How Frida Kahlo Worked

Frida Kahlo Paintings

In her lifetime, the uniqueness of Frida Kahlo's art was recognized only by a select few -- primarily she and her husband's artist and intellectual acquaintances. Luminaries who ranged from Josephine Baker to Edward G. Robinson paid visits to the home she kept for Rivera [source: PBS].

But who's to say whether they knew what to make of the puzzling, disturbing images in her paintings -- such as her 1946 painting "The Wounded Deer," in which she portrays herself as a stag running through the forest, bleeding from a fusillade of arrows. Another self portrait, "My Birth," which was painted in 1932, depicts her bloody head emerging from her mother's birth canal, and there's a look of horror on her face. Another painting from the same year, "Self-Portrait on the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States," portrays the U.S. as a gray, unnatural wasteland of smokestacks, juxtaposed with the vivid natural landscape of the Mexican desert. In other paintings, her husband Diego Garcia appears as a Cyclops growing out of Kahlo's brow while she weeps [source: PBS].

Kahlo's fantastic, sometimes grisly images led the Surrealist poet Andre Breton to ask whether she, too, was a member of the same intellectual movement, which sought to jettison rational thought and tap into the subconscious [source: PBS]. Diego Garcia, in contrast, saw her as a realist --"the first woman in the history of art to treat, with absolute and uncompromising honesty, one might even say cruelty, those general and specific themes which exclusively affect women" [source: Kettenmann]

Kahlo herself saw her work as both self-exploration and commentary about the world. "Since my subjects have always been my sensations, my states of mind and the profound reactions that life has been producing in me, I have frequently objectified all this in figures of myself, which was the most sincere and real thing that I could do in order to express what I felt inside and outside of myself" [source: PBS].

After her death in 1954, Kahlo's work languished in obscurity for decades until it was rediscovered by Mexican and Mexican-American artists and aficionados in the late 1970s. Since then, she has not only become phenomenon of fine art but also of pop culture. In part, it's because of the intensity of her visions and her ingenious mashup of modern and indigenous art genres, but also because people find her tragic life story inspiring. As Kahlo biographer Hayden Herrera sees it, Kahlo admirers "get from her this idea that you can just keep struggling and keep working and deal with adversity and keep on going and come up with something that makes life, a whole life, seem worthwhile" [source: Herrera].

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