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How Frida Kahlo Worked

Frida Kahlo Biography

One of Frida Kahlo's characteristic quirks was that she claimed to be born in 1910, the year of the Mexican Revolution. She actually was born in 1907 in Coyoacán, near Mexico City. Her father Guillermo Kahlo was a Hungarian immigrant, and her mother, Matilda Calderon, was of mixed indigenous and Spanish descent.

Guillermo Kahlo was a photographer, and as a child, Frida got her first exposure to the visual arts by accompanying her father on assignments and to his studio [sources: Zamora, Arizona State University]. She was one of the first girls allowed to enroll in the prestigious Preparatory Academy of Mexico City, where she fell in with a bohemian student group, the Cachuchas, and showed an early flamboyance by dressing in men's suits. She studied composition and drawing, but her real ambition was to be a doctor [source: Kettenmann].

However at age 18, a bus she was riding in collided with a streetcar, impaling her body and breaking her pelvis and spine. She spent months in bed, unable to move much at all. To take her mind off the pain and boredom, she began to paint, using a special easel that allowed her to work lying down. The hospital equipped her bed with a mirror attached to a canopy, which enabled her to serve as her own model. That sparked her line of self-portraits, which are the most distinctive part of her work. As she later explained, "I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best" [source: Kettenmann].

Kahlo's brush with death, and the pain and bedridden loneliness that followed, influenced her art. Another influence was her subsequent marriage at age 22 to muralist Diego Rivera, who was 20 years her senior. She'd met him as a student. The two strong-willed artists had a passionate but tempestuous relationship, made even more difficult by the numerous affairs each of them had. (One such dalliance was Kahlo's affair with Communist revolutionary Leon Trotsky.) They divorced in 1939, only to remarry the following year. "I suffered two grave accidents in my life," she once said. "One in which a streetcar knocked me down […] the other accident is Diego" [source: PBS].

The two saw the world from very different angles. Artist-political provocateur Rivera created big, bold murals depicting impassioned workers and revolutionaries [source: PBS]. Kahlo, in contrast, explored her own tortured inner psychological landscape. We'll talk more about that in the next section.