“Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?” – Frida Kahlo (1907-1954).
The Spanish word ‘Duende’ was one that 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 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 allowed her to rise above the pain that she lived with, concluding: “At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can.” She lived with suffering and strife and express 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 national identity, a feministic depiction of the female experience and an exploration of sexuality made her an LGBTQ+ icon. This combination of beauty and harsh political, social, and individual realities contained within her work led the surrealist artist André Benton to describe her paintings as “a ribbon around a bomb.”
This ethos was present in both her life and work. In late 1927, she joined the Mexican Communist Party and met an inner circle of politically active artists, including her future husband Diego Rivera. Sensing a kinship with Rivera, beyond the fact that the two had previously met very briefly when he painted a mural at her school, she asked him if he thought her artworks were good enough to support a career. Rivera considered her collection and concluded that her works showed, “An unusual energy of expression, precise delineation of character, and true severity … They had a fundamental plastic honesty, and an artistic personality of their own … It was obvious to me that this girl was an authentic artist.”
Following her marriage to Rivera, she was able to pursue the arts and found some international acclaim. During this time, her political leanings grew stronger as she was exposed to more cultures around the world. During her time in Detroit, she remarked: “It is terrifying to see the rich having parties day and night while thousands and thousands of people are dying of hunger.” Notions such as these began to symbolically infiltrate her art and set her aside as a liberating iconoclast in an era of conservative oppression.
This profound sense of liberation, however, was perhaps most notable in her openly sexual works that have had a lasting impact on the LGBTQ+ community to this day. As modern-day “artivist” Julio Salgado told Google Art & Culture: “I first saw Frida’s work in 1996, when I was enrolled in this 7th grade art class after I moved to Long Beach, California from Mexico. I was a 12-year-old confused, gay, brown boy who didn’t want to live in the US and I remember seeing her Las Dos Fridas piece and totally changing my life. I didn’t fully understand the depth of Frida’s work at that time, but something about that piece moved me to pursue a creative path in my life.”
Aside from her open Queerness in life, she was able to translate this into her work in such a way that subsequent generations have been able to identify with. As Salgado remarked, “I think it was the way that she was able to translate pain and to just put it out in the world as a form of therapy.” Her documentation of personal pain through her art spoke to the affected masses of the world in a poignant way that remains true to this day.
When Kahlo’s marriage to Rivera ended after a series of affairs, she not only exhibited bravery by having relatively revolutionary open relationships with women but also propagated this in her art; expressing the universal need and capacity for love beyond the norms of supposed decency in the era. In this sense, her work was not just a therapeutic expression, but a vital call for compassion in general.
As Salgado concluded in his interview with Google, “Frida was totally an LGBTQ icon! I mean, her relationship with singer Chavela Vargas as described by the late singer was so beautiful… Our ways were definitely paved by queer ancestors like James Baldwin, Audre Lorde and Frida herself.” This is a notion furthered still by Brazilian artist and photographer Camila Fontenele de Miranda, who added: “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.”
Despite relative fame in her days as an artist, Kahlo’s works were overshadowed for a time by other surrealists like Dalí and American feminist painters like Georgia O’Keeffe. Posthumously, however, her star slowly began to rise from the ash heap of history as her works were not only recognised once more for their brilliance but also their importance in terms of documenting the experiences of marginalised people and celebrating life beyond oppression and joys outside of circumstance.
When her health rapidly declined in the 1950s and she suffered through the pain of amputated legs and mental struggles, her final work was a profound pastiche of the way she lived her life. The black angel of death was accompanied by the message: “I joyfully await the exit – and I hope never to return – Frida.” More so than an acquiescence this was once again an example of the way she exorcised pain and oppression in her work and sought cognizance of her own state of being. In short, her works are colourful symphonies of liberation in all of its guises, as beautiful and vital today as ever.