In This Article Frida Kahlo

  • Introduction
  • Bibliographies and Review Essays
  • Catalogue Raisonné
  • Fridamania
  • Kahlo as Art World Inspiration
  • Kahlo and Forgery
  • Documentaries, Films, and Scholarly Analysis

Art History Frida Kahlo
by
Adriana Zavala
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0108

Introduction

Although Frida Kahlo (b. 1907–d. 1954) is one of the world’s most widely recognized artists, that attention is often focused more on her dramatic life story than on the complexity of her intellect and artistic production. She is known for her self-portraits, which may appear straightforward and narrative, but throughout her career she employed allegory and complex symbolism. Like the muralists, not least her husband Diego Rivera (see the separate Oxford Bibliographies article “Diego Rivera”), Kahlo considered painting a social and political act central to the creation of a revolutionary Mexico, yet she produced fewer than two hundred paintings and fewer than one hundred works on paper. In a 1943 essay, Rivera praised her as the paragon of Mexican revolutionary painting. While her formal academic training was relatively minimal, her proximity to Rivera provided access to intellectual and political circles in Mexico and abroad, and this influenced both the style and conceptual basis of her painting. Kahlo was also exceptionally educated; she read or spoke English, German, and French. She enrolled at Mexico City’s prestigious National Preparatory School in 1922 where she was one of only thirty-five women among the 2000 students; early on, her aim was to study medicine. In 1925 she was involved in a traffic accident that ended her formal studies. She turned to painting. Early works demonstrate intellectual curiosity about avant-garde innovations, combined with the deliberately naïve style of painting in vogue in postrevolutionary Mexico and elsewhere that drew inspiration from folk art and provincial and nonacademic painting. She deployed both to create work that was culturally and politically resonant as well as transgressive and transcultural. Kahlo’s work must therefore be examined in relation to her knowledge of art history, avant-garde movements, and modernist innovation, as well as her life’s events and cultural context. Her influences range from Italian early Renaissance and Mannerist painting to Indian miniatures, Mexican folk art and social realism, and German Neue Sachlichkeit and the Italian pittura metafisica, and of course, surrealism. While she may have drawn inspiration from her life’s experience, her art was much more than unmediated psychological expression or autobiography in paint as some sources claim. During her life, she was known principally as Rivera’s flamboyant wife, but in the early 21st century, Kahlo is one of the world’s most celebrated women. Biographies, monographs, and retrospective exhibitions abound, and the market for trade and scholarly publications on Kahlo is evidently insatiable. There is no question that she was an extraordinary personality. Her approach to depicting physical pain and emotional complexity along with her interest in self-portraiture has fueled the myth that her paintings are illustrations of her life events in chronological order rather than allegorical works that spring from the personal, as well as mediated engagements with political and cultural trends. Kahlo’s present iconic status results in part from an oversimplified understanding as well as admiration for her creativity and perseverance, all of which fuel the mythologizing phenomenon known as Fridamania.

Biographies

Kahlo biographies are a lucrative commercial industry aimed at readers at all levels from children to teens, general audiences, and college students. Even the best tend to sublimate her artistic production to a narrative focused on tragedy, emotional and physical pain, and marital strife. Given the personal basis of much of Kahlo’s iconography, there is no question that her biography can be of value in interpreting her painting, but serious students are cautioned not to reduce her work to autobiographical painting. Claims, explicit and implicit, that Kahlo herself is more interesting than her painting are unfounded but not uncommon. Students of Kahlo should be sure to seek informed art historical analysis. Kahlo lived during one of Mexico’s most tumultuous eras, yet even the best biographies tend to decontextualize her art and intellect, treating her work in relative isolation. Several widely cited biographies lack citations to primary or secondary sources, and this approach often perpetuates a psychologized interpretation of her painting. Biographies are, therefore, grouped as Scholarly Biographies and General Interest Biographies.

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