The dearth of female artists winning Oscars was excruciatingly apparent when Kathryn Bigelow of Hurt Locker won for Best Director, the first woman so honored.  This got me thinking of female painters who also attained such “firsts”…

Here’s a debut post about a group of remarkable female artists, of whom Frida Kahlo will be the first.

Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954) was a legendary beauty whose life and art paintings fueled interest in Mexican art.  After suffering polio at

Frida Kahlo. Photo by Nikolas Muray.

the age of six, Frida Kahlo endured a near fatal accident at the age of 18 that crushed her spine and pelvis. In spite of 32 subsequent operations over 26 years, Kahlo never fully recovered, suffering chronic pain for the remainder of her life.

Remarkably, Frida Kahlo taught herself to paint during her initial recuperation and painted for nearly three decades, leaving an oeuvre of nearly 200 Frida Kahlo paintings.

In 1929 she married the Mexican artist, Diego Rivera (born Diego María de la Concepción Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodríguez, for heaven’s sake), known for his murals of the Mexican Revolution. The conflicts in their tempestuous and volatile relationship were apparent even in Frida and Diego Rivera, one of the first Frida Kahlo paintings of the pair.

He alone is carrying painting tools, although each was an accomplished painter.  Kahlo portrays herself solely as a traditional wife, foreshadowing her lifelong struggle between this Mexican persona and her role as painter.

Frida Kahlo. Frida and Diego Rivera, 1931. Oil on canvas, 39 3/8 in. x 31 in. Acquired 1936. Albert M. Bender Collection, Gift of Albert M. Bender. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Frida Kahlo paintings are almost exclusively small, self-portraits in which she wears traditional Mexican clothing and surrounds herself with attributes associated with superstitions and folkloric beliefs.  Her paintings often explore her sexual and cultural identities through subjects seldom broached in Western art history or even by most female artists; these include childbirth, abortion and miscarriage.

Kahlo’s painting style incorporates her enduring fascination with Colonial and pre-Columbian artwork, with Mexican folk imagery like ex-votos (folk images placed at a church altar to thank Jesus for fulfilling wishes), and with the culture and ethos of Mexico.

Frida Kahlo paintings are readily identifiable but defy stylistic classification, although Andre Breton, the father of Surrealism, famously tried.  When visiting Diego Rivera in 1938, he labelled Kahlo a “natural Surrealist”, to which Kahlo retorted that she hadn’t known this before Breton’s arrival.

Kahlo stated:

“I never painted dreams.  I painted my own reality.”

In spite of her resistance to Breton’s label, he penned the intro for the catalog of her New York

Frida Kahlo. The Two Fridas, 1939. Oil on canvas, 5’9″ x 5’9″. Museum of Modern Art, Mexico City.

art exhibition that year.

This depiction of her “reality” is painfully portrayed in one of the best known Frida Kahlo paintings, The Two Fridas (above).

Painted during her divorce from Diego Rivera in 1939, Kahlo contended that he loved the Mexican Frida, dressed in a traditional peasant blouse and skirt on the right, but not the European Frida, who sits on the left in Victorian, European attire.  The two Fridas are united through their joined hands and a sole artery, whose blood flow comes from the minute portrait of Diego Rivera clasped by Mexican Frida.  The European Frida – the woman scorned – grips forceps and futilely tries to staunch the flow of blood coursing to their hearts and linking them to Rivera.  These detailed, exposed hearts leave no ambiguity about Kahlo’s pain over Rivera’s philandering and the demise of their marriage.

The next year, however, she and Rivera reconciled and remarried. Frida Kahlo became – or envisioned herself as – his protectress, as she depicted both of them in The Love Embrace of the Universe.  Sadly, she died a mere five years later.

Frida Kahlo, The Love-Embrace of the Universe, 1949. Oil on masonite,  approx. 28″ x 24″. The Modern and Contemporary Mexican Art Collection of Jacques and Natasha Gelman.

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Upcoming: the “Female Artists” series continues with Artemisia Gentileschi (who wasn’t so subservient in her marriage, even though it was centuries earlier than Kahlo’s!), Judith LeysterRosa Bonheur, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Georgia O’Keeffe, Sofonisba Anguissola, Lavinia Fontana, Helen Frankenthaler, Angelica Kauffmann, and Berthe Morisot.