As a teenager I suffered from low self-confidence and struggled finding my own identity. I didn’t feel comfortable wearing the trends that were popular for girls my age, and I looked towards make-up as though it were the Nash equilibrium. I had a good group of friends, but deep down felt as though there was something wrong with me as I continually failed to identify with the new styles that everyone was adopting. Enter Frida Kahlo; the iconic Mexican painter who was undeniably herself regardless of any physical or societal constraint that was placed upon her. I stumbled across a colourful shop window in the theme of Frida when I was on holiday at around age fifteen and was mesmerised. Her work presented a concoction of dichotomies of pain and vibrancy, masculinity and femininity, and darkness and light. The more I read about Frida the more I realised that appreciating your own unique personality and character and expressing that character in your own way was infinitely more important than wearing a certain style of top just because you thought you should. 

Kahlo was a non-conformist in every sense of the word. She continually broke the boundaries of what was accepted; from tackling political or social issues, to the upfront portrayal of her suffering, to blurring the boundaries of sexual identity. Frida Kahlo would paint whatever she wanted to paint and present herself in whatever manner she wanted to present herself.

Kahlo was born in Coyoacan, Mexico in 1907, however later claimed the year of her birth as 1910 which not so coincidentally corresponds with the year of the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution. 

From a young age Kahlo developed a close relationship with her German father Willhem Kahlo who was a political liberal and artist. He saw a spark in Frida and encouraged her to do various sports and even wrestling from a young age; something unheard of for a girl to participate in at the time. He also ensured she had a formal education which her devout Catholic mother did not fully understand as she believed in more traditional domestic roles for women. Growing up Frida could not identify with her mother’s way of thought and became drawn to the arts and politics like her father, joining her first political group at age sixteen.
Frida lived through constant pain and tragedy all her life. This began at age 6 when she contracted Polio, leaving one of her legs thinner and weaker than the other which she would be severely bullied for. At age eighteen she would become involved in an accident that would affect her life forever when a bus she was riding in crashed into a street car. Frida was impaled by a handrail right through her body. Doctors thought there was little chance of survival, additionally breaking her ribs, collar bone, as well as her spine in three places. She would have to wear painful medical corsets throughout her life as her spine was too weak to support itself, painting many in vibrant colours and with political messages. It was after the accident when she was confined to her house that she began to paint. Her father gave her paints and her mother had an easel constructed to sit on her bed. A mirror was placed on the bed canopy so she could begin her signature self-portraits. She expressed all her pain and isolation in her art in a powerful and upfront way. For example in 1944’s The Broken Column Kahlo displays herself naked with her body torn in half and her spine is replaced by a crumbling column. Tears fall from Frida’s face but she looks directly forwards – challenging both herself and the audience to face her pain. Later Kahlo’s medical complications led her to suffer multiple miscarriages which she further represented in her art, showing the shocking reality of her physical and emotional pain. Her suffering continued when in 1953 her leg was amputated due to gangrene. Kahlo famously said about this ‘Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?’

It is believed Kahlo once told her friend she suffered from two serious accidents in her life. The first was the bus tragedy, and the second was her husband Diego Rivera. Kahlo and Rivera had a troublesome and complex relationship, and were said to be unable to live with, or without one another. He was a world renowned artist and Communist, both sharing similar political views which is frequently featured in her art. They were known as the ‘Dove and the Elephant’ due to their extreme size difference. Their marriage was full of affairs on both sides; Frida had affairs with both men and women, including Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Diego even had an affair with Frida’s sister, which unsurprisingly led to their first divorce. In 1940, soon after the divorce Kahlo painted Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair. This portrait differed from her usually colourful works and displayed Frida alone in a brown suit with her hair cut off lying on the floor around her – a statement to Rivera as he had always said how much he loved her hair.
In 1953 Frida finally received her first solo exhibition – something she always desired. By this time she was bedridden but that didn’t stop her missing the opening night. She had her four poster bed delivered to the gallery and arrived by ambulance, spending the night greeting guests in her bed.

It was Frida’s unforgiving self-expression and continual fight against any adversity and hardships she experienced that still inspires me to this day. Kahlo’s suffering undoubtedly became part of who she was, but rather than let it break her she forced herself and others to directly confront it, thus showing herself to be a powerful and iconic figure. Kahlo brushed off political and social conventions of her time even in her fashion; wearing colourful floaty dresses, but darkening her signature monobrow with her favourite eyeliner in a wonderful blend of masculinity and femininity. As Maya Angelou once said ‘Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.’  In being unforgivingly herself Frida Kahlo became a symbol of individuality to people everywhere, making my fifteen year old self realise I did not have to follow the trends of the time just because it was the accepted thing to do, and I should love and accept the parts of myself that make me a unique individual.

-Hannah Downie
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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