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How Frida Kahlo subverted gender bias through her final self-portrait

“I don’t paint dreams or nightmares, I paint my own reality.” ― Frida Kahlo

A glaring and unapologetic epitome of resilience, Mexican painter Frida Kahlo’s fearless and dauntless expression via her art has cemented her name in the annals of contemporary culture. With ingenious creativity, Kahlo’s unabashed expression of herself and her concerns via various paintings – especially repeated self-portraiture – was subversive, approaching femininity with a different perspective altogether. Painting herself with the iconic unibrow and a faint moustache, Kahlo, more than a century since her birth, is a celebrated feminist icon and a defining pop cultural phenomenon who had sparked ‘Fridamania’

Kahlo’s life had been extremely tumultuous. Born in 1907, she was left disabled by polio at the age of two and faced an uphill battle. Despite issues in childhood, Kahlo was always intelligent and a competitively good student. She was on her way to medical school, however, when tragedy struck again. Kahlo was involved in a severe bus accident that crippled her at the age of 18. While she recovered, Kahlo found solace in painting. The mode of creation served as the stepping stone for her to indulge in the world of magic realism through her extraordinary self-expression. Kahlo’s choice of subjects steadily grew to become extremely symbolic and, over time, more vivid. She painted flowers to keep them from dying, before painting herself because “I am often alone and I am the subject I know best”.

She subverted the tropes of femininity and often indulged in portraying abortion, miscarriages and more, themes and topics that portrayed the harsher and individual realities of life. Frida, for large portions of her life, was exposed to contemporary political turmoil. Her works have not only found the expression of identity, sexuality and nature but also serve as a political commentary on those times. Her recognition of the miserable oppression of the poor in contrast to the lascivious lives of the rich infiltrated her consciousness and found voice in her art. 

Later, Kahlo met her husband and life-long anchor, Diego Rivera, at the age of 15. Rivera, a mural artist and one of the greatest in his own right, identified her individual “artistic personality” and recognised the “fundamental plastic honesty” that was embedded in her work that would help shape her as an “authentic artist”. However, their marriage, which occurred twice, was a turbulent one, with both having indulged in a series of affairs. Frida, openly queer, had a series of open relationships with women, all the while emphasising the need to embrace free love and transcend gender and sexuality while doing so. However, Rivera was a looming presence in her life. Each other’s muses for nearly 25 years, their relationship was messy and rocky with multiple fights, affairs, divorce and remarriage. The letters she wrote to Diego were intellectually erotic, raw and sincere. 

In one such letter, after saying she feels “alone”, Kahlo immediately contradicts herself by saying:

“Diego: Nothing is comparable to your hands and nothing is equal to the gold-green of your eyes. My body fills itself with you for days and days. You are the mirror of the night. The violent light of lightning. The dampness of the earth. Your armpit is my refuge. My fingertips touch your blood. All my joy is to feel your life shoot forth from your fountain-flower which mine keeps in order to fill all the paths of my nerves which belong to you.”

In another, she talks about their shared chaos and frenzied passion while she elaborates: “You are all the combinations of numbers. life. My wish is to understand lines from shades movement. You fulfil and I receive. Your word travels the entirety of space and reaches my cells which are my stars then goes to yours which are my light.”

Although Frida Kahlo often joked about Diego’s affairs, there was one such relationship that caused her immense pain and anguish and found expression via her last self-portrait, Diego y yo (Diego and I), from 1949, a few years prior to her death. Rivera, 20 years her senior, had indulged in an affair with the beautiful Mexican actress Maria Felix. This affair, although a butt of Frida’s jokes, deeply pained her. To express her anguish, Kahlo took up the brush to paint this overwhelming picture of sadness that serves as a brilliant commentary on their relationship. 

In the painting, Kahlo’s usually tamed hair is left wild and free. The strands strangle her as she sheds a few drops of tears. Her eyes, brimming with melancholy and sorrow, stare at us while her unibrows support a distant-looking Diego. Diego no longer looks at us, but beyond. He occupies the position of the third eye in Kahlo’s face that shows his pervasive presence in her consciousness. He is an all-consuming, all-powering entity in her life- although the maestro’s creative avenues branch out into the world, her artistic expression revolves solely around him. 

Frida had once written, “I suffered two great accidents in my life, one in which a streetcar knocked me down … the other accident is Diego.” Comparing her marriage to an accident that nearly cost her life seems a bit of a stretch until one knows how explosive and passionate they were. Diego and Frida loved and hurt one another in the deepest of ways and the torturous agony found an outlet in her art. 

Recently, the founder of a museum in Buenos Aires, Eduardo F Costantini, acquired her portrait for an eye-watering figure of $34.9million, breaking Diego’s records of $8million dollars. It is almost as if Frida had her feminist revenge along with the ultimate acceptance and validation of her indefatigable contribution to the field of art, as said by Anna Di Stasi: “Painted in the same year her beloved Diego embarked on an affair with her friend, the Mexican golden age actress Maria Félix, this powerful portrait is the painted articulation of her anguish and sorrow,” Di Stasi commented after the sale. “You could call tonight’s result the ultimate revenge, but in fact it is the ultimate validation of Kahlo’s extraordinary talent and global appeal.”

While the deluge of Kahlo’s artistic talent, which reeks of violence, passion, sorrow and vulnerability, dominates globally, it is also important to note how the commercialisation of her talent leads to the subversion of general gender tropes. Instead of being called Diego Rivera’s wife, she is recognised as Frida Kahlo, a trailblazing feminist icon while her husband, Rivera, remains subdued in her luminous glow. 

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