Frida Kahlo’s Art through the Lens of Magical Realism
Frida Kahlo combined realism, surrealism, and fantasy with icons from her Mexican culture to create magical art. One of her favorite subjects was her own beautiful face.
Art historians classify Kahlo’s art as Surrealism, although Kahlo herself didn’t consider herself a surrealist. In 1938, André Breton, a well-known surrealist, arranged for Kahlo’s first solo exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York City, saying that, although Kahlo developed her art in ignorance of the ideas of Surrealism, she was nonetheless clearly a surrealist. Kahlo, said, however, “They thought I was a surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”
Art historians also classify Kahlo’s art as Magical Realism. Magical Realism is a style of literature and art that depicts a realistic view of the modern world while also adding magical elements. Unlike surrealists, magical realists don’t probe the unconscious or dreams. Instead, they emphasize the actual strangeness of the real world.
An understanding of Kahlo’s art is inextricably bound up with her own reality, which was a reality of strangeness and pain. A terrible bus accident when she was a teenager left her in constant pain and unable to have children. Her physical pain was compounded by a tumultuous marriage to her famous husband, Mexican artist Diego Rivera, who was frequently unfaithful, including with Frida’s own sister Christina. Kahlo herself had affairs with both men and women, even having a short fling with Russian Communist Leon Trotsky.
During her early career, Kahlo was best known as the exotic and eccentric wife of Rivera. She gained recognition in her later career and widespread fame after her death. Her work became better known in the 1970s when feminist scholars began to write about her contributions to art, and the U.S. Chicano civil rights movement adopted her as one of their icons. There’s nobody in the history of art who has painted such evocative and surreal paintings that combine symbolism, autobiography, and magical realism.
Frida Kahlo and Magical Realism
Magical Realism, which is also called Magic Realism, has a long evolution, starting in Germany and becoming most popular in Latin America. Magical Realism isn’t realism, nor is it pure fantasy. It’s somewhere in between the two.
Art has had a push-pull relationship with realism for many years. In the first half of the 19th century, artists of the Romantic period idealized reality, making landscapes and people more beautiful than they really are. After a wave of revolutions hit Europe in 1948, artists began to reject this romantic view of life in favor of realistic paintings. Artists such as Gustave Courbet led the Realism movement, with his realistic landscapes, still life paintings, nudes, and portraits. Artists such as Jean-François Millet showed the reality of peasant labor with his famous painting, The Gleaners, and other works.
Next came the Impressionists and then the Abstract Expressionists, and reality was turned on its head again. Neither of those movements tried to accurately depict reality. Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity in English) was a movement in German art that arose during the 1920s in response to Expressionism. The Neue Sachlichkeit artists rejected the subjectivity of the Expressionist artists and their dramatic painting styles. They wished for a return to realism. However, their realism often includes exaggerations. For example, notice the exaggerated facial expressions in the wonderful work of George Grosz, a prominent member of the Neue Sachlichkeit group.
In 1925, German art critic Franz Roh was the first person to use the term Magischer Realismus (Magic Realism) to describe the painting styles of the Neue Sachlichkeit movement. Roh pointed out the accurate detail, photographic clarity, and elements of magic in the work. When he coined the term, he intended simply to create an art category that distinguishes the art from Realism and Expressionism. The term didn’t become an actual artistic movement until the 1940s and beyond, and mostly in Latin America and the Caribbean.
In literature, Magical Realism authors such as Isabel Allende and Gabriel García Márquez add ghosts, characters who are hundreds of years old, and people who ascend into heaven. The authors add these characters in a deadpan way, with no expectation of surprise. They don’t consider these elements to be outside of rational reality. They just see them as a strange, mysterious aspect of reality that realistic contemporary art often ignores.
In paintings, Magical Realists combine reality and fantasy. They juxtapose unlike things and use symbols to evoke the mysteriousness of everyday reality. They add accurate details in uncanny ways, including supernatural themes in otherwise natural settings. Frida Kahlo liked shocking her viewer, no doubt, but she also wished her viewer to see the magic in everyday life. The real world includes wondrous elements like the sun, the moon, strange vegetation, monkeys, parrots, and historical artifacts from a time when we were less cerebral. Kahlo’s life was a harrowing reality of physical and psychological pain, but she depicts that pain with a touch of magic.
Frida Kahlo Biography
Frida Kahlo was born in 1907 in Coyoacán, a small township in Mexico City. She spent most of her childhood and adult life at La Casa Azul, her family home in Coyoacán. Her home is now the Frida Kahlo Museum. It’s called La Casa Azul (The Blue House) because the outside walls are a bright cobalt blue color.
Kahlo’s full name was Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón, but she went by Frieda and later by Frida. Her mother, Matilde Calderon, was of European and Indigenous American ancestry. Her father, Guillermo Kahlo, was born in Germany and was a successful photographer. He mainly photographed churches, streets, landmarks, and industrial buildings, but he also frequently photographed his beautiful daughters, including Frida.
Frida contracted polio at age six which left her with a limp. Her right leg was shorter than her left, and children in the neighborhood made fun of her. Frida spent a lot of time at home, and became increasingly close to her father. He taught her about photography, literature, nature, and philosophy, and encouraged her to play sports to regain her strength. She also began sketching, and developed an early interest in art. In 1922, she was one of the first female students admitted to the elite National Preparatory School, where she planned to study medicine.
In 1925, when she was 18, Kahlo was involved in a serious bus accident that left her unable to walk for three months, with severe injuries to her spine, legs, pelvis, and the rest of her body. The accident left Frida with a lifetime of medical problems and pain.
After the bus accident, her mother had a special easel made that let Frida paint while lying in bed. This is when her career as a serious artist began.
Frida considered becoming a medical illustrator, which would have combined her interests in science and art, but what brought her joy was painting herself, her sisters, and her school friends. She had an overhead mirror attached to her bed’s canopy so that she could paint herself with more details. She became her most common artistic subject and eventually painted more than 50 self-portraits.
By late 1927, Kahlo had partially recovered from her injuries and she began socializing with her old school friends, who were now in college and involved in student politics. Around this time, she joined the Mexican Communist Party and was introduced to a circle of political activists and artists, including Italian-American photographer Tina Modotti.
Marriage to Diego Rivera
At one of Tina Modotti’s parties in June 1928, Kahlo got to know Diego Rivera, whom she had met briefly when he painted a mural at her school in 1922. Kahlo and Rivera soon became romantically involved, even though he was 20 years her senior and already had two common-law wives.
Kahlo and Rivera got married in a civil ceremony at the town hall of Coyoacán on August 21st, 1929. Her mother opposed the marriage, although her father approved, as Rivera was wealthy and able to support Kahlo who couldn’t work due to her injuries and needed expensive medical treatments. Both parents referred to the union as a “marriage between an elephant and a dove”, alluding to the couple’s differences in size. Rivera was tall and overweight while Kahlo was petite and fragile. (Herrera, Hayden. ”Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo.” New York: Harper Perennial, 2002.)
Travels to the U.S. with Diego Rivera
In the early 1930s, Kahlo and Rivera traveled extensively in the U.S. In late 1930, they moved to San Francisco, where Rivera painted murals for the City Club of the San Francisco Stock Exchange and the California School of Fine Arts. They returned to Mexico in the summer of 1931, but in the fall traveled to New York City for the opening of Rivera’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).
In April 1932, they headed to Detroit, where Rivera had been commissioned to paint murals for the Detroit Institute of Arts. In 2015, The Detroit News published a timeline of Kahlo and Rivera’s time in Detroit. The timeline is worth reading to see how turbulent the 1930s were, politically and economically, and for Frida Kahlo personally, who underwent a difficult pregnancy that ended in miscarriage.
In March 1933, Kahlo and Rivera returned to New York so that Rivera could work on a commission to paint a mural for the Rockefeller Center. He called the mural Man at the Crossroads and planned to depict comparisons between Capitalism and Communism. In May, Rivera was fired from the Rockefeller Center project when he refused to remove a portrait of Vladimir Lenin in the mural. Nelson Rockefeller ordered the mural to be plastered over, which resulted in protests by other artists. (Luckily photographs were made of the mural, and Rivera was able to recreate it in 1933 in the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, calling this version Man, Controller of the Universe.)
Kahlo had a difficult time in the U.S. Her health problems flared, Diego philandered, and her Communist background made her distrustful of the wealthy Americans that she met. In a letter to a friend, she wrote that she was interested by the industrial and mechanical developments in the U.S. but she felt “a bit of a rage against all the rich guys here, since I have seen thousands of people in the most terrible misery without anything to eat and with no place to sleep.” (Kettenmann, Andrea. ”Kahlo.” Cologne, Germany: Taschen, 2003.)
On the Borderline between Mexico and the United States
Kahlo spent much of her time in the U.S. painting. Her 1932 painting, Self-Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States, shows her ambivalence about the U.S. The painting shows iconic Latin American symbols on the left, American industrial progress and pollution on the right, and Frida in the middle, holding a Mexican flag. Kahlo uses a Magical Realism technique of juxtaposing unlike objects in an uncanny manner. Looking at the painting, we wonder why she’s dressed in a feminine pink dress, so unlike her vibrant costumes in other paintings. She looks like a debutante until you notice that she’s holding a cigarette in her right hand.
In the painting, Kahlo depicts her home country in a more positive tone than the U.S., showing flowers and vegetables emerging from rich soil, with pre-Columbian fertility idols posing behind them. But Kahlo’s Mexico is also a place of contradiction. A skull lies on the ground, the sun spouts fire, and the moon emits lighting bolts. Rubble is piled before a temple that looks like it might be falling apart.
Return to Mexico and Exhibition in New York
Rivera and Kahlo returned to Mexico in December 1933. They moved to Mexico City and into a new house in the wealthy neighborhood of San Ángel. The house had two sections, joined together by a bridge so the artists could keep their distance from each other when they wanted to. Kahlo’s section was painted bright blue and Rivera’s was pink and white. The bohemian residence became a meeting place for artists and political activists from Mexico and abroad.
When Kahlo’s paintings raised the interest of surrealist artist André Breton, he arranged for Kahlo’s first solo exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York City in 1938. The exhibition was a success. Julien Levy was responsible for hosting the first solo exhibitions of numerous important artists, including Alberto Giacometti, Salvador Dalí, and Lee Miller. Although the show happened in the midst of America’s Great Depression, approximately half of the paintings were sold. Georgia O’Keeffe and other prominent American artists attended the opening and the show was well-received by the press, even if their praise betrayed the sexist and patronizing attitudes towards women artists that were prevalent at the time. Time magazine called her paintings “Little Frida’s pictures.”
That same year, in 1938, arround the time that Kahlo arrived in New York, her friend Dorothy Hale, an American socialite and aspiring actress, committed suicide by jumping out of the top window of her luxury apartment suite in New York. Following the death, Clare Boothe Luce, an American author and politician who was Dorothy’s close friend and an admirer of Frida Kahlo, commissioned Kahlo to paint a “recuerdo” (remembrance) portrait of their mutual friend.
The painting is one of Frida’s most shocking and controversial paintings. It depicts the details of every step of Hale’s suicide. It shows Hale standing on the balcony, falling to her death, and lying on the bloody pavement below. At the bottom, Kahlo painted words in the color of blood that detail the tragic event. Luce was offended by the painting and kept it in a crate for years. She later donated it anonymously to the Phoenix Art Museum, though it was eventually discovered to be a Luce donation.
In 1939, Kahlo traveled to Paris for an exhibition of her work. The exhibition opened in March, but didn’t receive much attention, partly because of the looming Second World War. From a financial standpoint, the exhibition was not a success and lost money, but Kahlo was warmly received by Parisian artists such as Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró. In addition, the Louvre purchased one of her paintings, The Frame, making her the first Mexican artist to be featured in their collection.
Upon her return to Mexico, Rivera asked for a divorce. Their marriage had always been rocky, punctuated by lots of drinking and affairs. However, they never stopped loving each other, and in fact, they remarried in 1940.
Return to La Casa Azul (The Blue House)
Kahlo moved back to La Casa Azul in the late 1930s. By this time, she had resumed her political activities with the Communist movement. In 1936, she and Rivera successfully petitioned the Mexican government to grant asylum to a former leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Leon Trotsky. (Trotsky had been banished from the Soviet Union in February 1929, accused of counter-revolutionary activity, and had lived in Turkey, Italy, France, and then Norway, until the Norwegian authorities deported him.)
Kahlo offered to share her house with Trotsky and his wife Natalia Sedova. The Trotsky couple lived there along with Kahlo and Rivera from January 1937 until April 1939. During this time, Trotsky and Rivera often argued, and Kahlo had a brief affair with Trotsky. The Trotsky couple eventually moved out of the house but stayed in Coyoacán. On 21 August 1940, Trotsky was assassinated. Kahlo was briefly suspected of being involved and was arrested and held for two days with her sister Cristina. She was eventually cleared of any involvement.
By the 1940s, Kahlo’s self portraits have taken on an eerie feeling of anger and resentment, mixed with an almost playful poking fun of her pain. After her 1939 divorce from Rivera (whom she later remarried), Kahlo cut her beautiful hair and painted herself with locks of hair falling around her. By the time of this painting, she had survived her husband’s affair with her sister, an appendectomy, a botched abortion, a miscarriage, the death of her mother, and numerous spinal and foot operations. She painted lyrics from a song on the painting, as if putting words into Rivera’s mouth:
“Mira que si te quise, fué por el pelo, Ahora que estás pelona, ya no te quiero”
which translates in English to
“See, if I loved you, it was because of your hair, Now that you are bald, I don’t love you anymore.”
Declining Health and Death
Kahlo’s health problems continued throughout the 1940s. Between 1940 and 1954, she wore 28 different supportive corsets, made of steel, leather, and plaster, to try to correct her spinal problems. Kahlo spent most of 1950 in the Hospital ABC in Mexico City, where she underwent bone graft surgery on her spine. In August 1953 her right leg was amputated at the knee due to gangrene. She became severely depressed and anxious, and her dependency on painkillers escalated.
In her last days, Kahlo was mostly bedridden with bronchopneumonia, though she made a public appearance on July 2nd, 1954, participating with Rivera in a demonstration against the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) intervention in Guatemala. Attending the demonstration worsened her illness, and on the night of July 12th, 1954, she had a high fever and was in extreme pain. Her nurse found her dead at 6 a.m. the next morning. She was only 47.
Hundreds of people paid their last respects in 1954 as her body lay in state at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, draped in a Communist flag. A pre-Columbian urn holding her ashes is on display in her former home, La Casa Azul (The Blue House).
Frida Kahlo’s Influences
Kahlo’s early paintings and correspondence show that she drew inspiration from European artists, including Renaissance masters such as Sandro Botticelli and Agnolo Bronzino. (Dexter, Emma. “The Universal Dialectics of Frida Kahlo”. In Dexter, Emma, editor, ”Frida Kahlo.” London: Tate Modern, 2005.)
When you look at some of Bronzino’s portraits, you can see his influence on Kahlo. Notice the vibrant colors, elaborate hairpiece, and direct gaze in this painting of Eleonora da Toledo. She reminds us of Frida!
Kahlo also drew inspiration from avant-garde Neue Sachlichkeit artists such as Max Beckmann, and from Cubists such as Pablo Picasso. Kahlo also liked Primitivism, a style that uses strong colors and simple childlike perspectives. Before Kahlo, it was a style made most famous by French artist Henri Rousseau.
Mexican Culture Influences
Despite these European influences, Kahlo’s main inspiration was her Mexican culture. She often used the country’s national colors of green, white, and red in her paintings, as well as symbolic icons from the history of Mexico. Aztec mythology features heavily in Kahlo’s paintings in symbols such as monkeys, skeletons, skulls, blood, and hearts. She often incorporated monkeys in her paintings, which weren’t just symbols for her, as she also kept monkeys as pets in the garden of The Blue House in Coyoacán.
Kahlo painted numerous portraits of herself with her pet monkeys. In her 1943 self-portrait with monkeys, there are two monkeys hugging her and two more behind her, partially hidden by the leaves of a bird-of-paradise plant featuring a brilliant orange and blue flower. One of the monkeys points to a red and orange Aztec glyph for earthquake or movement (ollin), enclosed in a rectangle. In the painting Kahlo wears a traditional Mexican white cotton blouse or huipil.
Monkeys had a strong symbolic importance in pre-Columbian society that Kahlo would have understood, as both she and Diego collected pre-Columbian artifacts and books about Aztec society. According to an article in The Conversation, “In the Aztecs’ world, monkeys are an important presence. They were the gods of fertility, noted for their cheeky lasciviousness and uninhibited sexuality, and they were also intimately connected with dance and the arts. One of the Aztec calendars even had a day, Ozomatli, dedicated to monkeys and linked to the god of flowers and song.”
Kahlo was influenced by a romantic nationalism that developed in Mexico after the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) and that focused on pride in Mexico’s indigenous roots. A pride in Mexican culture at the time tried to eliminate a mindset brought about by European colonialism that had resulted in Mexican culture somehow being considered inferior to European culture. Kahlo incorporated both Aztec themes and Mexican folk art techniques in many of her paintings, including lots of animals, the sun and the moon, plants and vegetation, and themes from mythology, in brightly-colored and highly-patterned compositions.
Frida Kahlo’s Legacy
Kahlo is an inspiration to artists, art fans, and many others. Her difficult life story is especially inspirational for minorities and feminists. She was a woman of color who proudly wore her Mexican heritage in her clothing, jewelry, and hair styles. Her artistic career was a success despite a difficult and famous husband who overshadowed her during her lifetime. She was disabled, bisexual, revolutionary, and outspoken. Her art resonates with politically-active people, diversity advocates, and anyone who has experienced physical or psychological pain.
Her life story is so well-known that it almost eclipses her major contributions to art. Art historians consider her one of the finest self portraitists ever. Kahlo’s explicit depictions of personal pain are an inspiration to other autobiographical artists who wish to tell their stories without glossing over the difficult parts. The use of folk art techniques in her work shines a focus on indigenous art as an equal to post-Colonial Mexican art. Kahlo’s use of realism and fantasy presents a style that is uniquely her own while also solidifying her place in the canons of Surrealism and Magical Realism.
Her art is displayed along with the art of famous surrealist Salvador Dali at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and along with her husband, Diego Rivera, at the Portland Art Museum. In 2019, the Brooklyn Museum’s “Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving“ exhibition, which showed a collection of self portraits along with some of Kahlo’s clothing and other personal possessions, attracted thousands of viewers.
In 1990, she became the first Latin American artist to break the one-million-dollar threshold for art sales when Sotheby’s auctioned Diego and I for $1.43 million. Her 1943 Roots painting sold for $5.6 million in 2006, and in 2016, her 1939 Two Lovers in a Forest painting sold for $8 million.
Kahlo’s deeply personal self-portraits ask us to think about beauty and narrative. What is beauty? Whose stories deserve to be told? Who is beautiful? Her glamor, with her famous unibrow and faint mustache, might not match what we typically see in fashion magazines, but here at 1000Museums we think she is beautiful and that her art is magical.