in catch up mode as it ended up being a busy week, so I'm off to read about Athens.

hels said...

I don't think either partner knew about marital loyalty, nor apparently did either care. But Diego was physically healthy, sexually satisfied and artistically famous. Frida, on the other hand, really needed his support

Katerinas Blog said...

Amazing information about Frida Kahlo. A tortured artist, there is also a film. Thanks Hells for such an interesting post.

hels said...

The film was not a documentary but Selma Hayek was still very well accepted as the real artist. I wonder if it is possible for anyone else to get into the brain of the real artist, after the real artist has died. However this was a pretty good attempt.

diane b said...

I learn so much from your posts. My ignorant self had never heard of this artist. Kahlo had a hard life but thankfully helpful parents. Its sounds like she had bohemian beliefs like most artists. Her style is also unusual. I can't make up my mind if I like her work or not, but it is captivating.

hels said...

Frida became part of modern culture, not because her self portraits were attractive but because it told the world about women's inner strength.

Handmade in Israel said...

Incredible to see her painting in bed like that. And that Detroit newspaper headline? Just wow.

Sallie (FullTime-Life) said...

Her life was as fascinating (and colorful) as her works of art.

Hels said...


Frida's mother was super supportive, thankfully.
The Detroit newspaper was full of patronising and demeaning words :(

Hels said...


Mexican colours were beautiful, weren't they, and not just in the paintings. Look at the clothes and houses as well, red being perhaps the most popular.

mem said...

I find the fascination with Frida interesting . Its often a fascination based on images projected onto her rather than the reality of her life I think. As for Diego , well he probably didn't want to be a carer all the time , maybe that was very hard for someone who was a larger than life personality and had access to much admiration . I also wonder at how her disability would have been managed now . I am not sure that she would have suffered as much now but then we wouldn't have her amazing self exposing artworks . Maybe its that vulnerability that draws people to her as well as her very conscious way of dress.

Hels said...


It was VERY difficult for a man who had a larger than life personality and had access to much admiration for his arts and his sex life. I am not sure Diego did a lot of caring in any case, but probably most young spouses would find that exhausting.

What is worrying was that Frida knew that all those difficulties about Diego before they got married, and she married him anyhow. Equally worrying is that Diego knew all about Frida's terrible physical and perhaps mental conditions from her childhood, yet he married her anyhow. Did they believe they could make each other less difficult after marriage?

Mandy said...

We went to a Frida and Diego exhibition in London a few years ago. There was a lot to take in - I recall her miscarriages but didn't appreciate the extent of her illnesses and injuries. How awful it must have been to have a leg amputated when she was already bedridden.

I've always admired Kahlo's work but enjoyed Rivera's work a lot. I guess I liked his themes.

Hels said...


The Frida and Diego exhibition in London got great reviews. I thought Rivera's work was terrific, even though he wasn't a very gentle husband.


Carla Gutiérrez’s new documentary Frida would be the right occasion to examine the full of Frida Kahlo’s life. It was given prominent placement at the Sundance Film Festival this year, and it was brought there by Amazon Studios—no small distribution company. Such a big canvas provided a good opportunity to re-examine the famed Mexican artist, whose biography often felt stranger than fiction.

January 18, 2024

Hels said...


many thanks. I read your description of the film and will find it without too much trouble.

One of your lines was something I had never thought of: "In order to understand Kahlo and her art, it’s crucial to view it against the backdrop of post-Revolution Mexico".