Frida Kahlo is my third choice for The Purple Hermit Hall of Fame, my regular feature on disability and resilience. I first discovered her paintings when I was a mature student at Art School. I was drawn to the surrealist images, folk art style and vibrant colours. It was rare to see such powerful images of pain and disability. Frida’s work was autobiographical. She was fearless in her honesty, exposing vulnerabilities, her emotional and physical suffering. But at the same time there was a joyousness in her painting. Frida Kahlo was a passionate woman. She loved people and animals, she loved the world.
When I learned more about her life-story I was struck by the many similarities with my own and she became one of my artistic and personal influences. Frida was born in Mexico in 1907, just three years before the start of the revolution. Her father was a German immigrant who ran a photography business and her mother was Mexican. Frida contracted polio at the age of six. She missed time at school and was bullied by other children. She was set apart from siblings by her illness which left her with a wasted limb, one leg shorter than the other. Her father began to take a special interest in her and taught her photography, philosophy and literature.
At the age of eighteen Frida was involved in a horrific street-car accident which left her with severe, permanent injuries and a life-long legacy of health problems and chronic pain. Surgical interventions by doctors were disasterously unsuccessful. She had to abandon her education and her ambition to become a doctor. She spent months in recovery and in isolation, confined to a bed where she began to paint using a specially made easel with a mirror. Her work explored identity and included many self-portraits.
In 1927 Frida joined the Mexican Communist Party where she met her future husband, the famous muralist Diego Rivera. Throughout her life she was politically active campaigning for peace, equality and the promotion of Mexico. She chose to dress in traditional Mexican clothes as a gesture of support for her native culture and a rejection of U.S. ideological dominance. However, later in her career she travelled and work in the U.S. where her art was enthusiastically received.
Diego and Frida had a turbulent relationship punctuated by extra marital affairs on both sides. At one point they divorced and later remarried. Frida was a sexually liberated woman having affairs with both men and women. One of her lovers was the revolutionary Leon Trotsky. She defied many social expectations of how women, let alone a disabled woman, were supposed to behave. Even today, disability and sex is a taboo subject. But Frida let nothing stand in the way of her passion and being true to herself. She used her experiences as a disabled woman in a positive way, channelling her pain into amazing art. Towards the end of her life her health problems became more debilitating and she suffered greatly both physically and mentally.
Kahlo pre-empted Tracey Emin’s controversial unmade bed installation by about fifty years. In 1953 doctors had advised her not to attend the opening of her first solo exhibition saying she needed bed rest. So Frida arranged for her four poster bed to be taken to the gallery and she arrived there by ambulance on a stretcher. She stayed in bed while the party unravelled around her.
Since her death in 1954, possibly by suicide, she has been adopted as an icon by various political and feminist groups. It’s strange that her disability is often minimised in biographies even though it was plainly part of her identity as evidenced by her own paintings. Her art grew directly out of her experience of disability. But perhaps it’s too much of a challenge for many people to reconcile negative stereotypes regarding disabled women and the vivid truth of Frida Kahlo’s life as a beautiful, charismatic and talented artist.