“Nothing is absolute. Everything changes, everything moves, everything revolves, everything flies and goes away.” – Frida Kahlo.
The Spanish word ‘Duende’ was not lost on Frida Kahlo. The term was described by Federico Garcia Lorca, the poet and perhaps purely platonic love interest of Salvador Dalí, as exalted emotion unearthed from within. He called it “a mysterious force that everyone feels, and no philosopher has explained. The roots that cling to the mire from which comes the very substance of art.” In this sense, Kahlo disregarded the notion that she was a surrealist, instead asserting that she merely dipped her brush into her own listless wellspring of Duende; “They thought I was a Surrealist,” she wrote, “But I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”
This escapist pursuit of finding a deeper truth in art was an absolutely vital one for the troubled Frida Kahlo. It allowed her to rise above the pain that she lived following a tragic accident when she was young. Art helped her rise above this, Kahlo herself concluding: “At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can.” She lived with suffering and strife and expressed that her work “carries with it the message of pain,” however, she was able to reach beyond that, finding both salvation in her art and a way to preserve a state of joyous exultation, poetically postulating: “I paint flowers so they will not die.”
The root of her pain was largely physical, and perhaps this is why her work often deals with the physical form in the most perfunctory sense: self-portraits. In 1925, she was on her way home from school in Mexico City when a bus crash left her with severe injuries that would plague the rest of her life with persistent pain and health problems. At this time, she had planned to become a doctor, but the demands of such a job left the dream in ruins in the fallout of the accident.
During her recovery, she was bed-ridden for months, and, as a result, she returned to the artistic passion of her youth using a specially adapted easel to paint her surroundings. Unlike the realism that had proceeded her, her own interpretation of reality was profoundly individualistic. Rather than copy her surroundings like for like, she coloured her canvas with reality in an experiential sense; “I am my own muse,” she said, “The subject I know best.”
With this development of a unique style, her work became emblematic of Mexico’s postcolonial search for a national identity. This, coupled with a feministic depiction of the female experience, and an exploration of sexuality made her an LGBTQ+ icon. Her combination of beauty and harsh political, social, and individual animations contained within her work led the surrealist artist André Benton to describe her paintings as “a ribbon around a bomb.”
For a time during her marriage to Diego River, she was part of a primitive celebrity art couple dubbed ‘The Elephant and the Dove’, but far from being in her husband’s shadow, she boldly stepped out and illuminated her own path. As River once remarked, “[Her paintings] extolled the feminine characteristics of resistance, honesty, authenticity, cruelty and suffering. Never before had a woman depicted on canvas such agonized poetry as Frida did.”
With this, she inspired future trailblazers like Patti Smith to pursue the arts by showing it was not only possible to live both a full life and do so, but it was also possible on your own terms. This is a notion celebrated still by up-and-coming Brazilian artist and photographer Camila Fontenele de Miranda, “Frida taught me and inspired me to seek my sense of self in this world… In addition to the range of possibilities that an artist like Frida Kahlo gives us, there’s so much to discuss about the artist and the subjects brought up in her work including: sexuality, genre, language, that life is not separate from work, human relations, and so on.”
Over the course of her life, Kahlo crafted 152 paintings, was an avid lady of letters and was both a celebrated photographer and subject of images. Publishing house Taschen has now lovingly curated these works for the book Frida Kahlo: The Complete Paintings.
In the selected images collected below, the full range of her style and imagination comes to the fore. In paintings like What Water Gave Me, her true dreamlike surrealism is in full force as she concocts fantasy, fable and dark shades of reality from the escapist canvas of bathwater. Other paintings such as The Dream (The Bed) reflect her fearless recognition of her own ailing health, as she wrote in her final days above a sketch of The Black Angel of Death: “I joyfully await the exit – and I hope never to return – Frida.” Whereas works such as Self-Portrait (Time Flies) prove she also had one wry eye on reality which she found was all too often portrayed in the jejune 2D surface, as she waded in the kaleidoscopic depths lurking beneath.