Unraveling Frida Kahlo’s Life Story

Frida Kahlo, La Casa Azul (The Blue House), Coyoacán, Mexico City, Mexico
Famed Mexican painter Frida Kahlo in the central courtyard of her house, La Casa Azul (The Blue House), in Coyoacán, Mexico City, 1951. (Photo: © Gisèle Freund)

“I’m painting a little bit, not because I consider myself an artist or something like that, but simply because I have nothing else to do, and because working I can forget a little all the troubles I’ve had,” Frida Kahlo.

Frida Kahlo was a gifted Mexican artist who would articulate her life experiences into some of the most luminous and haunting images of the twentieth century. According to Gerry Souter’s publication, titled “Frida Kahlo: Beneath the Mirror,” her paintings “formed a visual diary, an outward manifestation of her inward dialog that was, all too often, a scream of pain.” The greatest love of her life, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera (1886-1957), once said about her: “… Frida is the sole example in art history of someone who has torn open her breast and her heart in order to tell the biological truth of what she feels inside them.”

Museo Frida Kahlo, Mexico City, Mexico
Detail of the central courtyard of Frida Kahlo’s residence, La Casa Azul (The Blue House), in Coyoacán, Mexico City. (Photo by Katerina Papathanasiou/The Vale Magazine)

Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón was born on July 6, 1907, in La Casa Azul, a traditional Mexican wrap-around home – painted a deep blue with red rim – at the corner of Londres and Ignacio Allende Streets in Coyoacán, Mexico City.

Museo Frida Kahlo, Mexico City, Mexico
Frida Kahlo’s childhood home, La Casa Azul (now Museo Frida Kahlo), in Coyoacán, Mexico City. (Photo by Katerina Papathanasiou/The Vale Magazine)

Her mother Matilde Calderón y González (1876-1932) was a “mestiza” of mixed Native American and European lineage, a devout Catholic and a deeply unhappy woman. “My mother was hysterical from dissatisfaction because she was not in love with my father. My mother arrived at hysteria through religion.”

Her father was Guillermo Kahlo (1871–1941), a German-Jewish immigrant who worked for the government of Porfirio Díaz as a photographer of Mexican architecture. He and his wife Matilde had four daughters, and Frida was his favorite. Guillermo was Frida’s first mentor and the person who encouraged her to express herself freely, such as cross-dressing as a man in tailored suits – a behavior considered unladylike in that era. Frida Kahlo became his photography assistant and traveled with him to be there in case he suffered one of his frequent epileptic seizures.

Portrait of My Father, 1951. Oil on masonite, 60.5 x 46.5 cm. Museo Frida Kahlo, Mexico City.
Frida Kahlo “Portrait of My Father, 1951.” La Casa Azul (now Museo Frida Kahlo), Coyoacán, Mexico City.

At six years of age, Frida suffered a bout of polio that withered and shortened her right leg and at eighteen she had a near-fatal bus accident. The artist’s cries of anger and despair during her endless recovery can still be “heard” through her works. Gerry Souter’s book reflects that period: “Her internal life caromed between exuberance and despair as she battled almost constant pain from injuries to her spine, back, right foot, right leg, fungal diseases, many abortions, viruses and the continuing experimental ministrations of her doctors.”

In 1922, Frida Kahlo was one of the first female students admitted to the free National Preparatory School in San Ildefonso, a public education experiment at the time. Attending its classes, Frida was one of the first intellectual people to witness a radical new nationalism that celebrated Mexico and its indigenous heritage gradually replacing former European ideals rooted during colonial rule.

Museo Frida Kahlo, Mexico City, Mexico
Photo depicting some of Frida Kahlo’s personal items, such some of the corsets she used to support her torso during the last ten years of her life. La Casa Azul (now Museo Frida Kahlo), Coyoacán, Mexico City. (Photo by Katerina Papathanasiou/The Vale Magazine)
Museo Frida Kahlo, Mexico City, Mexico
Frida Kahlo’s studio is located on the second floor of La Casa Azul (now Museo Frida Kahlo) in Coyoacán, Mexico City. (Photo by Katerina Papathanasiou/The Vale Magazine)

“The singular consistent joy in her life was Diego Rivera, her husband, her frog prince, a fat Communist with bulging eyes, wild hair and a reputation as a lady killer. She endured his infidelities and countered with affairs of her own on three continents consorting with both strong men and desirable women.”

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera were married in a civil ceremony at the town hall of Coyoacán on 21 August 1929. During the early years of their marriage, Frida gave the impression of being “shy” and “retiring.” However, her photos taken by Gisèle Freund as well as her self-portraits can now provide a glimpse of her real assertive, rebellious, and bold personality. Her exotic presence, ornate costumes and jewelry, and her almost mannish aggression drew plenty of companions to her. With her friends, the majority of whom were artists, Marxists, anti-imperialists, Communists, and political exiles, she rediscovered the pleasure of heated debate, tequila, and love affairs.

Museo Frida Kahlo, Mexico City, Mexico
A great collection of colorful dresses made by Frida Kahlo was found inside the bathroom of La Casa Azul (now Museo Frida Kahlo), in Coyoacán, Mexico City.

On July 13, 1954, Frida Kahlo died inside La Casa Azul at age 47. An official certificate cites “pulmonary embolism” as the primary cause of her death, but some suspect that she died from an overdose as a large cache of Demerol vials was found in a drawer near her bed. A pre-Columbian urn holding her ashes is on display in her home in Coyoacán. The residence was turned into a museum (Museo Frida Kahlo) in 1958, one year after the death of her husband Diego Rivera.

Museo Frida Kahlo, Mexico City, Mexico
Frida Kahlo died in her daytime bed. The artist used to paint in her daytime bed when she was unwell using the mirror above it. “She (my mother) was the one who thought of making a top to my bed in the Renaissance style, a canopy with a mirror I could look in to use my image as a model.”
Museo Frida Kahlo, Mexico City, Mexico
The pre-Columbian “frog-shaped” urn on the left containing Frida’s ashes is on display inside the artist’s nighttime bedroom in La Casa Azul (now Museo Frida Kahlo), in Coyoacán, Mexico City.
Museo Frida Kahlo, Mexico City, Mexico
The dining room on the first floor of La Casa Azul (now Museo Frida Kahlo), in Coyoacán, Mexico City.
Museo Frida Kahlo, Mexico City, Mexico
The bedroom of Diego Rivera on the first floor of La Casa Azul (now Museo Frida Kahlo), in Coyoacán, Mexico City.
Museo Frida Kahlo, Mexico City, Mexico
The kitchen on the first floor of La Casa Azul (now Museo Frida Kahlo), in Coyoacán, Mexico City.
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