If my prior post showed skepticism about the latest self-reinvention of Paris Hilton, then this post is different. I invite you to learn about the private life of well-respected Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.
After you learn some of the against-type characteristics of the artist’s personal life, reflect on whether Kahlo’s unconventional life seems more real and honest than Hilton’s. BTW, search my website for other posts about “appearances being deceiving,” like my blog about President Kennedy’s health.
The New Frida Kahlo
In 1954, following her death, Kahlo’s possessions were locked away in La Casa Azul (The Blue House) in Mexico City, her lifelong home. Half a century later, an amazing trove of artifacts was accessed.
Kahlo’s (blue) and husband Rivera’s (white)
houses/studios in Mexico City.
In 2004, this discovery of a collection of Kahlo’s personal belongings dramatically changed our understanding of her life and her art. These items included love letters as well as clothing, jewelry, cosmetics, and medical corsets and orthopedic devices.
They’d been hidden away for 50 years according to the wishes of her husband, the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera whose house connected to hers via a bridge, not unlike Liz Taylor and Richard Burton’s houses in Puerto Vallarta.
These items and letters show how Kahlo constructed her own identity using a mix of politics, sexuality, disability, and dress (i.e., fashion). They also show why Kahlo’s clothing style and lifestyle remain a source of inspiration for artists, fashion designers, and others around the world. The question is: can we trust the new Kahlo to authentically be who she’s revealed to be. Or is she more like fashionista Paris Hilton?
Many of us are fond of Kahlo’s artwork, but don’t know much about her personal life. The lack of awareness of Kahlo’s personhood and life is startling given the “Fridamania” of recent years, esp among art museum goers. Kahlo’s face is everywhere and even on trendy merchandise in gift stores.
What new things have we learned about Kahlo?
She was disabled from a young age
From childhood to the end of her life, Kahlo dealt with severe disabilities and chronic pain.
She walked with a limp due to having contracted polio at 8. Kids called her “peg leg.” She started to wear long skirts, which later became part of her iconic personal style, to hide her leg deformities.
Later, – in her youth – Kahlo was in a bus accident and was impaled by a steel handrail and her fractured hip, spine ,and pelvis had to be operated on.
This accident actually triggered her artistic journey. Alone and immobilized in bed, she had few scenes or people to paint. Therefore, she used a mirror to paint her first self-portrait, the type of piece that would later become her signature, her brand.
During the last years of her relatively short life, Kahlo’s health considerably worsened. Her ailments included kidney infections, trophic ulcers, and recurrent fungus infections of the hands.
She started using dentures due to having badly rotted teeth. Her smoking, drinking, and bad diet didn’t help.
She had to have followup surgeries on her spine, and a gangrenous foot ended with her right leg being amputated. When she died from bronchial pneumonia at 47, she had undergone a total of 32 surgical operations.
She was a political activist
From Archives of Rivera & Kahlo,
Kahlo befriended many intellectuals and minded-like individuals. She became politically active when she was still a student and was part of the Young Communist League. Later, she joined tthe Mexican Communist Party, of which her future husband, Diego Rivera, also was a member.
The couple frequently received artists and political activists at their residency. The most notorious one was probably Leon Trotsky, who stayed at Kahlo’s childhood home during his exile to escape Stalin’s persecution.
Kahlo’s painting were very political. She dealt with feminist issues like abortion, sexuality, and the patriarchy. It is remarkable how progressive her vision was for the strict Catholic Mexican culture she lived in. She deliberately wore masculine outfits and her famous mono-brow now and then, defying gender stereotypes and female aesthetic expectations.
She was Trotsky’s lover
Kahlo at Trotsky’s arrival in Mexico.
Kahlo and Trotsky reportedly had an affair while he and his wife stayed at her home in 1937. If it happened, it was probably to take revenge against her husband, Diego Rivera, who had an affair with her sister.
This would’ve meant she slept with Rivera’s idol. Trotsky’s wife was around and about, but Kahlo and the exiled politician spoke in English, a language she didn’t understand.
Trotsky was murdered by a KGB-like agent Ramón Mercader in Mexico City on August 20, 1940. Historians think Stalin ordered the killing.
She was bisexual
In ’95, Vanity Fair magazine published an excerpt from a Kahlo letter to a friend, speaking about Georgia O’Keeffe, an artist with whom she had a very supportive friendship over the years. It read:
“O’Keeffe was in the hospital for three months, she went to Bermuda for a rest. She didn’t make [sic] love to me that time, I think on account of her weakness. Too bad. Well, that’s all I can tell you until now.”
Chavela Vargas, a well-known and influential Mexican singer, publicly admitted to having had an affair with the painter.
In addition to these two, Kahlo was also rumored to have had affairs with Josephine Baker, photographer Tina Modotti, and actresses Dolores del Rio and Paulette Goddard.
What do you think – Appearances deceiving?
- Do you think it’s OK to deceive others by hiding a gimpy (later prosthetic) leg behind long dresses?
- Is there authenticity in Kahlo that isn’t there in Paris Hilton?
- Do you consider Kahlo a feminist icon, a gender-bending heroine, a political figure, or something else?
- And is there a difference between having to create a personal identity – unconventional tho it may be – under stressful circumstances versus reinventing one’s identity from time to time out of boredom?