Did You Know Kahlo Was Pre-Med or Knew How to Box?
By Thea Fiore-Bloom, PhD.
Why are artists and writers so inspired by the life of Frida Kahlo?
I think it’s because Kahlo gives us the courage we need to steer clear of an un-lived life.
Here are seven things most people don’t know about Frida Kahlo.
I’ve married each fact to a tip to help fellow artists.
So let’s get started discovering how our creative lives can flower with the help of this maverick from Mexico.
Fact 1. Frida Kahlo Was Pre-Med
Did you know Kahlo began her study of medicine in 1922 at Mexico’s brainy, mostly male, National Preparatory School?
A tragic accident derailed the brilliant Kahlo’s initial dream of becoming a doctor.
But Kahlo’s time studying medicine and the body in her pre-painting years weren’t wasted.
Frida’s study of medicine and medical illustration enabled her to communicate the failings of her own body on canvas with force.
This was a tremendous asset to Kahlo as an artist.
Two examples of her powerful use of anatomical illustration are:
Tip 1 for Creatives: None of Your Past is Wasted
Remember, all the schooling and all the passions you have for anything outside of school, can inform and inspire your art.
Any job you’ve had (no matter how boring you may think it was or is) can be a potentially glorious gizmo tucked into your artist’s bag of tricks.
Say you’re a wanna-be, big, installation artist but you have spent years slaving away as a taxidermist for hunters.
You’re depressed because taxidermy couldn’t possibly be part of creating great art that sells, right?
Mega-artists Damien Hirst, Claire Morgan, Kate Clark, Cai Guo-Qiang, Catherine Coan or Mark Dion (who all have used taxidermy in installation pieces) would tell you otherwise.
None of your past is wasted.
Put your past to work for you.
It just might be the magic lasso that pulls you right into your accidentally ingenious future.
Fact 2. Frida Kahlo Was A Fighter — Literally
Many of us have heard of Kahlo’s tragic 1925 trolley crash.
But did you know by the time the accident occurred Kahlo had already survived polio?
And possibly Spina Bifida? (Herrera 37.)
Her father Guillermo wisely had her take up boxing in her youth, post-polio.
It helped her strengthen her body and spirit.
Frida even learned to wrestle to recover her confidence then as well.
Kahlo painted her way through several long convalescences in her life.
After the trolley accident, her mother Matilde thoughtfully hung a mirror in the canopy of her sick-bed.
Thus began Kahlo’s life long practice of employing that mirror to create self-portraits while bedridden.
Kahlo didn’t apologize for her physical infirmities.
Instead, she dared to document them in detail.
“I’ve done my paintings well, not quickly but patiently, said Kahlo, “and they have a message of pain in them.”
Tip 2 for Creatives: Let Art Help You Endure
None of us are immune to the failings of the body.
If you are in the midst of a health crisis or chronic illness remember what Georges Braque said:
“Art is a wound turned into light.” — George Braque
When we are hurting the act of creating can turn our attention away from pain and towards the big picture.
Kahlo herself said, “At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can.”
How can you let your art help you endure whatever you are going through?
Fact 3. Frida Kahlo Was Once Covered in Blood and Glitter
Kahlo’s old boyfriend related exactly how he found Frida in the moments after he managed to pull himself out from under the bus in the streetcar collision.
Frida was lying prone, nearly naked, her body spattered in blood and covered in gold glitter.
One of Frida’s fellow passengers (possibly a house painter) was carrying a bag of gold powder or glitter that exploded at the moment of impact and floated down over her wounded body.
Kahlo biographer Martha Zamora (author of The Brush of Anguish) reports bystanders in the street cried out:
“¡Ayuda para la pequeña bailarina!”
(Help for the little ballerina!).
True events in the life of the archetypal-goddess-like Frida Kahlo are so tragic, surreal, or beautiful one could mistake them for passages from a magical realism novel by Isabel Allende or Gabriel García Márquez.
Tip 3 For Creatives: Become a Magical Realist
What was the magical realism moment in your own childhood or adult life?
Give yourself time down the road to ponder this.
Eventually, an odd cinematic circumstance from your own past will surface from memory.
Make a piece of art about the event.
Or make art about the objects, symbols or dreams connected to that important positive or negative happening in your life.
That’s what Frida would do.
Fact 4. Diego Wasn’t the Only One Playing The Field
“I have suffered two serious accidents in my life, one in which a streetcar ran over me…the other accident is Diego.”
“Diego was by far the worst,” wrote Frida.
Diego Rivera (Kahlo’s famous muralist husband) is often depicted as a narcissist and an omnivore who devoured women.
He had open affairs with an astonishing assortment of screen stars, art models, friends of the couple, as well as with Kahlo’s closest sister and confidante, Cristina.
It’s not surprising then that Frida is sometimes painted as the long-suffering, innocent bride of the wicked Diego.
Yet in actuality, Kahlo was no Penelope waiting for decades in virgin martyrdom for the return of her Odysseus.
Eventually, she gave almost as good as she got in the infidelity department.
The intelligent, elegant, sensual, funny, enchanting, beautiful, and bawdy Kahlo relished affairs with a veritable who’s who of great male and female artists and thinkers of the 20th century.
Kahlo’s lovers included entertainer/activist Josephine Baker, designer Isamu Noguchi, and Marxist revolutionary and theorist Leon Trotsky.
She enjoyed an intimate 10-year affair with Nikolas Muray, a famous photographer, and champion fencer. Muray took brilliant images of Kahlo throughout their decade together.
The cornucopia of Diego and Frida’s friends and lovers probably alternately hurt and helped the creative lives of the luminous couple.
Tip 4 For Creatives
Ask Yourself: Is it Passion or Resistance?
Is the trouble we may want to get into at the moment, fueling our creative fire or is it a fancy form of resistance?
If you are curious about how to get better at distinguishing between the two, read Steven Pressfield’s The War Of Art.
Fact 5. Unlike Us, Frida Kahlo Had The Cajones To Admit She Was Strange
Kahlo didn’t deny being (what boring folks might consider) strange.
“I used to think I was the strangest person in the world,” wrote Kahlo. “But then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me, too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this, know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.” — Frida Kahlo
Like us, Frida was at times frightened, vulnerable, and insecure.
But unlike us, she practiced what I call radical self-acceptance.
In time, she boldly exaggerated her mustache and unibrow in her paintings; she thought they were lovely.
Rather than mask her indigenous roots, Kahlo celebrated them with her embroidered clothing and Indian jewelry.
Instead of hiding her problems with her back, legs, and foot, Kahlo depicted it all in detail in her artwork.
Kahlo didn’t apologize for being female, or an artist, or a bisexual, or brilliant or Mexican or broken, or a political revolutionary.
Frida’s owning of the myriad ways she didn’t fit in, led to her becoming a household word.
Because as pioneering psychologist Carl Rogers said; “What is most personal is most universal.”
(The Charmed Studio has an entire post on the benefits of letting go of approval for artists.)
Tip 5 For Creatives: Your Ideal Audience Will Appreciate Your Emotional Bravery
One of our jobs as artists is to explore the realm of the personal and express it for those who can’t or won’t and to do it no matter how society mocks or shames us for it.
Frida is living proof that what you may consider insanely personal, crazy, or shameful about your physical being, your past, or what you feel called to make art about may, in fact, be the very thing your future ideal audience will passionately relate to and be thankful for.
If you’re like me and still find it too terrifying to display big-time vulnerability in your public work, test drive expressing pain or perceived shortcomings in an art journal.
The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self Portrait by Alas Rojas lets you peek inside the covers of one of Kahlo’s own visual diaries.
Fact 6. Diego Rivera Divorced Frida Kahlo, and Her Art Bloomed
One thing I noticed in my research on Kahlo was that her largest and most critically acclaimed works were painted around the time of her divorce in 1940.
The historic Las Dos Fridas (The Two Fridas) was accomplished shortly after the couple filed for divorce in 1939.
The monumental, La Mesa Herida (The Wounded Table) soon followed in 1940.
While divorced, Kahlo also created the now famous Autorretrato con Collar de Espinas (Self Portrait with Hummingbird And Thorn Necklace) as well as Autorretrato con Pelo Corto (Self Portrait with Cropped Hair).
She remarried Diego Rivera within a year and her work never was on that large a scale again.
Tip 6 For Creatives: Betrayal Has Its Boons
If you are an artist passing through your own face-down-gravel-drag (like a divorce) keep in mind Kahlo’s most fantastic and introspective artworks came on the heels of romantic devastation and betrayal.
If you’re a big Frida fan passing through heartbreak, definitely consider a physical pilgrimage to Mexico City.
My 3-day pilgrimage to Kahlo country during my “gravel drag” altered the trajectory of my life; it might inspire and comfort you as well.
First stop: A scamper through Museo of Arte Moderno where you can see the jaw-dropping Las Dos Fridas in person.
Second stop: Museo Frida Kahlo aka Casa Azul, Kahlo’s extraordinary, home in Coyoacán, thirty minutes outside of Mexico City. It’s a life-changing museum.
7. Frida Kahlo’s Death Demolished Diego
Rivera may have acted at times like Kahlo wasn’t of primary importance to him, but what happened after she died tells a different story.
According to Hayden Herrera, art historian and author of Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo: “When Frida died, Rivera was like: “[…] a soul cut in two. His great frog face sagged into folds of age and sorrow. He dug the nails into the palms of his clenched fists over and over again until they bled.”
According to friends and family, Diego seemed to age 20 years in the weeks following Kahlo’s burial.
Rivera wrote in his autobiography: “July 13th, 1954, was the most tragic day of my life.
“I had lost my beloved Frida forever…too late now, I realized that the most wonderful part of my life had been my love for Frida.”
Rivera lived barely 3 more years, and then passed into history himself in 1957.
Tip 7 For Creatives: Leave Fame to the Fates
You never know how important you are to another, or how impactful your art will be to future readers, viewers, or listeners.
Kahlo was an under-sung artist in her lifetime.
She didn’t become internationally known until decades after her death.
It was then that the feminist art movement of the 1970s re-discovered and celebrated her.
Frida’s fame has soared ever since.
My message for fellow artists here is this:
Shamelessly get your creative freak on.
If folks don’t get you now, never fear, you may be the new Frida to millions of young people‑ in the 2080s.
But if you can, leave the aspiration of fame to the fates.
Instead, be bold, be flawed, be eccentric, and beautiful in your own way, and like Frida, you will receive a bigger boon than public approval.
You will not die having lived an un-lived life.
“The tragedy of life is not that it ends so soon, but that we wait so long to begin it.”
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If you liked this post you might like to read my post on O’Keeffe, Dali, Rachel Carson, van Gogh, Hopper & Matisse or Beatrice Wood.
Banner image: Detail of “Frida Kahlo,” silver gelatin print taken by Kahlo’s father Guillermo in 1932.
Further Resources To Explore:
Faces of Frida: A giant new app that takes a closer look at the many faces of Frida Kahlo through her life, art, and legacy.