Frida Kahlo: The Biography of a Painter #1

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Frida Kahlo: “I used to think I was the strangest person in the world 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 and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.” 

Chapter 1

In 1938 André Breton who is principal initiator of the surrealist movement, described Frida Kahlo’s art as a “ribbon around a bomb”. Her work has been described as surrealist but Kahlo never accepted it. In her work, Mexican culture and Amerindian cultural tradition are really important, which has been sometimes characterized as Naïve art or folk art.

“They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”

Frida Kahlo also is best known for her self-portraits. She suffered lifelong health problems. They were all the result of a traffic accident she survived as a teenager. After the accident her injuries isolated her from other people and this isolation influenced her works.


Frida Kahlo in The Childhood

Frida Kahlo was born on 6 July 1907 and grew up in the family’s home where she was born in the house of her parents known as La Casa Azul (The Blue House), in Coyoacán, Mexico City. Her father, Carl Wilhelm Kahlo (also known as Guillermo) was a German and born in Baden-Baden, Germany, in 1872. His father had high hopes and good plans for his intellectual son and sent him to university. But because of many epileptic seizures, he wasn’t continue to his study. During that time, Wilhelm’s mother died and his father remarried soon. He was 19 years old and he didn’t like his stepmother so he packed and immigrated to Mexico City in 1891 and he never returned to Germany.

“I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.”

Frida’s father worked at several odd jobs for money. Later he married a Mexican woman but she died after four years. Soon Wilhelm met Matilde Calderón y González who is Frida’s mother and fell in love with her. Frida was the third of four daughters born of their marriage and she had two older sisters, Matilde and Adriana, and her younger sister, Cristina. Frida remarked that she grew up in a world surrounded by females.


Frida often remarked that her mother did not love her father, and this may have been the case. Matilde grieved her whole life for her first love, who she saw commit suicide. Because Matilde confessed to Frida that she did not love Guillermo. She only married Guillermo because he was German and reminded her of a previous young lover who had killed himself. During most of her life, Frida remained on amicable terms with her father. She shared similar creative interests with her father, and thus may have been closer to him than to her mother.

When Frida was around 6 years old, she contracted polio. It was affecting the use of her right leg and caused her to be bedridden for nine months. Her leg became very thin, and her foot was stunted in its growth. During her nine month convalescence, her father made sure that she regularly exercised the muscles in her leg and foot. Also she was encouraged by her father to play soccer, go swimming, and even wrestle (highly unusual moves for a girl at the time) to help aid in her recovery. Because of this situation, Frida attempts to hide it by wearing pants, long skirts or two pairs of sock on her right foot.

She attends classes at a German elementary school, “Colegio Aleman” in Mexico City. She is cruelly nicknamed “peg-leg Frida” by her classmates. Later, she was enrolled in the Preparatoria, one of Mexico’s premier schools with hopes of becoming a doctor, where she was one of only thirty-five girls. During the study, the Mexican Revolution was continuing in the streets of Mexico City. She joined a clique at the school and became enamored of the strongest personality of it, Alejandro Gómez Arias. She became a member of the Los Cachuchas, a political group that supported socialist-nationalist ideas and devoted themselves intensively to literature. Later they became lovers and Frida’s boyfriend was the leader of the group.

Frida Kahlo and Pet Hawk


I had swayed. Nothing else. But suddenly I knew

In the depth of my silence

He was following me. Like my shadow, blameless and light

In the night, a song sobbed…

The Indians lengthened, winding, through the alleys of the town.

A harp and a jacaranda were the music, and the smiling dark-skinned girls

Were the happiness

In the background, behind the “Zócalo,” the river shined

and darkened, like

the moments of my life.

He followed me.

I ended up crying, isolated in the porch of the parish church,

protected by my bolita shawl, drenched with my tears.

Frida’s passion for literature, always let her to write something and in November 1922, Frida’s poem Recuerdo (Memory) was published by El Universal Ilustrado. She also begin to help for her father in his photography studio. The photography was the one of interests that in common between father and daughter. He taught her how to use a camera and how to develop, retouch and color. Her father also helped her to find another job. Frida is hired as a paid apprentice to the commercial printmaker Fernando Fernandez who is a close friend of her father. She learned here, how to draw and how to copy prints by the Swedish Impressionist Anders Zorn.

During this same period, the government sponsored local artists to paint murals in churches, schools, libraries, and public buildings about Mexican Renaissance. At the first time Frida met with Diego Rivera in the Preparatioria school. Rivera was painting his mural “Creation” at the school’s Simon Bolivar auditorium. Rivera known as El Maestro and while he was working, the students were forbidden to enter the auditorium. But it never stopped to Frida, she would hide in the back and watch him for hours. She became fascinated by the “larger than life” man whom she nicknamed “Panzon” which means “fat belly”. Even according to some reports, she told a friend that she would someday have Rivera’s baby.

In September of 1925, Frida was in her senior year and looking forward to graduation and already making plans to attend medical school. But, September 17, 1925 would become the day in which Frida’s destiny was changed forever.

frida-kahlo-the-bus-1929Frida Kahlo in The Tragic Accident

On September 17, it was a gray day which was raining slightly. Frida and her boyfriend, Alejandro, got onto the bus to head home from school. The bus was nearly full but they found seats together near the back. When the bus turned onto Calzada de Tlapan, a street trolley approached. The bus driver rashly tried to pass in front of the turning streetcar but he didn’t make it. Shortly afterwards, the bus was stuck broadside by a trolley car. Frida sustains multiple injuries, a broken pelvic bone, spinal column, and other severe injuries, leading doctors to doubt whether she would survive. Also, an iron handrail pierced her abdomen and her uterus, compromising her reproductive capacity. Her doctor told Frida that she would probably never be able to carry a child to full term. She had as many as thirty-five operations as a result of the accident, mainly on her back, her right leg, and her right foot. The pain was intense and often left her confined to a hospital or bedridden for months at a time.

“The electric train [streetcar] with two cars approached the bus slowly. It hit the bus in the middle. Slowly the train  pushed the bus. The bus had a strange elasticity. It bent more and more, but for a time it did not break. It was a bus with long benches on either side. I remember that at one moment my knees touched the knees of the person sitting opposite me. I was sitting next to Frida. When the bus reached its maximal flexibility it burst into a thousand pieces, and the train kept moving. It ran over many people. I remained under the train. Not Frida. But among the iron rods of the train, the handrail broke and went through Frida from one side to the other at the level of the pelvis.” remembered the moment of accident by Alejandro Gómez Arias.

After Frida said that “The handrail pierced me the way a sword pierces a bull.” Alex continues:

“When I was able to stand up, I got out from under the train. I had no lesions, only contusions. Naturally the first thing that I did was to look for Frida.

Something strange had happened. Frida was totally nude. The collision had unfastened her clothes. Someone in the bus, probably a house painter, had been carrying a packet of powdered gold. This package broke, and the gold fell all over the bleeding body of Frida. When people saw her, they cried, ‘La bailarina, la bailarina!’  with the gold on her red, bloody body, they thought she was a dancer.

I picked her up….and then I noticed with horror that Frida had a piece of iron in her body. A man said, ‘We have to take it out!’  He put his knee on Frida’s body and said, ‘Let’s take it out.’ When he pulled it out, Frida screamed so loud that when the ambulance from the Red Cross arrived, her screaming was louder than the siren. Before the ambulance came, I picked up Frida and put her in the display window of a billiard room. I took off my coat and put it over her. I thought she was going to die. Two or three people did die at the scene….others died later.”

She spends the next several months in bed recovering from the accident. While in recovery, Frida began to painting. After she learns that she will never be able to have children, she creates a birth certificate for an imaginary son. She gave a name “Leonardo” for her imaginary son and she wrote “September, 1925” as a date of birth at the Red Cross Hospital where Frida was treated after the accident.

During that time, she began to take painting seriously and experimented first with watercolors and then oil. She finished her first self-portrait “Self-Portrait in a Velvet Dress” the following year and gave it as a gift to her boy friend, Alejandro. After the accident, they’ve broken up and Frida hoped the painting helped to win him back.

Self Portrait Velvet Dress Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait in A Velvet Dress

Chapter I is finished now but wait for the second, cheers! 


[books]:   Frida, a Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera, The Secret Book of Frida KahloA Novel by F. G. Haghenbeck, Frida by FridaSelection of Letters and Texts by Frida Kahlo, The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait by Carlos Fuentes

[photography]: “Frida on the White Bench” by Nickolas Muray, 1939 (cover photo)



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