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June 2, 2022

Ep. 1 - Frida Kahlo

Ep. 1 - Frida Kahlo

On this first episode I'm going to talk about my favorite painter, Frida Kahlo. Frida's life was full of physical pain and emotional suffering, and she used her art to express what she was feeling. Learn more about her life's story, so you can understand how her struggles shaped her art. 

If you wish to check out my Frida illustrated merch on Redbubble and Teepublic, the links are on my website: www.twistdesign.eu 



Hello and welcome to Creative Women’s Herstory. A podcast about great women in art, design and crafts.

My name is Sonia Mendes, I’m a Portuguese designer and crafter.

On this first episode I’m going to talk about my favorite painter, Frida Kahlo.

I first knew about Frida Kahlo in school, in my history of art class. I didn’t pay much attention to her work, until I saw the Selma Hayek movie about her life. I was so amazed by her life’s story that I started to look at her paintings in a hole new light.

Frida’s life was full of physical pain and emotional suffering, and she used her art to express what she was feeling. The more you know about her life’s story, the more you understand about how her struggles shaped her art.

Almost seven decades after her death, Frida is now considered a feminist icon. Her famous looks, inspired by traditional Mexican culture, reflected her nationalism and revolutionary spirit. And her famous uni-brow and slight mustache, show that she refused to conform to gender stereotypes. She was bisexual and had several affairs with both men and women. And her art explored subjects that were considered tabu, like miscarriage, abortion, childbirth, suicide, physical pain and disability, and other experiences women go through.

Although she is usually included in the surrealism movement, which was one of the current movements in her lifetime, she didn’t consider herself to be a surrealist. As she once said: “They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”

Frida was born in 1907, in Coyoacan, on the outskirts of Mexico city, in “La Casa Azul”, or The Blue House, the home where she would live most of her life and where she would die, at 47 years old. Her revolutionary spirit was such a part of her life, that she told people she was born in 1910, because she wanted her birth to be associated with the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. Although she fully embraced her Mexican heritage and it had a great influence in her art, her father was a German immigrant and her mother was of indigenous Mexican and Spanish descent. She had two half sisters from her father’s previous marriage, two older sisters and one younger sister.

Frida’s father was a professional photographer, and she would often assist him in his work, by retouching, developing, and coloring photographs. Since she was a child, her father noticed she was different from her sisters, and so he got one of his friends to give her drawing lessons. Her father also enrolled Frida in a different school from her sisters, because he knew she was smarter and she had the potential to achieve great things. She went to a German school, where she would learn more about European culture. She even learned English and German there.

When she was 6, Frida contracted Polio, which left her with a right leg that was shorter and thinner then her left leg, and a limp that would remain for the rest of her life. That’s when she started to wear long skirts to cover up this disability. Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough to prevent her from being bullied by other kids at school. So she became a tomboy and started to play soccer, boxing, wrestling and swimming, to make up for her disabilities. Eventually, she would be expelled from German school for disobedience. She was later accepted in a professional school for teachers, but she was taken out of that school, when her parents discovered that she was being sexually abused by a female teacher.

In 1922, when she was 15, Frida entered the National Preparatory School, an elite school predominantly attended by male students, she was one of only 35 girls in that school. She was planning to become a doctor, and she was doing very well academically. It was here that she met Diego Rivera, the man that would become, a few years later, the great love of her life. Diego was already a famous artist and was working on a mural for the school. She also met her first boyfriend, Alejandro Gomez Arias, in this school. He was a member of a revolutionary group of students called the “Cachuchas”. Frida’s participation in this group ignited her interest in literature and politics.

In 1925, when she was 18, Frida and her boyfriend Alejandro were riding on a bus, on their way home from school, when a trolley slammed into the bus. Alejandro only had some minor injuries, but Frida was impaled by a metal handrail, which shattered her pelvis and fractured her spine, collarbone, her ribs and her right leg. She was so badly injured that the doctors didn’t believe she would survive, as some other passengers in the bus didn’t.

This accident would change the course of her life forever. Frida would suffer from pain and illness for the rest of her life, and she would undergo more than 30 surgeries in her lifetime, because of it.

After spending several weeks in the hospital, Frida returned home to recover. This is when she started painting. Her father gave her his oil paints, her mother had a special easel made for her, and they placed a mirror as the ceiling on a canopy bed, so that she could paint in her bed. She started by painting self-portraits as, she said: “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.”

Her first self-portrait was a gift for her soon to be, ex-boyfriend, Alexandro. “Self portrait in a velvet dress” shows Frida wearing a red velvet dress, against a dark background. She sent it to her boyfriend in the hope that they would get back together. This worked only temporarily, because they would eventually break up when his parents sent him to Europe.

In 1927, after recovering from the bus accident, she rejoined the “Cachuchas” group and later, the Mexican communist party, influenced by her friend Tina Modotti, a young Italian photographer. It was in a gathering organized by Tina, that Frida reconnected with Diego Rivera, who was also a dedicated communist. One day, she went to him and asked him to evaluate her work. Diego was very impressed by her paintings and was convinced that she would be a great artist.

This was the beginning of a tumultuous relationship, filled with unrestrained passion, betrayal, jealousy and heartbreak. They were both unfaithful to each other, and had several affairs throughout their relationship. But they also served as an influence in each other’s art.

They got married in 1929, when Frida was only 22 and Diego was 43. He was a very tall and heavy man, she was small and thin. They got the nickname “the elephant and the dove”. Despite this, her father told Diego: “She’s a devil” and Diego replied: “I know”. At the wedding reception, they immediately started to fight. Diego got drunk and made a lot of trouble. Frida was so furious with his behavior, she didn’t move in with him until a few days later.

Soon after their wedding, Diego got several commissions to paint his murals in the United States, so Frida followed him. She didn’t consider herself to be an artist, so she remained in his shadow, although she continued to paint for her own pleasure.

First they spent six months in San Francisco, where Frida painted her first painting to be shown in public, at an exhibition of women artists. The painting called “Frida and Diego Rivera” depicts the couple in a stiff pose. Diego is shown as a big man, holding his palette and brushes, while Frida is shown as a small figure with tiny feet.

During their stay in San Francisco, Diego had an affair with a female tennis champion, who had posed nude for him, for the mural he was painting at the time. In retaliation, Frida began a sexual affair with the wife of one of Diego’s assistants.

After that, Frida and Diego moved to New York, to attend the opening of Diego’s exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. In New York, Frida befriended the famous artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who some people say would become her lover. Later, they moved to Detroit while Diego was working for the Detroit Institute of Arts.

During their marriage, Frida suffered several miscarriages and forced abortions, due to the consequences of the bus accident. She desperately wanted a child, but she was never able to have one, which caused her a great deal of anguish.

In 1932, while they were living in Detroit, Frida painted one of her most personal and tragic paintings. “Henry Ford Hospital” depicts one of her miscarriages, where we can see her lying naked, bleeding in a hospital bed with six umbilical cords coming out of her belly. Each one of them is connected to an image related to her miscarriage: the figure of a woman’s uterus, the fetus of a boy, a snail, symbolizing a slow and very painful miscarriage, a wilted purple orchid, symbolizing the loss of fertility, a pelvis, symbolizing her damaged bones, and some kind of mechanical contraption.

In that same year, Frida got the news that her mother was sick, and she went to Mexico to see her before she died, a week after her arrival. After that, she returned to Detroit where she made a new painting called “My Birth”, where she depicts her mother giving birth to her. Her mother’s face is covered with a white sheet and we can see Frida’s head coming out of her mother’s vagina.

In 1933, the couple moved back to New York. Diego was commissioned to create a mural at the Rockefeller Center. This mural became a scandal after Diego tried to include Lenin, a communist leader, in the painting. They fired Diego and that part was painted over. Because of this, Diego lost his other commissions, and Frida was already starting to feel homesick, so they moved back to Mexico.

Back in Mexico, Frida and Diego moved in to a newly constructed house, which was made up of two separate individual spaces, joined by a bridge. In 1935, Frida discovered that Diego was having an affair with her younger sister Cristina, which sent her into a deep depression. She was so devastated, she cut off all her hair and moved to an apartment. Despite this, she returned to their house, a few months later, although they began living separate lives. Both continued to have several affairs. Frida had affairs with both men and women, including Nickolas Muray, a Hungarian photographer, Isamu Noguchi, a Japanese-American sculptor, and singer and dancer Josephine Baker.

In 1937, Frida painted “Memory, the heart”, to represent her misery and resentment over Diego’s affair with her sister. In this painting, we can see her chest being pierced by a metal rod, while her big heart lies on the ground at her feet.

Also in 1937, Frida and Diego invited Leon Trotsky, an exiled Soviet communist, and his wife Natalia Sedova, to come stay with them at the “Blue House”. Trotsky was a rival of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, and feared he would be murdered by the regime. Frida and Trotsky had a secret and passionate affair during this time. They would pass love notes to each other, hidden in books. Eventually, Trotsky’s wife found out about the affair and they moved away.

In 1938, Frida became friends with Andre Breton, who was part of the Surrealism movement. Later that year, Frida would be invited by Julien Levy, a New York gallery owner, to hold her first solo exhibition at his gallery. This exhibition was very successful and she really started to be seen as an artist.

In 1939, Breton invited her to go to Paris, for an exhibition with other surrealists, where she met other artists like Marcel Duchamp, Marc Chagall, Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky and Pablo Picasso. Although she didn’t identify herself as a surrealist, her works were beginning to get some international recognition. She appeared on the cover of french Vogue and one of her paintings was sold to the Louvre, making her the first 20th-century Mexican artist to be included in the museum’s collection.

After her solo trips to New York and Paris, Frida returned to Mexico, where Diego was having yet another affair. By the end of 1939, Frida and Diego got divorced, and she moved to the Blue House. But less than a year later, they reconciled and remarried. Although they both continued to have affairs, they remained married until Frida’s death.

During their divorce, Frida painted one of her most famous works, “The Two Fridas”, where we can see two self-portraits. The Frida on the right is dressed in traditional Mexican clothes, representing the Frida that Diego loved. The Frida on the left is wearing a more European attire, like what she used to wear before she got married to Diego.

In 1941, after the death of her father, Frida’s health started to decline. She underwent several surgeries on her back and leg, and started taking huge doses of painkillers. She became very depressed and began writing a diary where she would document her inner thoughts through text and drawings.

In 1943, she became a painting teacher at the School of Fine Arts “La Esmeralda”, in Mexico City, and acquired some highly devoted students, who were known as “Los Fridos”.

In 1944, Frida painted one of her most famous portraits, “The Broken Column”, as an expression of her physical pain. In this painting, we can see her naked and split down the middle, and her spine is represented by a broken Greek style column. The nails that pierce her all through her body, show the consistent pain she went through.

After 1950, Frida spent most of her life in bed or on a wheelchair. Besides all of her injuries, she also suffered from syphilis and she was diagnosed with gangrene in her right foot.

In 1953, she had her first solo exhibition in Mexico. On the opening day, Frida’s doctor told her she wasn’t well enough to leave her bed, so she had her bed sent to the gallery, where she arrived by ambulance. After being carried in a stretcher, she was placed in her bed for the rest of the show, where she welcomed her guests. Later that year, her right leg had to be amputated below the knee.

In 1954, although being very sick at the time, Frida still went with Diego to Mexico City, to protest the overthrow of the Guatemalan president by the CIA. This was her last public appearance. A few days later she died, in the Blue House, the same house she was born in. She was 47. The official cause of death was pulmonary embolism, although some people speculate it might have been suicide. A few days before her death, she drew a sketch of an angel of death and wrote in her diary: “I wait joyfully for the exit, and I hope to never return”.

Although Frida achieved some success as an artist in her lifetime, her fame really took off in the 1970s and 80s. She is now, one of the best-known artists of the 20th century. Several biographies, articles, books, documentaries and movies, have been made about her life and art. Today, Frida Kahlo is considered the most famous woman artist in the world. She also became a symbol for feminist and LGBTQ movements. She inspired many artists, including me, who turned her self-portraits into icons of pop culture.

Her Blue House, or “La Casa Azul” is now a museum dedicated to her life, where you can see her personal belongings on display throughout the house, as if she still lived there. So, if you’re ever in Mexico city, you should go see it.

This podcast was brought to you by me, Sonia Mendes. If you would like to see my art and crafts, come check out my website twistdesign.eu. I’m also on Instagram and Facebook with the same handle, twistdesign.eu. If you have any suggestions or comments, you can also send me an email to sonia@twistdesign.eu. And if there’s a creative woman you’d like me to talk about, please let me know.

If you’re a fan of Frida like me, you can check out my Frida illustrated merch on Redbubble and Teepublic. The links are on my website twistdesign.eu.

Music in this episode was provided by fiftysounds.com. Additional music by Kevin MacLeod from FilmMusic.io.

(outtakes in the end)


Music by www.fiftysounds.com, www.podcast.co, and www.mixkit.co 

Additional song: Laid Back Guitars by Kevin MacLeod

Link: https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3964-laid-back-guitars

License: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license