Tuesday 16 July 2019

Portrait of passion: Frida Kahlo's extraordinary life

The tragedies and passions which defined Frida Kahlo's life were the main subjects of her art. Sixty years after Kahlo's death, Julia Molony looks back on her extraordinary story

Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo
Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo
Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo

In Frida Kahlo's lifetime, it was her husband, Diego Riviera, who was the more celebrated artist. But now, 60 years since her death, as she continues to wield an enduring influence over both high and popular culture, he is better known by many for the intense, tortured and often masochistic relationship he and Frida conducted over four decades. Frida remains to this day an artist for our times. Confessional, emotionally transparent and preoccupied with her own image - she anticipated the era of the selfie.

Her very earliest memories were defined by suffering. Born in 1907 into a creative, urbane but devoutly religious family from Mexico city, the first daughter of a Jewish father and Mexican mother, she contracted polio aged six, which caused damage to her right leg, leaving her with a permanent limp.

She first came into contact with Diego Rivera after he was commissioned by the Mexican government to create a piece of work at her school. Frida was 15 at the time and Diego 36. Even though he was twice her age, she fell for him with the special, burning fervour of an adolescent schoolgirl, announcing to all her friends that one day she would have his child.

It was many years, however, before she and Diego would meet again and begin a love affair. And not before misfortune, ill-health and trauma intervened in her life again. At the age of 18, Frida was already an iconoclastic and unconventional young woman. Having abandoned her early ambitions to be a doctor due to her health problems, she had been taken on as an apprentice by an artist friend of her father's, and was sharing his bed as well as shadowing his work.

At the same time, she had a more suitable boyfriend her own age, a schoolfriend named Alejandro Gomez Arias. She was with him, travelling through Mexico City on a bus, when it collided with a street car. Alejandro escaped with minor injuries, but for Frida, the accident was catastrophic. Her lower body was impaled by the bus's metal handrail. She had breaks in her spine, ribs, collarbone and pelvis. Her right leg was shattered, her right foot crushed.

In a vividly bizarre twist that must have in some way taken hold of her creative imagination, the impact of the crash pulled off all of her clothes, leaving her at the centre of carnage, completely naked. "Someone in the bus, probably a housepainter, had been carrying a packet of powdered gold," remembered Alejandro later. "This package broke, and the gold fell all over the bleeding body of Frida."

About two years later, she was active in the Mexican communist community and it was through these connections that she ended up back in contact with Diego Rivera.

Characteristically undaunted, Frida showed up at his place of work one day carrying a selection of her paintings under her arm and demanded a review from the most famous artist in Mexico.

The pair embarked on an affair and eventually married in 1929. Despite Diego's eccentric appearance, he was a prodigious and successful womaniser, once described as "the man who devoured women." He had been married three times before, and had at least two illegitimate children by two different women.

Though Frida was to be the most significant of his partnerships, marriage to her would do little to change his essential character. Their relationship, which was quixotic, tempestuous and fiery, raged on, alternating regularly between love and war. They were mutually devoted, always supportive of each other's work, while engaging in regular personal betrayals. Diego seduced countless women over the course of their marriage, including, most hurtfully, Frida's younger sister, Cristina.

In many ways, their mutual infidelities seemed calculated to inflict the greatest hurt. Years later, Frida began an affair with Leon Trotsky when he and his wife came to stay at the couple's Mexico City home.

Though Diego liked to boast of his bisexual wife's affairs with women, her liaison with the Marxist revolutionary enraged him. Kahlo once said: "I suffered two grave accidents in my life. One in which a streetcar knocked me down. The other accident is Diego."

In the late 1930s, Diego was invited to travel to Detroit and New York to work on two separate commissions - a series of murals for the Detroit Museum, and one to be painted at the Rockefeller Centre. Frida travelled with him, but the trip, which had promised to secure Diego place at the heart of the American creative establishment, precipitated a rupture in the couple's lives.

In Detroit, Frida suffered a miscarriage, and commemorated the event in a graphically personal painting - a small and intimate piece in which she is depicted in a clinical, industrial setting, prone on a blood-stained bed, a male foetus still attached to her body by an umbilical cord.

Eventually, they returned to Mexico, where Frida's health worsened. In chronic pain, she began to drink heavily and became addicted to painkillers. But the emotional wounds, those inflicted by Diego, were as difficult to bear. In 1930, the pair divorced, but remarried a year later, the wrench of separation clearly marginally less tolerable than the torture of being together.

In 1953, she was honoured with her first solo show -the only one to take place in her lifetime. She was so ill at the time that it was expected that she wouldn't appear. But she was determined to enjoy her moment - arranging for her four-poster bed to be delivered to the gallery and arriving herself by ambulance.

In the same year, she contracted gangrene in her damaged leg, which then had to be amputated below the knee. Increasingly infirm, she retreated to the house in which she had grown up, La Casa Azul (the blue house). She died at home, in her sleep. The cause of death was marked down as am embolism, though many suspected it was suicide. As a final entry to her diary, she wrote: "I hope the end is joyful - and I hope to never come back."

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